If there was ever comedy deemed ahead of its time, it might be The Dana Carvey Show. Such is the premise of the new Hulu documentary Too Funny to Fail, about the ill-fated 1996 sketch series. The film tells this story through the use of archival footage and interviews. Some may say the show got cancelled because it was dumb—the very first sketch had Bill Clinton nursing a dozen kittens with prosthetic nipples. But the documentary dives deeper into what makes a show succeed or fail—and it’s a lot more than just the jokes.
To explore what happened, we hear the testimony of some of today’s biggest names in comedy that were involved in the project at the beginning of their careers. Major players like Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert explain what it was like for the then-up and coming comedians to work with a veteran like Dana Carvey. And Carvey tries his best to explain how his post-SNL passion project became a complete and utter failure. Other important figures are Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock, Robert Smigel, Dino Stamatopoulos, Jon Glaser and the poorly-timed appearance of disgraced comedian Louis C.K.
Carvey isn’t the true protagonist of the film. Instead it’s comedy writer Robert Smigel—who was able to salvage his career after the Carvey ship went down. We start with him at his great excitement when he got the news that he was going to work on the show all the way to its epic failure. Its through Smigel’s emotional arc that we review the rise and fall of a would-be comedy dynasty.
That fall, by the way, wasn’t on so much Carvey’s provocative off-brand humor, but rather where and when it was scheduled.
“Ultimately, there was one problem,” Smigel laughed.
The lead-in slot to Home Improvement, the wildly successful all-American Tim Allen sitcom was one any showrunner would kill to get. Any showrunner, that is, except for those at The Dana Carvey Show. Let’s just say that the Home Improvement demo wasn’t a fan of “The Ambiguously Gay Duo.” The best part of Too Funny to Fail is all these big names in comedy reflecting on the ridiculousness of the whole situation.
The Carvey show comedy holds up as we watch the documentary. And if the documentary creates a desire to see the actual show, the entire 6-episode run is available on Hulu as well. But of course, the show falls into common pits often dug by provocative white male-driven comedy. So be prepared to muddle through a couple self-admittedly viciously racist and sexist sketches.
Regardless, Too Funny to Fail is a silly, light-hearted foray into one of the most infamous television failures of the past several decades. There’s something lovingly self-reflexive and nostalgic about the film—it’s a real achievement. Too Funny to Fail is now available on for streaming on Hulu.