The Ballad of Dana Carvey

"Jack of All Disguises, Master of None" is a series that attempts to unpack the complexities of the 2002 children's film The Master of Disguise starring Dana Carvey. On Day 2, we take a look at the master. 

Still from The Master of Disguise.

Still from The Master of Disguise.

“When I’m in front of an audience, I have this killer instinct of, ‘must destroy.’ It’s kind of embarrassing to me. You’ll just prostate yourself and embarrass yourself with anything. It’s just…embarrassing."
Dana Carvey, "You Made It Weird"

The first eighty seconds of Dana Carvey's 1995 HBO special, Critic’s Choice, is raucous applause.

While others elect to quell the crowd by mumbling a quick thanks into the mic and launching into their opener, the man of the evening milks it to his heart’s delight – he ping-pongs back and forth, mugging as the crowd continues to roar. For Carvey, any moment of uncontested approval isn’t a moment wasted, and it’s only when the crowd begins to lose steam that he dives into his first joke. What follows are a series of stiff, often topical open mic setups (“being a parent is hard!” “the O.J. Simpson trial is crazy!” “something racist about China!”) with extended, almost sketch-like character impressions in the signature Carvey style that always run fifteen seconds too long.

Imagine this same gesture of mascot arms and unbridled enthusiasm condemned to film with what appears to be no end of bad costuming options, and it’s easy to see why Carvey was eager to do 2002’s The Master of Disguise (TMoD).

The Master of Disguise press junket

The Master of Disguise press junket

On the press tour for the film, Carvey would only talk about the project under duress, burying conversations with reporters and late night hosts with new impressions he’d spent the past five odd years perfecting – that is, every character he’d ever done on SNL plus one or two more, the man is not a risktaker. As David Letterman began to ask about the reason Carvey was appearing, the actor frantically cut him off with a Dr. Phil impression that, no surprise, brought the house down.

Why was he being so avoidant? Because he needed the stagetime, and he knew the movie was bad.

“It’s a kid’s movie, basically,” he said eventually. “There’s so much anticipation, ‘what will the box office do?’ with a movie and there’s so much competition.” Before Letterman asks what the movie is about, Carvey launches into his next impression.

Carvey on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2002

Carvey on The Late Show with David Letterman in 2002

After a dry handful of years consisting of the TV guest spots and a cameo in Little Nicky that followed the failure of ABC’s The Dana Carvey Show in 1996, a family-friendly romp with  as many characters as he could half-think through was a perfect match. Besides, the blockbuster approach had already worked for his Wayne’s World costar Mike Myers, then juggling two successful franchises in Austin Powers and Shrek at the time of TMoD’s release. Carvey recruited writer and Happy Madison Productions standby Harris Goldberg to write (or, more likely, bullet point) the script and happily accepted sixteen million dollars in Sandler gold to make his last attempt at a mainstream hit at the ripe old age of 46.

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if their efforts had gone over well.

“Paid Off as Dana Carvey’s Brother”

Today, Carvey shares his fortune with his family to pay them off being Dana Carvey’s family, he joked with Pete Holmes on the “You Made It Weird” podcast last year. Ten years before TMoD was released in 2002, Carvey was in a far less compromising position.

1992 was the arguable apex of Carvey’s success both as a player on SNL as memorable characters like Church Lady, George H.W. Bush and Hans of “Hans and Franz” as well as the recipient of a fat Wayne’s World franchising check. There were few comedians more in demand than Carvey and costar Mike Myers around this time, and the former departed in 1993, Meyers following suit two years later. Post-SNL gigs were available in droves, but Carvey was deliberately choosy – he gave up a shot at Late Night to Conan O’Brien, shirked pilot offers and mostly elected to stay on the corporate standup circuit, where he packed rooms for shows like Critic’s Choice with a single crossed eye.

Years later, this is the era that Carvey has never left – you can find him telling the same anecdote about meeting Paul McCartney and getting bullied by Mickey Rooney on shows in 1995, 2002 and 2014, down to the punchline. The “Choppin’ Broccoli” musical parody, which Carvey auditioned for SNL with back in 1984, continues to be performed as of last year, and you’ll be damned if you can get through three minutes of interview footage without an applause break or manufactured host laughter when he hauls out the George H.W. Bush impression.

Unlike the garbage character Pistachio Disguisey he plays in TMoD, Carvey is the true master of disguise (oh no did I write that) – for all the hours upon hours of footage available of him vying for applause with a hunger that is at times unsettling, he is staunchly unwilling to discuss his inner condition, a strange trait for a man who chose Louis C.K. as this TV show’s head writer. If comedy is truth, Carvey’s comedy is just an impression of that (you did write that, oh dear).

In the three-hour interview with Holmes, the actor’s career after The Dana Carvey Show is barely discussed, and TMoD is never asked about nor mentioned. Even Holmes, a pretty notorious interviewer who seeks sentimental triggers in his “You Made It Weird” guests, was able to get very little out of Carvey.

“I’m a complete enigma wrapped inside a mystery. Who is it, what is it, and mostly why is it? And can’t it go away?" he gave up two hours in, dodging another question that was probably easy with his deft twelve-year-old’s body.

In spite of TMoD, the actor wasn’t too shy about admitting when other projects had gone badly – he cites 1982’s One of the Boys with Mickey Rooney as a misstep several times, and Trapped in Paradise with Nicolas Cage and Jon Lovitz as another misstep. Those are paltry goofs, he has us believe, and it’s easy to say so of projects he had little creative stake in.

Admitting deep personal failure, the feeling of failure that makes you want to pay off your family is for the birds as far as Carvey is concerned, reserved for stand up comics after 2000, “WTF with Marc Maron” guests and entertainers with therapists (he abstains). Dana’s here to please the people in broad vaudevillian gestures, even if it’s to the detriment of himself and his career.

Chronic Talent Show Syndrome

“I mean, the power. When you’re working with him, you feel this jet engine of talent coming off of him."
Mike Myers on Dana Carvey, WTF Podcast

There’s a level of creative compromise in favor of makin’ em laugh reserved for Dana Carvey, whose primary shtick thrives just as vividly on a middle school stage as it does begging for air as the Turtle Guy.

Carvey as George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live.

Carvey as George H.W. Bush on Saturday Night Live.

For Carvey, pleasing the people means doing impressions. People-pleasing is a psychological tendency often linked to borderline personality disorder, depression and narcissism, and it’s no secret that a number of comedians ‘suffer’ from a similar inherent need for attention. When it comes to the impressionist, your Carveys and Jim Carreys, this point is particularly significant as evidenced by studies like one done by Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands several years ago.

The study’s primary takeaway is how deeply the pattern of mimicry is embedded into people who seek approval. In the experiment, a group of women were observed eating together, carefully and silently calculating how much the others were eating and adjusting their own intake accordingly. With a hundred impressions on hand, Carvey demonstrates an exaggerated version of this same tendency, calculates what the people want and delivering with his arms spread open.

If TMoD and The Dana Carvey Show’s writing staff is evidence of anything, it’s that Carvey himself is not a great writer, but it’s hard to believe that he’s doing the same bits for thirty years out of creative or financial necessity. Why did he elect to dress up like Garth nearly twenty-five years after his debut? The people love that shit, and Carvey loves that they love that shit more than he loves the joke itself.

Carvey and wife Paula.

Carvey and wife Paula.

It’s plenty obvious that this tendency exists in his professional life, and the habit carries over to the actor's personal life, as well. The Master of Disguise was made “for his kids,” he gave up considerable amounts of time that could have been used taking advantage of post-SNL hype in favor of fostering his family, and he still gives large amounts of money away to his extended family, even after admitting to Pete Holmes that they’ve frequently abused it. He revealed it sometimes took him years to break up with women for fear of hurting their feelings. He met his wife in character at a comedy show, not as himself. Taking a risk has never been an option – if everyone’s happy, so is the therapy-free Carvey.

“I just feel that it’s a comedian’s job to destroy, to kill. And maybe that’s why sometimes I didn’t find it as, you know…I would happily go to the club, drive around in a circle and go home.”
Carvey on "You Made It Weird," 2014

Well, maybe.

Quiet, Donkey 

Mike Myers and Dana Carvey are bound by history by the Wayne’s World franchise the was first born in a teenage Myers’ mind, and separated by a massive rift in success.

Promotional image from Wanye's World, 1992.

Promotional image from Wanye's World, 1992.

There’s a scene at the beginning of The Master of Disguise that’s heartbreaking when the intended context is realized. In it, Pistachio Disguisey (Carvey’s either lazily or brilliantly named lead) attempts to cheer up charisma-less child actor Barney Baker with “a scene from the hit motion picture Shrek.” Carvey delivers a few lines from the film, but the kid’s not impressed. 

While it’s possible Carvey was giving his estranged pal a shoutout, their personal history suggests more of a challenge. “Move over, Myers, and watch how a real kid’s movie is made.” Cue the blackface!

News from the Ocala Star-Banner, July 1993.

News from the Ocala Star-Banner, July 1993.

Though the two would deny rumors through the years, legend holds true that Carvey felt that Myers’ Dr. Evil character from the Austin Powers franchise was lifted from a popular Lorne Michaels impression Carvey had done over the years. This “feud,” along with a far better documented tension between Myers and Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris was publicly ended in 2013 at a panel twenty-one years after the film’s initial release. By this time, Myers had three Austins, four Shreks under his belt and Carvey had – well, a brief cameo in Sandler flop Jack and Jill and the Voldemort of children’s comedy, The Master of Disguise. And his dignity. Also, Rob Lowe was there.

Mike Myers was brought aboard the SNL cast on Carvey’s third season, well after the latter had proven himself a versatile player. Myers was not quite the impressions machine that his castmate was, but did bring a number of distinct, well-written characters that were more than doodles of people who already covered the tabloids. He approached his work from a more artistic, less encore-driven standpoint than Carvey, making him objectively the bigger asshole.

Part of this can be attributed to Myers’ deep connection to his catalog of work – he wrote and created the characters in Wayne’s World and Austin Powers and takes pride in them, as he humblebrags to a fault in his episode of WTF with Marc Maron. Myers has deeply held creative convictions, even if these convinction are stupid and expensive and sometimes involve re-recording an entire voice reel of Shrek because he decided the voice should be Scottish. While neither Wayne nor Austin could exist without the looming influence of grunge culture or James Bond, respectively, Myers has pointed out that both of these worlds are constructed in unique universes that aren’t specific to one era, allowing him to create his own rules.

 “I fight for the freshness, comedy where there had not been comedy before," he explained, presumably with his hand down his pants.

Still from The Master of Disguise.

Still from The Master of Disguise.

It’s here that Carvey falls short. While Garth could act Wayne out of a local cable gig in an instant, he’s never been capable of producing characters that exist independently of the world around them. While characters like Church Lady can be hauled out every once in a while, the majority of Carvey’s impressions come with an expiration date and a voice that is being mimicked, not invented. Carvey repeatedly refers to TMoD as “just a kid’s movie,” while Myers prattles on about how “Shrek is rooted in blue collar culture” to a nodding Maron for three minutes straight.

It’s insufferable to listen to, but not difficult to understand why Myers’ specificity in vision succeeded, placing him in the lucky position as a creative at a time where his work was appealing to an impossibly large audience. Carvey’s lack of vision collapses in on itself inside of sixty-eight minutes and between forty and four hundred impressions, though as a character actor he’s at the top of his game.

Myers and Carvey in 2013.

Myers and Carvey in 2013.

In the “reconciliation,” Myers is determined to remain the alpha of Wayne’s World twenty years down the line – it is, after all, a world of his creation. Still, there’s something pleasant about seeing the actors formerly known as Wayne and Garth giggle together in 2013. Though Myers has millions and his artistic integrity, he and Carvey not so different anymore. Myers suffered a huge blow in 2008’s racist epic The Love Guru, which suffered a $22 million dollar deficit at the box office and, incidentally, raked in the same $40 million that TMoD had in 2002.

Carvey had slunk away to mediocre standup and being a dad, Myers to documentary filmmaking and a Canadian stamp. Carvey was suffering the unfortunate effects of a boyish man aging, and Myers was bloated with fatherhood. Just like twenty-five years ago, they were only there because Lorne Michaels had asked them to show.

The Master

“I feel a bizarre sense of contentment that I didn’t fuck up.”
Dana Carvey, "You Made It Weird"

Let’s revisit the disastrous press tour for The Master of Disguise in which Carvey will do everything short of shooting the reporter to avoid talking about the movie, which – as the incredible film commentary indicates – he has not yet seen the full cut of.

Still from The Master of Disguise.

Still from The Master of Disguise.

"If you're not bored for eighty minutes, you know, then what have you lost?" he says in his Paul McCartney voice, but it's not McCartney who's saying it. On the press tour, he barely talks about the fiasco - instead, he uses the publicity to launch some new impressions that are not asked for and answering the questions he'd like to.

The Master of Disguise is technically successful, bringing in $40 million internationally, but is panned by critics. All we’re seeing is Carvey do the same limiting rainbow of autism jokes, race jokes, political jokes and accents.

In spite of their awfulness, neither impressions nor Jennifer Esposito’s crippling Celiac’s disease are the most prominent failing of The Master of Disguise – that’s a title reserved for Dana Carvey himself. He’s a skilled impressionist and an all right actor, but Carvey’s brand of comedy exists in a void of topical half-thoughts, beneath them a person who’s not comfortable talking about or seemingly being himself at all. The only unique voices in his oeuvre are written for him – by Myers in Wayne’s World, or by the A-team of comedy writers who worked on The Dana Carvey Show the likes of Louis C.K., Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell and Charlie Kaufman.

Carvey with Conan O'Brien in 1996.

Carvey with Conan O'Brien in 1996.

What did Carvey have to say about the cancelled show? “It was a little weird for prime time,” he told Conan in 1996.

While it’s not clear why Carvey has never been willing to share himself without a mask, it’s incredible how vague the details of his life are with the amount of material available on him. He was raised in the Bay area by teachers, he had a dorky brother who invented the Video Toaster, he has two sons who, in a Freudian twist of fate, are currently opening for him at corporate standup gigs. If there were sadder family businesses, I have not heard of them because the funeral industry is at least very lucrative.

Though he’s a man of many voices, Dana Carvey’s humor is completely mute of point of view, and what better way to disguise that empty shell than with a goofy Italian accent?

Tomorrow: The Disguisey Jukebox

Jamie Loftus1 Comment