Enough time has passed since the preemptive demise of “The Dana Carvey Show” that Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert Smigel, and the comedian who gave the show its name can chuckle a bit. Twenty years after ABC pulled the plug on a subversive primetime sketch show, “Too Funny to Fail” revisits the meteoric rise and spectacular flameout that surrounded the show’s eight-episode run in the spring of 1996. Yet with decades of perspective, Josh Greenbaum’s documentary finds a surprising amount of fondness and wistfulness in a doomed project with such a public end.
Part of that bittersweet satisfaction comes from the retroactive knowledge that some of the major players in this saga would go on to shape the modern comedy landscape. Colbert and Carell got their first big breaks as “Dana Carvey Show” cast members, while Smigel would eventually go on to a vaunted comedy writing career (including being the literal voice behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog).
Balancing the fate of the TV show with the personal histories of the people involved, “Too Funny to Fail” has plenty of “before they were famous” nuggets for comedy nerds, including vintage footage of Second City sketches and local fast food commercials. With hindsight, these successful folks smile warmly when talking about the lean years and the anxieties that came before getting the call to join Carvey in a groundbreaking sketch show, fresh off the comedian’s ballyhooed departure from “Saturday Night Live.”
The time that “Too Funny to Fail” devotes to the buildup to the March 1996 premiere is the film’s stroke of luck, getting funny people to tell funny stories. (Carell is exceedingly charming, laughing at each successive anecdote like he’s an awestruck kid gleefully sharing stories about his idols.) The same spark that drove the writers and cast drives all of these behind-the-scenes tales, dutifully compiled even while some versions of these stories conflict.
Even in a straightforward documentary interview, you can sense that reliving their days working on “The Dana Carvey Show” awakens a certain itch in these individuals. Before long, Carvey is knee deep in a funny voice, Colbert is recreating old bits from his Chicago days, and Smigel can’t help but indulge some of his most infamous successes.
When the film turns its focus to the run of the show itself, it introduces the fascinating layer of some unguarded feedback from ABC executives. As the programming decision makers at the network follow the timeline from greenlighting the show to describing the final product they had no idea they were getting, you can track the repressed disdain as it slowly builds. It wasn’t fun and games on the business end, but “Too Funny to Fail” still finds ways to weave relevant clips from the show into the discussions of its ratings failure.
Greenbaum has some fun with a few of the opening chyrons, but the same visual and formal playfulness that was present in “Becoming Bond,” his last Hulu doc, is replaced by something much more straightforward. And occasionally, “Too Funny to Fail” will slide in a film clip with a tangential relationship to someone’s story, but they often seem frivolous to the story at hand.
Meanwhile, a handful of behind-the-scenes snapshots and a few home videos are no match for the archival footage of the show itself. Watching Colbert and Carell talk about the origins of “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food” or hearing some of Smigel’s inspiration for “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” is worth the runtime alone. This is tailor-made for comedy nerd triviadom, even when the show touches on some sketches that have since existed in comedy lore.
It’s fun to hear the backstory of the show, from its rise to its untimely downfall, but this is more of a supplement to an existing work than a film all of its own. There are insights about the creative process, but the biggest value of “Too Funny to Fail” is reminding the audience that clips like “Germans Who Say Nice Things” exist. This is a film that posits that the best appreciation of the show is the process of watching all eight episodes as they aired, armed with a little extra knowledge about the creative fights that brought them to air.
Here, Bill Hader is a fun on-camera interview subject, but the film is best when focused on the folks that made the pivotal decisions that guided the show, even from a critic’s standpoint. And although the film makes mention of him multiple times, the absence of “The Dana Carvey Show” head writer Louis CK’s involvement in this overview feels like a glaring hole in the complete picture. (Charlie Kaufman is infamously reticent to do on-camera interviews, but getting his perspective on his time working on “The Dana Carvey Show” is the “what if” wrapped inside a “what if.”)
Even if this isn’t an entirely inventive approach to an oral history of a failed experiment, “Too Funny to Fail” touches on a profound idea that runs through popular mainstream artistic pursuits. Sometimes succeeding and making the exact thing you want to create is what dooms you in the end. That in itself may not be a particularly funny revelation, but luckily this is a saga that some of the key players are now keen to revisit. “The Dana Carvey Show” may not have aired for long, but the laughs of those involved still echo all these years later.
“Too Funny to Fail” is now available to stream on Hulu.