Imagine you’re starting a sketch comedy show, one that will debut on network TV in prime time. Of course, such a bold, probably misguided, idea requires a big star, maybe one who became the centerpiece of “Saturday Night Live” and starred in a summer blockbuster. Fine, done.
But such a series needs performers and writers too, so let’s hire a staff. Does Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Louis C.K., Charlie Kaufman and Robert Smigel sound like a good start?
While that sounds more like some comedy fantasy team than a series, this actually happened in 1996 with “The Dana Carvey Show.”
An Icarus-like comic venture that was pulled before it even finished its eight-episode run, the gleefully absurd series attracted a cult following, especially in light of its now-famous cast. Released on DVD in 2009, the series gets another well-earned look back with the feature-length documentary “Too Funny to Fail,” which debuts on Hulu Saturday. (Those intrigued by the film can stick around and stream the show on the service as well.)
Directed with a fan’s touch by Josh Greenbaum (of the streaming service’s mascot documentary series “Behind the Mask”), “Too Funny to Fail” isn’t a comprehensive look inside a once-in-a-generation collection of talent (C.K. and Kaufman are notable — if not entirely surprising — absences, outside of a few clips). But it does offer a glimpse of the raw ambition, misguided choices and timing that can both spawn and sink projects that later seem ahead of their time.
The story begins with Carvey, who reached a rarefied level of fame as a result of “SNL” standouts like “Church Lady” and Garth from “Wayne’s World.” Here as a fan of “The Dana Carvey Show” from when he was 14, Bill Hader remembers Carvey’s “SNL” departure made the cover of “Rolling Stone” in 1993, and the documentary soon reveals a more restless comic mind than readily apparent in his Saturday night impressions.
Partnered with his “SNL” collaborator Smigel — the creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and “TV Funhouse” — Carvey set out to build a show in the anarchic spirit of “Monty Python.” He met with multiple networks and, in a decision Carvey repeats with a bit of smirking disbelief, they went with ABC instead of HBO.
ABC, here in the person of former executive Ted Harbert (who’s a good sport in his position as the number-counting network suit), saw ratings potential in Carvey bringing “his most wonderful characters” to a new network, which was soon after bought by Disney. The show didn’t play out that way.
The series opened by “drawing a line in the sand” as C.K. and Smigel successfully lobbied for an opening sketch featuring Carvey as a hormonally enhanced Bill Clinton nursing puppies with functional prosthetic teats (“It’s not funny unless it’s actual milk coming out of the president’s breasts,” Colbert dryly remembers). “It was the absolutely last thing we should’ve done,” Smigel ruefully admits. He goes on to repeat ABC’s estimates that the show lost roughly 6 million “Home Improvement” viewers in the first five minutes.
“In retrospect it’s kind of remarkable we got so many people to do the same thing all over the country at the exact same time,” remembers staff writer and future “30 Rock” showrunner Robert Carlock.
But the show rallied, even in its brief life, and former Times critic Howard Rosenberg appears to remember his initial scathing review followed by — after angry letters from its small but dedicated fans — a second take where he reversed himself. (Greenbaum tracking down the source of one vicious letter carries a note of absurdity consistent with the show’s legacy.)
As a whole, the documentary feels far less like a wake than a celebration. Created by a team of what Carvey called “bad-ass nerd pirates,” some of the sketches replayed here hit a note of lunacy that still holds up today, with a few exceptions. In recounting their efforts to test network boundaries, Colbert sheepishly — and accurately — remembers an Academy Awards sketch that plays as “career-endingly racist” in the cold light of 2017. (“I played Gregory Peck,” he clarifies with a grin.)
Not unlike the series, the documentary’s secret weapons are Colbert and Carell, who are interviewed separately but maintain a connection that eventually broke them for a wide audience on “The Daily Show.”
Before being cast, Colbert was Carell’s understudy at Chicago’s “Second City,” and watching them remember their early years — including Colbert’s bizarre audition video for the show — carries a genial mix of warmth and mutual admiration. And their talents were still lethal over 20 years ago.
They enthusiastically break down some of their standout, self-explanatorily titled sketches such as “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” and “Germans Who Say Nice Things,” and when Carvey remembers the pair saying they never wanted to work anywhere else, you get a sense that that is still true.
But sketches like the pitch-dark “Grandma the Clown” and “The TV Watchers” (an inspired dig at their battles with ABC that was mostly a full-screen shot of NBC’s “Seinfeld”) weren’t built to last on prime time in 1996 — or, odds are, now. One of the documentary’s funniest moments comes when the cast is shown a long-ago promo for its lead-in, “Home Improvement,” which offers ample testimony for why “The Dana Carvey Show” was doomed.
But for many of the show’s misfit moving parts, there was a happy ending, and if anything “The Dana Carvey Show” seems more like a deliriously happy accident than a lost opportunity. The series, as its director John Fortenberry remembers, was like “experimental music” for the right audience. But that beat goes on and echoes through “Louie,” “Tim & Eric” and whereever comedy cozies up with the dark and weird.
“Too Funny to Fail”
When: Anytime starting Saturday
‘Too Funny to Fail’
When: Anytime, Starting Saturday
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