Kieran’s Korner: Another Look at ‘SNL,’ Dana Carvey and “The Best Cast Ever”

Even before we finished our analysis of last weekend’s Dana Carvey hosted ‘Saturday Night Live’ we had no doubt that this particular episode, this particular crossroads, required additional insight.  Perhaps, more than ever, a Kieran’s Korner was needed.  As you know, we consider Kieran our elder statesmen when it comes to ‘SNL’ knowledge and personal experience, our very own living, breathing, sweater vest-wearing ‘Live From New York.’  To some degree, the Carvey years, ’86-’93, were always nostalgia to us; we were practically an infant when Carvey debuted, and thus only began to appreciate his talent towards the end of his tenure, largely because of the runaway success of ‘Wayne’s World.’  Our first time seeing the show live came just after Carvey’s exit, the final seasons of Farley and Sandler, and indeed we didn’t become regular viewers until the great cast turnover of 1995 (and, to be fair, like Kieran, we initially didn’t care for that group funny).  So while the Will Ferrell era was the first cast we became intimately familiar with, watched week in and week out, the Carvey period came during Kieran’s formative years.  We knew then that any effect the last episode had on us, there was a good chance that feeling would only be amplified for Kieran.  So we turned to Kieran for his special brand of wisdom, to discover his reaction considering his similar but much more personal relationship with ’86-’93 .  And, as usual, he obliged.

Speaking of the death of childhood, let me tell you about the flood of negative emotions I experienced watching the first episode of the 21st season of Saturday Night Live.

The date was September 30, 1995 and I was twenty-three years old. Mariel Hemingway was the host. There was an interminable sketch where Will Ferrell yelled at some kids who were, evidently, on a shed. Filmed pieces included a rather pallid spoof commercial for a “morning” beer named AM Ale. Against better judgment, Mark McKinney tried to import his Chicken Lady character from The Kids in the Hall.

I didn’t laugh.

Apart from an overwhelming lack of amusement, though, something mysterious about the show gnawed at me. Something about it felt odd and, even, dare I say it, immoral. For the first time in my life, I felt downright offended by Saturday Night Live.

It certainly wasn’t the content of the sketches. Apart from a rather limp opener based on the then-current O.J. Simpson phenomenon, I don’t even recall any hot-button topics being addressed. No, it had more to do with the cast. A few members of the previous crew were still around (David Spade, Tim Meadows) but, mostly, it was brand-new folks. Jim Breuer. Cheri Oteri. Will Ferrell. They felt alien and strange. I just couldn’t warm up to them.

As a result, I only watched SNL sporadically between the years of 1995 and 2001. It took me a while to arrive at the epiphany that, on the contrary, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the cast. Rather, it was my problem. I just couldn’t accept the fact that things had changed. Time had moved on. In all honesty, I’m not too sure what I’d expected. I suppose I thought that, somehow, the world could remain fixed in a kind of permanent mélange of my college years (90-94) where Kurt Cobain would be alive and well forever, the internet would remain the province of hardcore techies, and where Dana Carvey would fulfill his destiny and become a major-league Hollywood star.

You see, Dana was the shining light of my cast. The cast of 1986.

I’ve said—and typed— this before. For my money, Dana Carvey is the single most talented player in the history of SNL. In fact, I would vehemently argue that he deserves sole credit for rescuing Saturday Night Live after what had been one of the program’s weakest seasons.

By way of a refresher course, in 1985 Lorne Michaels had returned as producer after an approximately five-year (more or less self-imposed) sabbatical. It was supposed to be a return to the halcyon era of the original cast, but something went wrong. Horribly wrong. The new cast was immature and inexperienced (Anthony Michael-Hall? WTF?) the writing was atrocious (Ron Reagan doing an underwear-clad takeoff on Tom Cruise in Risky Business was a dubious highlight) and, worst of all, there were no reliable characters.

Ultimately, that’s the bedrock of Saturday Night Live, isn’t it? Much in the same way that a musician or group thrives on hit singles; SNL needs a constant stream of hit characters and, in particular, catchphrases to remain truly relevant. Jon Lovitz came pretty close. He had Tommy Flanagan (yeah…that’s the ticket) and Master Thespian (Acting! Genius!) But, to expand on the metaphor I’ve already introduced, those were minor hits, not the top-ten material that SNL desperately needed. All the available evidence suggested that the show was in a terminal nosedive and cancellation was nigh.

And that’s when Dana Carvey came in. His first show was on October 11, 1986. The moment after the premiere Church Lady sketch ended, I knew that SNL would be alright. Easily memorized (“Well, isn’t that special.”) funny and gently risqué (oooh – mocking the faithful!) and perfect fodder for Halloween costumes. Church Lady was a sleek, streamlined, pop culture-piercing bullet that reinvigorated the entire SNL franchise. Believe it.

Over the next seven years, Carvey just kept delivering. Think about it. All of those characters. George Michael, Robin Leach, Casey Kasem, John McLaughlin, Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual… Not to mention two out of three of the major candidates in the 1992 presidential campaign. One home run after another.

And it didn’t end there. Carvey was musical. Despite being in drag, he could pull off a masterful drum solo. He could even play piano and sing (choppin’ broccoli!) Shit. The guy could even dance. Remember those sweet moves he busted out on the night Malcolm Jamal-Warner hosted? Of course you do. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before Dana Carvey took over the world.

Or so we thought. This was before Opportunity Knocks. Before the failure of the prime time Dana Carvey Show. Before the malpractice suit. Before Master of Disguise.

All this is a rather long-winded way of saying that things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to. Or, to put it another way, welcome to life.

As Seth has already pointed out, revisiting the past is painful. It reminds us of what we’ve lost, and, even worse, gives us serious cause to doubt our perceptions of the world. Gosh. That Church Lady sketch wasn’t very funny. Wait… was Church Lady ever funny? Was Dana Carvey? Where did it all go wrong, and, indeed, were things ever genuinely right?

Fashion is notorious for playing tricks like this. Bell bottoms? Ugh. What were we thinking? Shoulder pads? Ugh. What were we thinking? Jeggings? Oh, wait, they’re actually quite popular at the moment.  Well, give it a few years.

Having said all that, it’s always great to see Dana. Always. Even if the material isn’t up to par (what the hell was going on with that beauty pageant sketch?) it’s good to just spend time with the guy. He seems like a mensch.

Dana didn’t make me laugh much on Saturday. But he did once. Often. For that, I’m grateful.

I’ll bet he’s a great dad. His kids are cute. I wonder what they think is funny?

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Filed under Fashion Show at Lunch, Kieran's Korner, Nostalgia Corner, Saturday Night Live

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