Dana Carvey talks 'SNL,' living with Lorne Michaels, the Hans and Franz movie, 'The Dana Carvey Show' and more
When Dana Carvey started on Saturday Night Live, he said he was terrified.
He had no experience in sketch comedy and the show was facing the threat of cancellation. Yet that year’s cast revitalized Saturday Night Live and Carvey became famous for characters like the Church Lady, Hans and Garth of Wayne’s World.
He went on create The Dana Carvey Show, featuring future stars like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Louis C.K. and Charlie Kaufman. The show was cancelled after seven episodes, and Carvey stepped out of the spotlight.
Since then he has focused on stand-up, though he says his act also incorporates sketch comedy. Fans can see for themselves when he performs at Tampa Theatre on Friday at 7 p.m.
In an interview, Carvey discussed Saturday Night Live, The Dana Carvey Show and the Hans and Franz movie that never happened. Here are excerpts.
How do you think your stand-up’s changed since Saturday Night Live and your other work in sketch and acting?
I think the same kind of things I like to do, but I guess it’s more pointed — a little darker, a little edgier. But with me, it’s more subterfuge, I don’t think maybe people really notice. But it amuses me.
What was your first meeting with Lorne Michaels like?
I had auditioned for Saturday Night Live three times and I always bombed — not for Lorne, but for Al Franken and different people. One time I followed Sam Kinison at the Comedy Store at midnight with no introduction and I bombed, all the SNL people were there. But then Lorne Michaels wanted to see me and I said, “Oh, I got to be in a better environment.” Rosie O’Donnell was playing a club on the West Side called Igby’s, so she let me come in and do 45 minutes instead of five minutes. Lorne walked in with Cher and Brandon Tartikoff, the head of (NBC) at the time. I did well enough that I met him outside on the sidewalk. Yeah, he’s very close-nested, sort of aloof. I wasn’t sure what he thought of me, but then later on he said he was already planning on what sketches I would be doing.
But that was a fluke — I’d never done sketch comedy. There was no Groundlings or Upright Citizens Brigade where I was from. Looking back on it, I was trying to do sketch comedy in my stand-up, which is still kind of what I am doing now. To go full-circle here, it’s kind of like one-man sketch. Jay Leno told me, “Yeah, write more jokes” and it’s not really what I’m good at or what I like.
But yeah, Lorne is very intimidating and scary and his legend has only grown since then. Even back then, it was so intimidating, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for the young people who come in now with 40 years of sketches behind them and then you’re trying to be original and that was done here, that was done there.
Didn’t you live with him for a while too?
Well, he asked me to come out to New York. I played a pizza parlor in Martinez, California in July for four people and then by August, I’d been selected to be on the show, so he said come out. I’d never done sketch comedy. So I went to his house and stayed there for about a month. A. Whitney Brown came and went, Chevy Chase was around and that’s where I got to hang out with Paul McCartney for a week, that was really nice.
They were all so kind to me, but I was terrified every second I was there, completely terrified. Saturday Night Live was basically cancelled and they brought it back. First of all, I’d never done sketch comedy, didn’t even know I was in the cold opening. Second, the show was only picked up for eight episodes so were told if we didn’t kick ass, they would pull the plug in December, so it was a lot of pressure.
My first sketch ever, which Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks co-wrote, I didn’t even know we were in the cold opening. It was all very bizarre. Lorne does it nicely now, where we he brings in future players. He has 15 to 17 cast members, so people get to hang out and do a few of those things and get used to it. But back then, you just went right on even though I had no experience. Phil and I and Jon were the only full cast members, but those guys were really good at sketch and they’d done Groundlings for years and they just taught me a lot.
You were in one of the most successful SNL movies ever, Wayne’s World, but you also had a script for Hans and Franz: The Girly Man Dilemma. What would have that been like?
It was kind of like Austin Powers in a sense, written with Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien. It was really cool, it was just very heavy on Arnold (Schwarzenegger) and Arnold decided not to do it at the last second. I don’t blame him, he had like 10 things in development, but it was very hard to extricate him.
It was a musical, there were songs, and we’d come to L.A., Hans and Franz, looking for Arnold. Siskel and Ebert were watching the movie as it happening and we kept coming into the screening room during the movie. There was a big button that the bad guy pressed that said hurt the weather. We had Stallone in there as a cameo, “The weather’s been hurt lately,” it was just really over-the-top, crazy, silly acid humor. Arnold was swimming and we were water-skiing behind him out in the ocean. (Laughs) I think Austin Powers has its own Mike Myers sensibility, but it was in that genre. But once Arnold decided not to do it, it fell by the wayside. But it was a funny script.
Then you had your own show, The Dana Carvey Show, which had a pretty amazing group. How was that cast selected?
Robert Smigel and I, we really collaborated a lot in the last three years of SNL on Regis and Carson and the McLaughlin Group, so we decided we wanted to do a show. It came from him mostly. He introduced me to Louis, then Louis and I met in L.A. just to make sure he’d be the head writer and I liked him right away, really smart. We looked at a lot of people that had auditioned for SNL and had been passed over.
Carrell and Colbert were the two that stuck out for me. I referred to them as the two Steves. I said, “Just give me the two Steves and then Louis and Robert can pick the rest.” Not that they didn’t like the two Steves, but I felt like right from the beginning, I thought they had all the ingredients to do whatever they wanted in Hollywood. That ended up being true, which is great — Louis’s the greatest filmmaker and stand-up. I was kidding Colbert the other day that our other cast members are going to break soon because everyone from that show eventually becomes a superstar.
It’s just that cable didn’t really exist. Comedy Central, I didn’t even think it was around. It was either HBO or network — obviously HBO would’ve been a better choice. It was kind of absurd on primetime TV. We got a bad rap because we had the Clinton teat thing the first sketch, which Louis wrote and we’d done a month before, so it didn’t seem that weird to us. But the rest of the show was really whimsical and was not blue at all basically and had very little potty humor.
Has it heartened you to see that show more embraced now?
Yeah, it’s kind of nice, a noble failure. But the show’s really funny, it really holds up, people like it, it’s on the web. It was just unfortunate that it was on network. That was just one of those learning curves for me … Things happen like that but I was really glad that my cast mates were so talented because (Carrell and Colbert) were really bummed out. They said, “We just to want do this. We love doing this show. This is what we want to do with our careers.” I was like, “It’s not going to happen, guys, our ratings are diving.” So I was happy that Jon Stewart took them under his wing and they launched from there.
Not long after that, you stepped out of the spotlight for a bit. Was that entirely for family, or were you feeling somewhat burned by show business?
(Laughs) I need to write a book. It just happened slowly, live and in real-time. Definitely for me, my personality, having children was a definite sea change. I found it very, very hard to balance show business and being a dad. The narcissism of show business and the complete, total focus of it was very difficult. I developed a movie with Adam Sandler (The Master of Disguise) which turned out messy, but kids still like it. But that was another one where there was a lot of different people putting in whatever their sensibility was, so it ended up kind of a stew.
Dino Stamatopoulos and I, we’re doing a cartoon for Adult Swim right now — he was also a writer on my show in 1997, so I still work with him. But it’s weird, I never really thought of the fame and money, I guess I was naïve or something. Even now I don’t think of it that way, I’m just trying to get better. I may be one of the odder people in my business, I guess. Most are so driven in a different way.
-- Jimmy Geurts, tbt*