The Dana Carvey Show Had the Greatest Writing Staff of Any Comedy (and Still Failed Miserably)

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Summary

  • The Dana Carvey Show had an all-star team of comedians and writers, including Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, who went on to achieve great success in entertainment.
  • Despite its short lifespan, the show remains a crucial moment in modern comedy, launching the careers of many talented individuals.
  • The show’s offbeat humor and unique sensibilities might have garnered a dedicated cult following if it aired today, thanks to the wider variety of content available and different ways of accessing it.


Let’s talk for a minute. Consider a scenario: your favorite comedian, the one with the kick-ass standup set, the featured spot on SNL, and the guy in some of the best movies you’ve ever seen has been given his own show. Pretty sweet, right? Now, he’s so amazing that he can pull some of the best talent to fill his writer’s room. Even better, right? But what happens when that show is completely off the rails?

The Dana Carvey Show arrived in the public consciousness in 1996 and was immediately put in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time. Its death after six episodes sparked confusion in the comedy world and wide-eyed embarrassment for ABC. But how could a show like this bring a group of writers, actors, and an entire network to its knees? Pretty simple. Nobody was ready.


Presenting: The Dana Carvey Show

When Dana Carvey left Saturday Night Live, it made the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. People were curious about what one of the longest-running members of SNL would do next. In fact, some thought he was going to take over David Letterman’s late-night spot. But, as it turned out, he wanted something else. He wanted to create a show that fit his own strange sensibilities, that went beyond the limits of SNL and into a realm where weirder was better.

For help, he brought in Robert Smigel who had worked for Conan O’Brien and Saturday Night Live and who was beyond ready for something crazy. The two men looked for a place where their show could live and after speaking with a variety of executives they settled not on HBO, where their after-hours concepts would probably have flourished, but with ABC. They chose it because not only was it prime time (9:30, following the popular Home Improvement) but it was also network, which was still something people wanted back then.

The show lasted six episodes with two that went unaired. Within the first sketch, they lost their main sponsors, within two shows the network was sending in censors to watch them, and within six they were toast.

Consider just two of their most notorious sketches. The first, and their very first to air, featured Dana as President Bill Clinton. He expresses his need to nurture the nation and decides to put his money where his mouth is. He pulls off his suit to show that he now has eight lactating nipples, and proceeds to nurse a kitten, two puppies, and a baby. He has also had his behind replaced with a duck’s so that he can sit on and hatch eggs. Another sketch, this one starring both Steven Colbert and Steve Carell was called “waiters who are nauseated by food”. The entire skit involved the two of them reading off-menu items to their customers while retching and attempting not to vomit. Classic comedy.

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Who Was In the Writer’s Room?

There are some shows that simply have all the right writers who can come together to create something so groundbreaking that it changes the landscape of television. The 1950s Your Show of Shows was one of the first to do this, Saturday Night Live has proven itself time and again, and In Living Color certainly ranks among the greats. However, in terms of raw talent that was still proving itself and who would go on to absolutely kill it in entertainment, The Dana Carvey Show remains unmatched.

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Consider just a couple of the participants: Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert, both of whom would find overwhelming fame with The Daily Show. Robert Smigel whose work with Conan O’Brien got him the job and who would go on to continue with Conan and write extensively for Saturday Night Live. Louis C.K., who had also worked with Conan and who would go on to be one of the biggest standups in the U.S. and helm multiple TV shows. Jon Glaser, who was just starting out and would go on to a hugely successful TV and film career. Dino Stamatopoulos, an amazing writer who has written for multiple prestige shows and who, on Community, featured as Starburns. Lastly, there was Charlie Kaufman, a lesser-known writer who went on to write multiple Academy Award-winning screenplays and directed those very same films.

That is just a piece of a resume of names that Hollywood would kill to have in the same room. Names that they now have trouble attracting one at a time, let alone all at once.

The Dana Carvey Show Would Have Worked Better Today

The question that is always asked is whether the show would work today. People have weird tastes and a show like The Dana Carvey Show would likely attract the same audience as I Think You Should Leave has found an audience on Netflix. As to whether it would be too cultish for mainstream viewers, the sheer breadth of content we now have and the myriad ways of accessing it just means it would have a better chance at survival.

Every writer from The Dana Carvey Show has gone on to do bigger and better things. It was a launch pad for so many comedy voices that even though it is a forgotten also-ran, it remains one of the seminal works of modern comedy. In the 2017 documentary Too Funny To Fail, Steven Colbert has said “I was unemployed in Chicago with no prospects of getting a job”, and Steve Carell explained, “I remember my agent told me, if it doesn’t happen for you soon, it’s not going to happen.” These are two monoliths of comedy who were ready to try something else until Dana Carvey and Robert Smigel came along. It may actually be a good thing that The Dana Carvey Show didn’t work. We may have missed out on so much that came after.

For more, check out the excellent documentary Too Funny To Fail:

Stream on Hulu

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