For comedians who have impressed the masses on television and in movies, it’s easy for them to slip quietly away from their roots in stand-up comedy. For many, it turns out that the sweating and the toiling on smoky stages was just a means to an end.
And for Dana Carvey the end was six amazingly successful years on Saturday Night Live — creating pop culture icons out of his characters The Church Lady, Hans and The Grumpy Old Man — not to mention two Wayne’s World movies, which were based on Carvey’s most popular SNL character, Garth Algar, and Mike Myers’ Wayne Campbell.
But with Carvey’s motion-picture career at a stall since his ill-received The Master of Disguise in 1992, combined with a newfound respect for stand-up comedy as an end — and not just as a vehicle to movie stardom — it makes sense that Carvey has returned to the art form he first embraced in the late 1970s.
But to call Carvey’s new HBO hour-long special Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies (premiering June 14 at 10 pm EST) a triumphant return to form would be an overstatement. Rather, the 53-year-old comic’s second HBO effort — remember his masterful 1995 Critic’s Choice special? — lands somewhere between competent and triumphant.
While entertaining throughout — there really are no lulls — – Squatting Monkeys suffers from lack of innovation. At times, it’s as if Carvey simply polished up old bits and impressions (always his strongest asset) and tried running them through a 2008-filtered lens.
He clumsily crowbars his way into impressions of Bill Clinton (still?), Ronald Reagan (the poor man died four years ago), George Bush Sr. and even Ross Perot and Neil Young — two guys he mocked to hilarious effect in his first HBO special. That’s not to say Carvey doesn’t attack — via impression — the relative newcomers to our socio-political landscape: John Kerry, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama and, of course, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
But even at that, Carvey adds nary a new twist (read: things we haven’t heard from what seems like every comic from the previous decade) to the characters. Kerry has a long face; Hillary Clinton wears pantsuits; McCain is really old, Al Gore sounds like a “gay Forrest Gump” (OK, that’s a new one); Bush is dumb and Cheney is “half penguin, half man” and, incidentally, is a very bad shot with a pheasant rifle.
Impressions or not, Carvey is at his best when he talks about family life and when he waxes absurd.
He imagines that with all of his insane comparisons and theories, 60 Minutes‘ Andy Rooney — he’s 89 and still commands comedians’ attention! — is a stoned philosopher type.
In Rooney’s voice, Carvey begins: “Why does the expression ‘Does a bear shit in the woods, substitute for the word, ‘yes?’ You say to your friend, ‘Did you go to the store? And instead of saying yes, they’ll say, ‘Does a bear shit in the woods? Bears don’t always shit in woods. Polar bears might shit on ice or in water. An overworked circus bear might shit his pants while riding a unicycle.” This is very absurd and very funny stuff.
And then there’s Carvey’s equally hilarious handling of the domestic, especially a bit about why divorce is bad but worse when children are involved, mostly because you have to explain the situation on a 5-year-old’s level: “Well, sometimes Mommies and Daddies don’t get along,” he starts. “Sometimes Mommies like to go nigh-nigh time with a different Daddy. Mommy went nigh-nigh time with our gardener, Antonio. Mommy had too much happy juice. That turned Mommy into a whore. A whore is a Mommy with so many nigh-nigh partners, that she doesn’t know who to have a sleepover with.”
Throughout Squatting Monkeys, Carvey doesn’t snag many points for creativity. But that he’s still amazingly likable and not at all divisive means he will continue to entertain the masses onstage — if he so chooses — for years to come.