Was That Special? Dana Carvey Returns to ‘SNL’ And Our Childhood Officially Ends

We’re going to warn you right off the bat that this is probably going to be the most subjective SNL recap we’ve yet written.  So if you like your SNL analysis free of emotional attachment, well, then you should look somewhere else (we’re sure the web might offer one, maybe two, other options), because, unfortunately, as we watched this last SNL, hosted by legendary cast member Dana Carvey, our reaction was intrinsically bound up in how we’ve watched this show since childhood, and how the this particular episode made us reexamine and reassess our feelings about the show, Dana Carvey and his SNL era.  So, at the extreme risk of being self-indulgent, here we go.

We had basically been dreading this episode all week.  As we noted several times on this blog, the line-up, Carvey with musical guest Linkin Park, seemed ripped straight out of 2000, neither really having a place on a 2011 show.  Carvey had nothing to promote, no comeback to kickstart, and while Linkin Park has continued to make music, we weren’t aware of that fact until we saw them on SNL.  After a season that has relied, perhaps too heavily, on hyper relevant hosts and musicians – Emma Stone, Jeff Bridges, Jessie Eisenberg, Gwyneth Paltrow in the former, and, most especially, Katy Perry, Kanye West, Bruno Mars, Dirty Diddy Money and Nicki Minaj in the latter – this seemed like an odd mix.  Perhaps they deliberately matched Carvey with a musical act that echoed a bygone era, but he would have been better served with Bon Jovi or Elvis Costello or Tracy Chapman or Edie Brickell, any other artist with greater resonance than Linkin Park.  So instead it just seemed, well, underwhelming, uninspired.

However, just before the show began our nervousness turned to anxiety turned to excitement.  Carvey had appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon the previous Thursday and teased the surprises the show would bring.  Seth Meyers tweets announced that it would be a big show.  If it wasn’t going to be funny, at least it would certainly be fun, eventful.  So when we settled onto the couch around midnight Saturday night (Sunday morning?), we were ready to be wowed.  At the minimum we were going to give the show the benefit of the doubt.

And boom, out of the gate with “Wayne’s World!”  For the cold open!  And immediately a conflicted pit developed deep in our stomach.  The return of “Wayne’s World,” one of our favorite sketches, the progenitor of one of our all-time favorite movies, one of the three movies we would take to a deserted island kind of movie, characters that a had a relatively significant role in shaping our youth.  But it was a be careful what you wish for moment.  What if the sketch was terrible?  Would it retroactively ruin all the affection we’ve so long-held for “Wayne’s World?”  Would we need to burn our VHS and DVD copies of Wayne’s World.  No, we wouldn’t.  And, no, the sketch wasn’t that bad.  But it did rely too much on puns and bawdy humor, which was a staple of the sketch but felt too easy here.  And there was the recycling of material, something we’ve recognized Carvey and Mike Myers doing over the years, which has sort of diminished their work after the fact (more on that later).  It’s one thing to trot out a renowned, beloved catch phrase.  But this felt more like rehashing, taking short cuts, rather than taking the last 18 years to come up with some fresh new material (also, did Myers sound super-Canadian or what?).  But, we’re nitpicking.  Overall it was fun!  We proceeded, still with trepidation but now with some hope.

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And it was what came next that crystallized this episode for us, and what really shook the foundations of our youth.

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And that was Carvey’s monologue, a little ditty about how his stint on SNL, ’86-’93, was the best.  What really punctuated this moment for us was when Carvey was joined towards the end by his contemporary Jon Lovitz, because we realized, then, that this was shaping up to be a sort of celebration of that era, the Carvey-Myers-Lovitz-Hooks-Hartman-Nealon-Miller-Dunn years.  And it suddenly hit us that what we were witnessing was the birth of nostalgia.  Or perhaps, if not the birth of it, sheer, irrefutable evidence of its existence.  That SNL era, the renaissance years, are really our first memories of the show, and, by extension, some of our earliest memories of anything.  Those remembrances are inextricably tied to our youth, so to see those years now reflected on, referenced, paid tribute to, brings nothing but the soul crushing revelation that our childhood is officially dead, it’s officially nostalgia.  There was that great, series defining moment, from Mad Men‘s first season finale when Don Draper, as if by magic, as if struck by divine inspiration, suggests that Kodak’s new project not be called “The Wheel,” but rather “The Carousel,” brilliantly orating:

…in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards… it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

And observing Carvey arm-in-arm with Lovitz, mere moments after the resurrection of Wayne and Garth, this is exactly the feeling we had.  The pain for home.  But what Draper doesn’t mention (perhaps because he knows this won’t help sell projectors), is that we can’t go home again.  The carousel is a time machine insofar as it can show you what used to be, can provide a sense of the past, and can inspire sentimental feelings.  But it’s no DeLorean.  It’s only an illusion of what was.  ’86 – ’93 might have been the best, but it’s also the past, a past that’s passed.

When the Church Lady came up next it occurred to us that this episode was then going to simply be a celebration of that era.  It seemed to us that a more logical decision would have been to  just schedule a two-hour prime time special, “SNL Celebrates 1986-1993: The Golden Age,” akin to the Women of SNL special they aired last fall.  That would have made more sense, would have taken less attention away from the current cast members, and could have been a bigger draw.  But it appeared instead they chose to have the legends ball during the regular time slot, for better or worse (we should also note how painful it was to hear Phil Hartman’s voice introduce “Church Chat.”  Talk about an old wound).

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[Now a brief digression about Justin Bieber: a) for those who are saying that he’s all grown up, you’re wrong.  He’s just gotten a little taller, his voice has gotten a little deeper, and he’s losing a little of his boyish looks; b) for those of you who are making a big deal out of his new haircut, it should be strenuously pointed out that he does not have a new haircut.  He just got a haircut.  Big difference.  It’s the same style, still melted across his forehead, still helmet like, still down to his eyebrows, just slightly shorter; and c) Justin, buddy, for all the talent you have you can’t correctly pull off the Church Lady Dance?  It’s not the Chicken Dance, dude.  Show up for rehearsals, man.  Just for that we might not see your movie.  Or maybe only see it in 2-D.  That’ll teach you.]

Or course, then, after resigning ourselves to this only being a ’86-’93 tribute show, the episode changed gears somewhat after Church Lady and largely abandoned its nostalgia thrust, instead offering up a sincerely terrible VH1 Teen Line sketch, a rather sad excuse to parade out a bunch of celebrity impressions.  All the impressions were good (we’re avowed acolytes of Bill Hader’s Alan Alda, and Fred Armisen’s Ice-T was unsurprisingly surprisingly dead-on), but there was no perspective, no point to it.  The Back to the Future auditions, one of our favorite sketches of the season is very similar, but that one has a purpose, and a framework, and works because it combines two familiar concepts.  But random celebrities giving random advice to random teens just doesn’t work.

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The confusion continued later on “Weekend Update” with a visit from Taran Killam as James Franco.  The premise of the bit was that Franco loves jobs, that he has a myriad of inane occupations and projects, which is a totally valid premise.  Except that it would have made much more sense just to get Franco for this sketch.  Franco has already proven a willingness to mock himself, in fact, that’s basically the dominant public persona he’s created for himself, so to have Killam play James Franco, when James Franco is already playing James Franco, is unnecessary, and actually de-heightens the humor.  Now Franco might have been unavailable, finishing up his time at Sundance or already in LA getting ready for the Oscars, but it was silly to do this with anyone but him.  It’s much the same way with Bobby Moynihan’s Snooki; the actual person is already playing that character in the most entertaining way possible, so any impression is a cheap impression, a parody of a parody.

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The rest of the show was a mix of throwback Carvey impressions (Regis Philbin) and more topical, of the moment pieces (another Bieber appearance in a The Roommate parody), all of it dishearteningly absent of Jason Sudeikis.  That is until the final sketch of the night, the pretty terrible “Sports Bar.”

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But while this sketch offered very little in the way of comedy, the contrast between Carvey and Sudeikis brought something into focus that we have been wrestling with for quite some time.  As we’ve said here many times before we think Carvey is an all-world talent, arguing to friends in the past that he’s probably the best SNL cast member from any season, the comedian we would pick first in a SNL fantasy draft.  We remember very specifically watching and thoroughly enjoying his mid-90s HBO Critics’ Choice special (although we didn’t see it until it reran on Comedy Central), but we also recall not being able to get through his 2008 special Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies, finding some of it offensive, and the rest not very funny.  But we weren’t sure what had happened?  Had we changed?  Had Carvey changed?  Or perhaps we never really knew him at all.  Perhaps everything we thought we know was wrong, what we thought was funny as a kid wasn’t.  And our consternation over Carvey continued as he avoided a real comeback and instead made somewhat disconcerting, embarrassing appearances on The Jay Leno Show.  And we began to think that Carvey was clinging to his SNL personas, a manic, hyperactive impression machine in the way of Robin Williams, fueled on mimicry instead of cocaine.

But when we recently watched a season one episode of The Larry Sanders Show we were struck by the fact that Carvey was the same then, defined as much by his catchphrases as he is by any unique personality.

And thus we wondered, who is Dana Carvey?  And after seeing this weekend’s SNL, and Carvey on Fallon two nights before, we’re don’t know.  To us, he’s a cypher, a bricolage of Hans, Garth, the Church Lady, Regis, Ross Perot and Mickey Rooney impressions (just look again at that monologue, he ad-libs a line in his Regis persona).  We’re not sure how to describe Carvey other than through his characters.

On the other hand, we have Jason Sudeikis, whose characters are almost uniformly informed by Sudeikis’ own personality as much as any other original though or outside forces.  His personality, even in impressions, frequently shines through, sometimes, admittedly, to the detriment of the sketch.  But, you can see in the above sketch how Sudeikis can be given a few lines, really not even lines but words and groans, and somehow, someway, make them work.  We’re not sure you could ask Carvey to just shout out a few notes of displeasure effectively or if he could do it without channeling some other character or impression.

The question than becomes what’s better, for a comedian to disappear into his characters so completely that his personality disappears, or a comedian whose personality is readily evident in nearly all the character he plays?  When we were young we would have said the former.  But now, with our childhood officially behind us, we’re not so sure.

But just to show there are no hard feelings, we’re going to close this out not with Carvey bringing his now nearly grown sons on stage for the goodbyes, but with Carvey from his ’95 special talking about what it’s like to be a father, a bit that we’re happy to say is still very funny today:

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Filed under Analysis, Be careful what you wish for, Crucial Taunt, Flashback!, Nostalgia Corner, Reeeeeege, Saturday Night Live, The Bieb

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