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The Church Lady Sings

Once America’s hottest comic, Dana Carvey talks about his trip to obscurity and back

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A minute ago, on the drive over to The Late Show With David Letterman, Dana Carvey was a one-man comedy howitzer — firing off shtick so fast you’d swear you could smell gunpowder. But now, as his limo pulls to a stop in front of the Ed Sullivan Theater, he looks through the tinted windows and clams up. Outside are dozens of fans. A mix of out-of-town tourists and the kind of homegrown Rupert Pupkin types only New York can produce. And Carvey knows that they expect him to be on. The panic makes him squirm in his seat for a beat. A tense beat.

Carvey has a right to be nervous. After all, he’s been away for the past six years — an eternity by pop culture’s accelerated clock. Back then, Dana Carvey was the funniest man in America. The man who saved Saturday Night Live. The heir apparent to the late-night throne. Then he all but vanished. It was a riddle — one that Carvey wasn’t around to answer. News leaked out about how he was battling health problems, or how he’d given up fame altogether to spend time with his family. But all the time he was gone, Carvey knew he’d return. He just wasn’t prepared for that crowd outside of his limo.

He inhales, opens the door, and dashes past the screaming gauntlet, promising that he’ll return after the show. ”Doing this show is kind of like catching a bullet in your teeth,” Carvey says, once he’s safely inside the show’s green room. ”You’re pretending to have a conversation while trying to score with the audience. It’s like doing stand-up comedy while giving directions: ‘Okay, take a left…anyway, two nuns walk into a bar…and then you take a right.’ And if you’re struggling a little bit, nothing would make Dave happier.”

Waiting to go on, Carvey ricochets through the material he’ll uncork for Letterman tonight, then jokes, ”Trust me, you’ll see some of Leno’s Greatest Hits.” He’s only half-kidding. In the past 10 days Carvey’s glad-handed his way through The Tonight Show and a host of other pit stops on the shill circuit to promote his new family comedy, The Master of Disguise. Who can blame him if some gags are recycled? The moment he steps on stage, Carvey launches into a tornado of impressions resembling nothing so much as Zelig on crank. When it’s over, Letterman is laughing so hard he has to wipe away a tear. As for the audience, they’ve completely surrendered to pandemonium, welcoming Carvey like a returning hero they’d somehow forgotten they even missed.

Like all stories worth telling, Dana Carvey’s begins with a scared kid burying a pair of soiled underpants in the backyard. Back at the bar of his hotel, ordering the first of several beers, Carvey says he was 4 at the time. And it’s easy to imagine that kid, looking at Carvey. He’s 47, but he appears so young and acts so boyishly twerpy that you half-expect him to be sporting a propeller beanie on his head. Carvey explains that he was too afraid of his strict schoolteacher father to ask him to pull over on a family road trip. ”So I s — – my pants in the back trying to hold it. When we got to my uncle’s house I went to the bathroom and it was just brutal. So I climbed out the window and buried my underwear in the backyard. True story.”