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The Church Lady is dead, George Bush is out, Hans is unpumped, but for Dana Carvey, there is life after “Saturday Night Live”

Dana Carvey

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- Episode 7 -- Air Date 11/20/1993 -- Pictured: (l-r) Mike Myers as Wayne Campbell, Dana Carvey as Garth Algar during the 'Wayne's World' skit on November 20th, 1993.

Raymond Bonar/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

Who is Dana Carvey? For years, the question has baffled the experts. It is a kind of existential riddle. Those who spend time with Carvey have separate stories. He is malleable, transmutable, almost liquid. He is the man who is many. Because he is many, few know him. He can be everyone, which is like being no one. Since much of his life is lived in disguises, even he loses track of himself. “Who am I?” he will ask his wife during vulnerable moments. “What am I like?” Her observations always surprise him. “I’m intense?” he will say, incredulous. “I thought I was laid-back.” He’s never known for certain.

He became a beloved American institution — indeed, our National Comedian, many thought — and did so without ever having to be himself. To be sure, selflessness is a rare trait in show business. But never before has a performer given so much of himself that he is actually no longer there. Yet this has been the strange predicament of Dana Carvey. And the time has come for the confusion to end.

Well, big changes are afoot! Evidence suggests that there’s never been a more exciting time to be Dana Carvey. “You’re finding me at this incredible crossroads!” he says, overwhelmed by the new possibilities spread before him. He has already quietly cut himself loose from his regular job on Saturday Night Live, where for seven years he inhabited the characters that made him rich, famous and, alas, anonymous. “This is the end of an era for me,” he declares, his tone turning understandably wistful. “I know that my time on Saturday Night Live is over. Although I’m not closing the door entirely — I may go back and do occasional sketches. But clearly I don’t see myself ever being a full-time cast member again. I had my run, and it’s time to move on….”

It’s true: He is gone and has been for weeks now. I know, because I saw him go. Tired of living as a human blur, he was determined to try to find himself and was not averse to letting me watch. And watch I did, as the real Dana Carvey miraculously surfaced again and again, often displaying qualities sure to be remembered as pure Carvey — traits like love of beer, fear of psycho women and unobtrusiveness. What follows, then, are telling glimpses of Carvey during the final days of his glorious reign at Saturday Night Live (which he left without saying goodbye), intersecting with the dawn of the rest of his life, which holds in store greater self-knowledge, a possible talk show and imminent film stardom. (Even now, he is off shooting the forthcoming detective yarn Clean Slate, whose title could not be more apt.) In the end, you will see, other men may be easier to understand, but few men will ever look as good in a wig.

First, understand that he hid for profit. There was money to be made in hiding. Not that he cares a whit about money. “I’m willing to turn down a shit-load of money,” he likes to boast, and true to his word, he did so many times during our association, fending off big, yet unsuitable, movie offers left and right. Nevertheless, his success at hiding behind characters has inspired a new generation of comedians, who long to emulate him. “The Lady says putting on a skirt equals ranch property,” vouches SNL cast mate Chris Farley, who, like other young disciples, refers to Carvey as the Lady — an homage, of course, to the Carvey character Carvey-lovers love best. “The Lady’s words are golden,” Farley will tell you, his eyes glazed in devotion. (Carvey sheepishly explains: “It started when I went on Letterman and talked about these new kids who come on our show. The first day they go, ‘Hi, I’m Chris Farley!’ And I go, ‘Yeah, and I’m the freakin’Church Lady — now get me a cup of coffee!'”)

By now we take for granted his eerie ability to dart in and out of comic personae. He is a one-man stock company whose players he calls “my little wiry guys, my little fourteen-and-a-half-inch-neck people.” All Carvey characters live on call, just below his epidermis. They protect and dilute him, attract and distract us. If he feels he is growing dull (or too vulnerable), he summons one up to briefly spell him. (Blessedly, he never outstays a conceit, and he is never so manic as to become wearisome.) And whether he’s working a crowd or practically alone, the result is always quality entertainment! “I’ve been in situations where there’s just three of us,” attests Kevin Nealon, who plays the character of Franz to Carvey’s Hans (the bully musclemen of Bavaria), “and he just loves to go in and out of characters he’s done a thousand times before and get the laughs.”

But laughs are not everything to Carvey. Not by a long shot. In his thirty-eight years, he has also shed his share of tears. It is said that it takes a large man to cry, and though Carvey is not a large man, he cries very much like one. He is made misty by most any provocation. For example, he and his wife, Paula Zwaggerman, weep regularly at movies (especially Out of Africa and anything else involving unrequited love). He is also easily overcome by music (“The soundtrack for Chaplin just kills me,” he will say, devastated). “I can tear up at a commercial,” he has confessed to me. “I get chills walking around New York, thinking about things, having bittersweet memories. My mom would say that I’m sensitive to a fault. I might hide it, but I don’t want to let go of anything.”

Like Bush, for instance: “Funny,” he quavered the day we first met, “I wonder if this is the last time I’ll ever do George Bush….” Actually, he was about to do Bush, as only he could, for the next to last time. (He would still have to clean out his Oval Office desk on SNL before it was over.) On this particular afternoon, he was posing, in full Bush costume and makeup, for a TV Guide cover depicting the transfer of power between himself and Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton. Naturally, he could not help but feel nostalgic. For four years, Carvey had arguably been a better Bush than Bush himself — often more dependably likable and humane in caricature than the real thing. As such, he became a treasured presidential asset. “We’ve been through a lot together,” the president actually told him near the end, in one of their many genial phone chats. “I guess so,” replied Carvey, touched, adding, “Fate sort of threw us together somehow, didn’t it?” “Ye-ah.”

Always they understood their importance to each other, and it made better men of them both. So it was not surprising when the comedian and his missis finally overnighted at the White House, sleeping (“not very well”) in the Lincoln Bedroom, next to the Gettysburg Address (“not all that well written”), just down the hall from the First Couple. “He kissed my wife good night right in front of his bedroom,” Carvey would recall. “Said: ‘Nighty-night. Gonna hit the hay here.’ I go: ‘Hey, what are you talking about, man? We come all the way out here, and you just leave?'” The next morning, Carvey stood before the White House staff, as a Christmas present from the president, who had privately urged him: “Do me! Make fun of me! Do me!” “Na ga da it,” Carvey said, ever obedient, cheering the beaten troops one last time.

Now he was Bush again, let loose in a Hollywood photo studio, owning another man’s defeat. “Li’l thing called the deficit — welcome to it!” he was saying, in perfect Bush whine, needling an invisible Clinton for the camera. (Hartman had already posed separately, leaving Carvey to shadowbox alone.) “Fuck you, fella,” he taunted on, gaily. “How’d ya like ta play my saxophone? It’s baa-ad, it’s baa-ad! Wouldn’t be presidential. Look — it’s Gennifer Flowers!” The afternoon proceeded in this vein until it was impossible to imagine that Carvey voted for Clinton, which he did, without apology. But then, isn’t that Carvey in a nutshell?

In public, carvey doesn’t show up well he is embarrassed to be recognized, and therefore wills himself invisible. Fortunately, his naked face is sort of indistinct, anyway — so much so that he is regularly stopped at NBC security checkpoints by guards who think that he is someone else. “It’s the curse of being nondescript,” he says, not exactly complaining. “Dana’s not really comfortable with his own celebrity,” Paula says of her husband, although he presses on in spite of it, In fact, when spotted, Carvey is unfailingly pleasant and, on demand, will do characters for strangers. (“He figures it’s quicker and easier than saying no,” notes Paula, who became well versed in such nuances as a press secretary for a Southern California assemblyman in the mid-Eighties.)

He attributes a recent increase of such activity to his participation in the hit film Wayne’s World, which last year earned more than $170 million worldwide. An outgrowth of the beloved TV sketches of the same name, Wayne’s World featured Carvey as blond, bespectacled Garth Algar, one of two guys in a basement with cable access and much heart. Together with costar Mike Myers (the excellent Wayne Campbell), Carvey saturated all media — as himself! — promoting the film until no further promotion mattered. His own interpretation of why the movie captured universal fancy: “In crass technical terms, five-to-ten-year-old boys thought we were cool and needed to see us five to seven times each. We have fun, and we’re losers — an equation that’s been around forever!”

True to form, whenever I was with Carvey, he obscured himself under baseball caps and largely went unnoticed. Indeed, he was accosted only once in my presence, by our waitress at a pizza place near his house in Encino, California. “I have to say I’m going to miss your Bush imitations,” she said, delivering the check. Naturally, he responded humbly, but then Carvey likes nothing more than to think of himself as a former busboy. “I was a damned good busboy,” he will say, recalling his noble tenure at the Holiday Inn, back in his hometown of San Carlos, California. It is this memory that always grounds his ego when fame disorients him. “Hey, I have no birthright for this,” he says. “I had no lessons! I was a busboy!”

For this very reason, he presumes no life of glamour and cringes still when remembering his lone visit to a Hollywood party — a star-studded Oscar-watching affair at Penny Marshall’s house. “I always figure the bigger celebrities should introduce themselves because you could get chilled,” he says. “But gradually, it became clear that I had no clue, because I ended up just sitting by myself, thinking, ‘Gee, I probably look pathetic.'” Since then he tells people that he is agoraphobic and stays safely at home with his wife and toddler son, Dex. “We live as complete hermits,” confirms Paula, not unhappily. “We never go anywhere.”

We went to New York, Carvey and I, because New York is where Carvey had become Carvey, in the meaningful show-business sense. A fearful flier, Carvey is certain he will die on every flight that he boards. But always he has survived, and once aground in New York, he has managed to thrive. It was in New York, after languishing in many unfunny and unseen sitcoms, that he was finally permitted to be funny, on Saturdays, as characters, for which the rest is history.

Now he had returned to storm one last Saturday before his career entered its next phase. Back in the offices of Saturday Night Live, his much-adored status was instantly apparent. Greeting him at the elevator was the great Phil Hartman, with whom Carvey had performed his first live sketch, a gameshow parody, seven years earlier. (“We were scared together,” says Carvey.) Hartman, of course, would go on to play Stockdale to Carvey’s Perot and McMahon to Carvey’s Carson, as well as many characters with no relationship to Carvey whatsoever. Immediately the two began to riff, as only trained professionals can.

Hartman [on Carvey]: This man is a comedy volcano! Run for your life or get covered with molten humor!

Carvey [on Hartman]: This guy’s got more characters than a Smith-Corona freaking typewriter!

Hartman: This is the Machine Gun Kelly of comedy! Get under a table or you’ll be riddled with jokes!

Like so, they repaired to Carvey’s small office —” a fanmail cauldron,” in Hartman’s words — known for its utter dearth of personal touches. Amid the overstuffed boxes of unread mail, the co-workers reminisced about shows and parties after shows, including one in which they ended up at a dance club with David Bowie. “He was showing us moves and stuff,” Carvey recalled. “Woke up in our own vomit and had breakfast – you can leave that part out. This was in my first year, when I used to go wild at the parties – stay up all night, just get blasted.” Here they were, momentarily lost in fine reverie, a reverie broken only by Carvey’s gentle assertion that he was now leaving the show for movies. “Phil’s been praying for this,” he said, wryly. “He wanted me to leave the show years ago.” Hartman could only concur, noting soberly, “He’s the only obstacle between me and stardom.” After which, nothing else really needed to be said, although they kept talking for quite a while.

He has never killed a man — not yet anyway. (And don’t think that he hasn’t been tempted.) Still, there are many dark secrets in the life of Dana Carvey. Like the time he accidentally befouled his underpants, then buried them in his cousin’s back yard. (Yes, he was six, but a life of hiding had plainly begun!) Or the fact that he was named Brett at birth, until his mother changed her mind days later. (Identity confusion from the start!) Or that he shoplifted as an adolescent and once smuggled a recording device into the Circle Star Theater, in San Carlos, to illegally tape the impressions of his idol, Rich Little. (More stealth – plus Rich Little!) From his suburban-San Francisco boyhood onward, his gift for fine mischief helped to conceal an astonishing temper, which he has shown to practically no one.

I never saw it, but he told me all about it. That was the night we sat in a café beneath Rockefeller Center where he’d been demonstrating his vast knowledge of exotic beer: “This is called Scottish Ale, but it’s really from Yakima, Washington — although it tastes a little like Sierra Nevada and also reminds me of Smitty’s, from Dublin.” Rarely does he quaff more than two beers at a time, he said, “because I’m aware that it could get out of hand.” By this, he may as well have been talking about his seething core of rage. “I have a horrible temper,” he confided, “but it’s buried deep. So when it comes out, I’m just obnoxious.”

Luckily, it comes out almost never, due partly to Carvey’s mortal fear of confrontation. “I compartmentalize my pain,” he explained. “I can’t indulge myself in it, because I just wasn’t raised that way. I was one of five kids, and all the attention couldn’t just be focused on me.” Moreover, his father, a high-school business teacher, ruled roost with strict hand and hot head. “To rebel against him would have been terrible,” Carvey allowed nervously. So, for release, he learned to play the drums proficiently (a skill with which he has impressed his heroes-turned-chums Todd Rundgren and Neil Young). Otherwise, he elects to turn all anger inward, so that no one gets hurt but himself. “I just pick up a new stick every day,” he said, sounding battered, but also good-natured and funny.

More than once, I found myself alone with Carvey and Mike Myers, who reportedly hate each other. As with Laurel and Hardy, they are partners who aren’t really partners, except when they are in character, at which times they are gold. They are soloists bound by necessity. This breeds awkwardness certainly — especially when one considers that Myers brought Wayne to SNL from Canadian TV, where no Garth existed. (What could be more American than the Loyal-but-Foolish Sidekick?) Carvey then created Garth in the image of his brother Brad, a shy computer genius. Paired together, the characters were indelible. Even so, when writing the Wayne’s World movie, Myers initially made Garth’s role little more than an extended cameo. (Ultimately, Paramount demanded, and got, a buddy film.)

“I thought it was a little strange,” Carvey told me, cautiously, of Garth’s brief diminution. “I don’t think there was any malice in it; I just don’t know if Mike had a comedy team in mind. It’s Wayne’s world, and he’s the guy. But the success of it was just this enormous thing that’s happened to us, and we’re still adjusting to it. Let’s just hope the sequel gets made. I have high hopes.” (“Dana’s too nice a guy,” notes Brad Carvey, the real Garth. “But his attitude is a good one: We’re a comedy team, like it or not — so let’s go do it. He has no ego about that.”) Indeed, Myers has been writing a sequel, due to be shot this summer, about which Carvey has predicted, jokingly, that Garth will move away in the first half-hour.

But don’t get them wrong — Carvey and Myers are close! Despite gossip to the contrary, they are warm and easy together and display an unbridled willingness to share. For instance, one night Carvey approached Myers at the office and said, “Hey, let me ask you a question: Is this your T-shirt?” He then lifted his own sweat shirt to reveal a T-shirt underneath bearing the likeness of New York Rangers center Mark Messier. Myers beamed: “That is my T-shirt! Did I leave it at your house?” Actually, Carvey had appropriated it at the gym they both frequent, but what’s important here is that they are comfortable wearing each other’s clothes! “Yes,” conceded Myers, “we swap clothes.” Another time, Myers burst into Carvey’s cubicle waving a remarkable piece of fan mail from Bangkok. It read, in part: “Yo, Wayne and Garth! I have a 9 year old sister who is a fat unschwinger that farts all day…. I tricked her into believing there is a sphincter test in school. Ha ha ha. She really believes it.” “What kills me is that the letter’s from Thailand, yet there’s no Eastern wisdom here,” Myers moaned, whereupon both men seemed strangely overtaken by vague disappointment. Such is the degree of their solidarity.

“Dana’s taught me so much,” Myers would later confess to me, discounting all tabloid innuendo. “It’s been an honor to work with him. My feeling is, if you have Dana Carvey as your partner and you don’t utilize his comedy expertise, then you’re a fool. I mean, he brought a ton of things to the movie that made it way better. I don’t see him as just along for the ride — perhaps originally I might have — but there’s so much of Dana’s observations and vulnerability that makes Garth his own. I didn’t teach him how to make Garth lovable — that’s Dana. I didn’t teach him to be a great comedian, either. Know what I mean?” (For the record, when the credits rolled over Carvey’s final show that week, he and Myers were last seen on camera locked in a hug, telegraphing peace across the land.)

Carvey’s place in comedy is not insubstantial, and he knows it. In this realm, he is not a man with whom to trifle. Among peers, his step takes on a swagger, a glint comes to his eye, and suddenly he is as tangible as granite. He does not fade back in professional company; rather, he presides. Example: One day, at his midtown gym, I saw him drill Chris Farley thusly.

Carvey: On Saturday Night Live, there’s a comedy buffet — sketches and accouterments, right? What happens there?

Farley [dutifully]: The Lady goes up first. Lady gets whatever she wants from the buffet. Then, when the Lady’s done, the rest of us can go have a few crumbs.

Carvey: Exactly!

Do not mistake this for comic gluttony; only the brave or the foolhardy go first. Carvey knows well what he is doing, as he’s proved before and would again soon. “How funny do you want it?” he asked SNL head writer Jim Downey, in earnest, sort of, before dress rehearsal that week. “Want people falling down? Want some tears? Hankies? What do you need? Lotta laughs? A little laughs? Want me to set the laugh flow to the max? What?”

Beneath the bravado, as always, there festers pain. The lean years are what stay with him, years of cruel rejection, goading him along. “I’ve been dismissed as much as an army private,” he likes to say. “So many people had told me, ‘You’re not funny — get out!’ They just completely missed the point, because I didn’t look like a comedian. Having an innocent face was my version of the dumbblonde stigma. So for eight years, Hollywood made me the clean-cut straight man, in a humiliating fashion.”

Lowlights included blandish roles in a Mickey Rooney sitcom (“You’re the straight man,” Rooney informed him on Day One) and in the cop series Blue Thunder; also, he was parole officer to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the film Tough Guys. All along, however, he spent nights honing his stand-up work — deluxe Fun With Characters, seamlessly rendered — which lured SNL godfather Lorne Michaels (with, inexplicably, Cher in his entourage), in July of 1986, to Igby’s, a West LA. comedy club. There the Carvey luck changed forever.

Weeks later, on his first live Saturday broadcast, he debuted the pious and superior stylings of Enid Strict, Church Lady, whose instant popularity helped save the program from certain cancellation. “Isn’t that special?” he, as she, had said, begetting his earliest catch phrase. (He wept in triumph after that first show.) For further vindication, four Emmy nominations followed. Thereafter, he would learn to bristle (non-confrontationally) at those who dared underestimate him.

“He’s pretty sure of how he wants to do things,” says Paula, who has witnessed every bleak moment in fourteen years. The bleakest, by all accounts, transpired during the making of the 1990 movie Opportunity Knocks, a tepid comedy that starred Carvey as a fey con man. “He gets upset only when he’s doing something he’ll be embarrassed by,” she continues. “At that point, he’d been doing such great stuff on SNL, and suddenly this movie was everything he was afraid of it being. He was just devastated by it.” Nowadays, he will brook the meddling of no film executive. “Being patronized by idiots makes me the maddest,” he says evenly. “You know, I have a certain measure of confidence about that stuff.”

He ended it all as a tampon. So concluded the Carvey Years. For his final night as an SNL regular, he would play Prince Charles relinquishing his crown to become a tampon. Also, he would play a cranky old guy (not to be confused with Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man) at a town meeting about magic fish. This meant that he would not be Regis Philbin; John McLaughlin; live-chicken merchant Ching (“Chicken make lousy house peehhht”) Change; has-been rocker Derrick (“Choppin’ Broccoli”) Stevens; Jimmy Stewart; Ted Koppel (no impression hurt Carvey’s face more); pump master Hans; Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual; Johnny (“I did not know that”) Carson; Ross (“See, that’s just sad”) Perot; George Herbert Walker Bush; or the Lady (officially shot dead in a February 1991 spoof of the movie Misery), among others. “I don’t think I’ve beaten any of them to death,” he’s said of his characters, whose performance life spans he measures carefully. “You’ve got to pull’em while the audience is still upset about it – pull ’em while they’re pissed. Once they’re happy one’s gone, it’s way too late. Besides, there’s always something new to try.”

In that last week, Prince Charles did not come easily to Carvey. “He’s a little like William F. Buckley and Noel Coward put together,” he explained, a connoisseur of inflection. “But I’m less interested in accuracy than in abstracting a voice to the point of silliness.” (The essential Carvey theory of impersonation!) As is his habit, he studied videotapes of his quarry, parroting along as he watched. “I’ll just live inside your trousers,” he said, as Charles, repeating actual dialogue from the now-infamous pillow-talk phone call between the prince and his alleged mistress, Camilla Parker-Bowles. (Inside Edition served as source material here.) “My luck, I’d come back as a tampon,” he went on, mimicking the afterlife reference that had inspired the sketch. “Oh, my God, he should just shrivel up and die!” Carvey interjected here, overcome with embarrassment for Charles. “You can tell it’s him!”

A man of empathy, Carvey never harbors ill will toward his targets, which may be part of his genius. As SNL writer Robert Smigel told me: “He has this ability to sting, yet you don’t feel he’s a bad guy. There’s always an innocence and an impishness to the impressions. You can feel that the guy behind them is having a good time. That’s Dana’s star quality — that he’s enjoying himself.”

Even as a tampon, he projected glee. With prosthetic ears and nose, he became Prince Charles, and with his torso encased in large white tubing, he became a royal tampon. “I’m playing a tampon,” he said, with some disbelief, during rehearsal. And indeed, there he stood in Studio 8-H — a grinning feminine-hygiene product, planted amid a swirl of activity, in full view of bemused onlookers like musical guest Mick Jagger. “Surreal stuff here,” Carvey said, knowing that such fine moments would soon be behind him. “Mick Jagger’s standing over there, and I’m a tampon.”

Jerry Hall, Jagger’s ex-supermodel bride, strode over to offer advice: “Shouldn’t there be a string coming out of your head?” she said, playfully. “Get your self a hat with string, honey.” Carvey accepted this graciously, but what else could a fellow in his position do?

Afterward, he would not cry. There would be much denial, and he would think instead about his future in films, without disguises. “Can I be small and real in a film, and not use all my tricks, like a wig or a voice?” he wondered. “Can I carry a film in this fashion?” (“His characters are not nearly as funny as he is,” swears his wife, who possesses infinite faith.) And so he will try to prove himself, first as an amnesiac detective in Clean Slate, then as Garth again, after which he has plans to team up with his friend Jon Lovitz for a caper film or western.

Also on the boards is a full-length feature musical, Hans and Franz: The Girly-Man Dilemma, possibly costarring and produced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, distant cousin of the pumped pair. “If I’m successful in these movies, then maybe I’ll do some more,” he said, noncommittally. “Or maybe I’ll do a talk show, which is the only forum in show business where you’re allowed to improvise. That’s exhilarating for me.” Already, he staved off NBC’s wish to have him take over Letterman’s slot this summer, bypassing negotiations in favor of waiting until all dust settles in the late-night arena. “If he did a talk show,” noted Robert Smigel, “he’d probably be closer in personality to Carson than almost anyone out there.” Thus, only limitless opportunity is at hand.

But first, a chapter would have to end, which it did, quietly. The last Carvey show was a show like any other, perhaps less so. As Prince Charles, he scored nicely. But the night was not electric, and the cast party at the Century Café followed suit. There, Carvey softly held forth, sipping beer at a back table with his guitarist brother Scott, Lovitz (who happened to be in town) and Todd Rundgren, who was fretting about a forthcoming experimental album. “Don’t worry, true fans can grow with the artist,” Carvey reassured him, hopefully. But it was clear that he was thinking of his own career as he spoke.

For the rest of the evening, he remained subdued, even when set upon by a handsome, lustful young woman. “I have something I need to tell you,” she said, danger flaring in her eyes. “I wish you weren’t married.” She said it as though it were a question. Carvey smiled, as he will when he is frightened. “Is that you talking, or is that the Tom Collins in your hand?” he said, nervously, and thanked her for sharing. She moved off toward the Mike Myers table. By then, however, Carvey was out the door. He was expected to return for the following Saturday. But, in fact, he was gone. 

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