Monday, January 14, 2019

TOO FUNNY TO FAIL

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I always have my finger on the pulse of popular culture. Something comes out – you can bet I’m on it instantly. And so this weekend I focus on the Hulu documentary, TOO FUNNY TO FAIL. What? It premiered October 21, 2017? Yes, but it never caught the zeitgeist until yesterday.

In any event, it’s terrific! Check it out.

In 1996 Dana Carvey, who was white hot coming off of SNL made a deal with ABC for a primetime variety show (after a bidding war). He enlisted the help of brilliant writer, Robert Smigel (Triumph the insult comic dog) and assembled a cast of players that included then-unknown Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. For good measure throw in then-hireable Louis C.K. Writers included Oscar winner Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock who went on to guide 30 ROCK and KIMMY SCHMIDT, Bob Odenkirk (“Saul Goodman”), Spike Feresten (coming off of SEINFELD), and Greg Daniels (creator of the US version of THE OFFICE).

You would think that with that line-up of All-Star talent the show would be a huge hit.

It bombed. Horribly. Disastrously.

Placed in ABC’s best time slot at the time (following HOME IMPROVEMENT) the minute-by-minute ratings showed that within the first five minutes 6,000,000 people tuned out. The opening sketch was Bill Clinton breast-feeding and managed to completely alienate an entire nation.

The ratings were a disaster. The reviews were brutal.

And from there it was like a battleship trying to make a U-Turn in a river. They made eight episodes. Only seven aired.

But I have to say, based on the segments and sketches they showed, the show was really funny. Clearly it was in the wrong time slot on the wrong network. And yes, that first sketch was a bad miscalculation, but the show deserved a better fate.

At first when I started watching this documentary I was intrigued at how so many extraordinary talented people could turn out such a trainwreck. But like I said, they did not turn out a bad product. If SEINFELD had premiered on the Trinity Broadcasting Network I don’t think it would have been a hit either.

But the interviews are all great and very candid. Everyone admits to mistakes and yet has a tremendous fondness and pride for the show. Interestingly, a few of the sketches were later aired on SNL and KILLED. Dana Carvey as Tom Brokaw pre-recording obits for Gerald Ford doing many alternate insane causes of death was hysterical.

For a TV show to become a big hit all the planets have to line up. But to me the takeaway of THE DANA CARVEY SHOW is that cream rises to the top, and real talent will somehow emerge and blossom. Ask Michael Keaton, Swoosie Kurtz, Merrill Markoe, and David Letterman – cast members of the MARY TYLER MOORE VARIETY SHOW (cancelled after three episodes).

24 comments :

Pat Reeder said...

I watched that show when it first aired, and laughed my head off at the Clinton sketch. I couldn't believe they had the balls to air that. A couple of years ago, my Christmas gift from my wife was the DVD set of all the episodes. So not EVERYONE hated it...

estiv said...

Ken, all eight episodes of the show were also available on Hulu the last time I looked.

Ted said...

In the past couple of decades, has there ever been a prime-time variety show that was both funny and did well in the ratings? I vaguely recall a terrible show with Neil Patrick Harris that only lasted a few weeks. Maybe there's just no way to make that format work -- unless you count amateur entertainment competitions like "The Voice" or "America's Got Talent."

Jen from Jersey said...

Off topic but do you how Netflix chooses what shows to stream? Is it about the cost of the shows? I can access every season of Friends and The Office but can’t get Everybody Loves Raymond, Taxi, Odd Couple, etc.

Howard Hoffman said...

Carvey’s, Colbert’s and Carell’s reaction to the ABC promo featuring a very dark “very special episode” of HOME IMPROVEMENT was both cringe-inducing and fall-out hilarious. Colbert was laugh-crying and Carell’s face as he watched was the stuff screenshots were made for. A great doc through and through.

Anthony Hoffman said...

Loved the Clinton breastfeeding sketch, the nauseous waiters, everything. Disney had just bought ABC and brought back Wonderful World of Disney, aired Muppet Tonight and a bunch of “family” bullshit. The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show was brilliant!

blinky said...

The real lesson is that FIRST IMPRESSIONS MATTER. Bill Clinton breast feeding????
I saw and loved every second of that show but have you ever met middle America? They are the ones that still love that Cheeto faced guy.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I actually remember that Clinton sketch. At the time I thought it was right-on. I guess it illustrates how it's better to pander to your audience rather than risk offending them. Just as so many of today's late night hosts do. Ironically, including Colbert.
But I think the problem with the "Dana Carvey Show" was that you had to watch the show. That is you had to pay attention to get the full impact of the jokes. That was the same problem with "Police Squad." Not a good idea even back then.
M.B.

Elf said...

@Ted, just two summers ago NBC tried out "Maya and Marty" with Maya Rudolph and Martin Short. It had some SNL writers working on it, plus it featured Kenan Thompson and Mikey Day, who joined SNL after this show ended. It had its moments, and clearly, anything that gets Martin Short on TV being Martin Short around was worth watching.

mdv59 said...

Thanks for the review-- it sounds great.

By the way, for fans of SNL alumni, Kevin Nealon has a funny/quirky Youtube show named Hiking With Kevin. It's basically Kevin Nealon hiking with friends along some of LA's more notable trails-- most recently Dana Carvey. The episodes aren't all gold but they're frequently funny and it's interesting to see the interviewees in a less guarded setting.

Anonymous said...

This phenoma of having a roster full of "stars" ( by talent not necessarily by recognition) that produce failures, deserved or not, is a reoccuring theme.
Reminds me of 1974 America's cup where a consortium of the heavy hitters worked to build what they thought would be the fastest 12 M boat.
It failed to even beat an older boat ( couragous) skippered by Turner.
Sometimes genius needs some leavening of non genuis's to aicheve greatness.

Janet Ybarra said...

That was a drag about Dana Carvey, I wish things had worked out better for him.

Another funny show which died before its time: THAT'S MY BUSH, the sitcom take on George W. that lasted about a month and a half or something.

Elizabeth Bell said...

The most interesting statement in that post is that within 5 minutes 6,000,000 viewers tuned out. So obviously, they found the Clinton breast-feeding sketch so repulsive they never tuned back in. People who cannot be offended with any amount of swearing, sexual filth, or ridiculing the disabled, do not like to be so grossed out as to feel nauseated. How can so many talented people not know that? It’s really sad to think that a terrific, hilarious show (I take your word on that) was destroyed in the first 5 minutes.

VP81955 said...

"That's My Bush!" was intended as a limited-run series, a parody of sitcom conventions. Just as well, because its final ep aired in August 2001, not long before 9/11. (And Timothy Bottoms, who played Bush on the show, later reprised the president for a dramatic TV movie on 9/11.)

Jeff Boice said...

Still amazes me that none of them had any idea what "Home Improvement" was about or the kind of audience it drew. Were they really all living in a bubble?

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Seems like there's been a great tradition over the decades of forever lost/unseen TV comedy shows, complete with staff rooms full of soon-to-be-legendary writers.

I don't know if Ken or others here would consider it great, but another extremely short-lived show I've read about is Rowan & Martin's ultra-edgy counterculture 1969 comedy sketch program, TURN-ON, which according to legend was cancelled by ABC *during* the airing of its first episode. I admit I'd pay money for a DVD of that show, although only two episodes (at most) were ever produced of it.

Matt, Westwood CA said...

Friday question...
In the many shows you’ve written as staff writer/producer, in this case CHEERS, have you personally written scripts that were ultimately never produced? I’ve collected many scripts over the years and recently discovered a CHEERS script I have that you write titled “Help!” from 1990. It’s not in your IMDb credits, so I read it figuring the episode underwent a title change so I’m trying to figure out the episode, and as I read I kept thinking I don’t remember this one. Finally determined it was never made (or I’m losing my mind). Is there an interesting story behind this, the script was assigned a production number.

Andy Rose said...

That Tom Brokaw sketch has been on YouTube for a while (often misidentified as an SNL sketch), and the funny thing is, it's based on a real incident.

Harry Shearer -- who, in addition to all of his other jobs and hobbies, collects video outtakes of news programs -- got his hands on a clip of Brokaw prerecording the introduction to an obituary for Frank Sinatra in case his death was confirmed after Nightly News ended and Tom was at home. It used to be posted on Harry's website, but he took it down a few years ago. (Of course, the real Brokaw video was not nearly as absurd as the sketch.)

Mike Doran said...

In re Turn-On, ABC-1969:

- This was a George Schlatter/Ed Friendly production; Rowan & Martin had nothing to do with it (and never let Schlatter forget that for what remained of their Laugh-In partnership).

- ABC (in loose partnership with Bristol-Myers) put the show on in January of '69; the deal was for thirteen half-hours - six were eventually made.

- When the first show went on, the ABC station in Cleveland (I think; correction welcomed if needed) took exception to a "skit" which consisted of Tim Conway's head in the lower left corner of the screen, an actress's face in the lower right, and the word "SEX" in pulsating letters across the top.
The Cleveland manager yanked the show off midway through that scene, and informed the net that his station would not carry Turn-On again.
Thar first show did air all the way through in Chicago, which is where 19-year-old me saw it that night; I'm assuming that however many of the ABC affiliates that were showing it did the same.
I'd bought the next week's TV Guide, which said that next Wednesday's show would have Sebastian Cabot as guest; the following week's Guide announced that Robert Culp and his then-wife France Nuyen would appear.
All that became academic when ABC, faced with many complaints from their affiliates, dropped the whole enterprise after the close of the first show.
(The immediate replacement was extra-long movies; the King Family was conscripted to put together a quick replacement.)

-As I said above, at least six half-hours were completed (the three that got TV Guide listings would have to had been completed to get listed).

- As far as anyone knows, George Schlatter still had all the Turn-On tapes; what (if anything) he plans to do with them after fifty years is anyone's guess …



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Ken Levine said...

Matt in Westwood,

Email me at HollywoodLevine@outlook.com.

Ken

SteveJayCanada said...

In the early 1970s, James Garner and Margot Kidder starred in a terrific show called "Nichols" that I think only lasted one season. It was a western set in the early 1900s. Instead of a horse, Garner as Nichols rode a motorcycle, the era being the start of the motorized world. It was by far my favorite show at the time it aired, and I couldn't believe it was cancelled. Perfect role for Garner, a wisecracking "everyman" hero. As a youngster who grew up as part of the Baby Boomer Television Generation, that was my awakening to the reality of Hollywood: there are many idiots making decisions about what we watch, and not much we can do to change that. Freaks and Geeks know what I'm talking about.

estiv said...

@Andy Rose, the version of the Brokaw/Ford sketch that's on YouTube is in fact the SNL version. Ken says in the post that "a few of the sketches were later aired on SNL and KILLED." That sketch was one of them.

Andy Rose said...

@estiv: The version that is on YouTube is the ABC version.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7IN1UDWJgY

The SNL version that Carvey did six months later is posted on NBC's website.
https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/tom-brokaw-pre-tapes/n10894

Script is the same, but the background and costuming are a little different, as well as the "intercom" effect on Robert Smigel's voice.

estiv said...

@Andy Rose, thanks for the correction. You have sharper eyes than I do.