Sometimes it’s just as instructive to study fabulous failures as it is to study successes. Case in point Too Funny To Fail, the interesting new documentary on Hulu about Saturday Night Live alum Dana Carvey’s short-lived sketch comedy series on ABC.
It was the mid-1990s, and Carvey had just come off a successful long run on SNL as well as the Wayne’s World movies. He received a sweet deal from ABC with carte blanche to make his own sketch show—basically, his own version of SNL (at least…that’s what ABC was expecting!)
And so Carvey sourced a who’s who if future stars including Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, and Louis CK. What could possibly go wrong?
Well…Carvey & Co’s conception of this show was waaaaaay different than the networks. The cast and crew decided to go for absurdist edgy humor…more like Monty Python via David Lynch.
And the first sketch they wanted to show for their first episode was of Carvey as Bill Clinton breastfeeding kittens with multiple milk-dribbling teats. In prime time.
Not surprisingly, the Nielsen families, who had just finished watching their beloved Home Improvement, saw the breast feeding sketch and then just switched off the program. En masse.
And The Dana Carvey Show never recovered from it.
Feeling highly defensive from their rebuke by the network for the low debut ratings and especially for the sketch that they had already been warned not to lead with, the staff decided to make angrier and angrier self-referential “revenge” skits against the network and their sponsors. And by the eighth episode, the show was canceled. The last filmed episode didn’t even air.
And so we have the classic art vs commerce dilemma. The Dana Carvey Show utterly failed to meet ABC’s desired demographic, and indeed seemed almost hostile to them. On the other hand, the series influenced a lot of comedians and shows after it, as well as started the careers of some now well-known personalities.
But regardless if you see the glass as half-full or half-empty here…the fate of that series seemed to hinge on just that one miscalculation. All that optimism, hard work, time, and money poured into something that combusted that fast. Think of all the meetings, parties, press tours, plans for the future, etc.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; the horse was lost, the war was lost. Maybe it was a necessary sacrifice for bigger and better things.
And/or maybe the hate and disdain for the “rubes” who had expected something more in the ballpark of Home Improvement or at least SNL blinded the makers of that show so much that there was no way they could recover from the rejection of their very clever Clinton Teats.
Were Carvey and crew wrong for having such resentment and defensiveness? What role did the network play in this fiasco, by not making it crystal-clear what they wanted from this series? Or did they make it clear and the series creators simply didn’t listen or were too naive to “get it?”
Carvey would never quite have that stature in the industry again following the cancellation of his show. He would go on to make the ambitious but incredibly awful Master of Disguise, as well as suffering a life-threatening botched heart surgery.
As for Colbert and Carell, they were both snatched up by The Daily Show and the rest is history.