Too Funny to Fail

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As a movie critic, one of the perks is getting to see movies at screenings weeks before they’re released. Often times, we also get DVDs sent to us, or companies like Netflix and HBO will give me subscriptions for free, so I can watch their content and review (or vote on) their programs.

I got wind of this documentary on HULU that sounded intriguing. It’s called Too Funny to Fail, and it’s about the epic failure that was the Dana Carvey Show.

If you don’t remember, here’s the deal on Carvey. He was arguably one of the most successful cast members in Saturday Night Live history. By that I mean, he created the most memorable characters. There were his terrific impersonations (Johnny Carson, George Michael, Casey Kasem, Ross Perot, George Bush) and funny characters (Hans and Franz, Church Lady, and Garth from Wayne’s World). So when Carvey left SNL after seven successful years, and two successful Wayne’s World movies — everyone wondered what he would do. It was surprising that he thought the best move was to stick with sketch comedy. He wanted to go the edgy route, which probably would’ve worked fine on HBO. But Robert Smigel (Triumph the Insult Comic Dog), a successful executive producer on SNL and head writer for Conan O’Brien…convinced him to take it to ABC. They’d be following the successful sitcom Home Improvement. With Smigel and Carvel involved, what could go wrong? A lot, apparently. And that’s surprising when you hear of the talent he brought in for the show. Two rising stars with Second City in Chicago — Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell; as well as Charlie Kaufman, who went on to give us the terrific movies Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and one of the best movies ever made — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Also on board, was comedian Louis C.K. I think it’s safe to say, that of all sketch comedy shows, this had the biggest success rate of all its cast members.

So in the spring of 1996 when the show started, many were anticipating its run. It only lasted eight episodes, and each one seemed to be a bigger failure than the previous episode.

Director Josh Greenbaum got Hulu it’s first Emmy nomination with Behind the Mask, about sports mascots. He did a terrific documentary about child golfers called The Short Game, and now he’s knocking it out of the park for Hulu with this fantastic series.

It was interesting to watch Carell and Colbert talk about how hard it was making a living at comedy and worrying about paying the rent, right before the call came to join the Carvey show. That’s like a starving musician being called and asked to join Paul McCartney and the Wings after he just left the Beatles. It also makes watching these painful stories of how each of these sketches they did flopped so miserably, knowing these guys are now all rich and famous doing comedy.

It was a tad disappointing to not hear from Kaufman or Louis C.K., but the rest of the guys share many wonderful stories. It’s also nice to see the sketches they’re talking about. One skit involves Carvey as Bill Clinton, and ends with him ripping his shirt off and nursing babies, and then puppies. That got hate mail, death threats, and sponsors dropping like flies from that. It also got network suits asking, “Uh…can we maybe have the Church Lady or something like that?”

I remember at the time, having seen an episode or two of the show, not being terribly impressed. Certainly watching the skits now is even less funny. There were a few that worked. One involved an old lady as a clown, or two guys pulling pranks that keep backfiring on them. As a picky eater, I totally appreciated the “Waiters Who are Nauseated by Food.”

There’s one bit called “Skinheads from Maine” that is so bizarre and hysterical.

An interesting thing I thought watching the show, and listening to former executives talking about it failing…was how if you could go back, knowing how big all these guys would become…the show probably still would’ve been cancelled. It just wasn’t getting the ratings, and wasn’t all that funny; although former SNL cast member Bill Hader, who is interviewed, would disagree with me. He was a huge fan.

Since this is a weak weekend for opening movies (trust me), perhaps you should check out this series. If you’re a lover of comedy, or how the creative process works on TV shows, it’s a must.

4 stars out of 5.

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