Roseanne and Dana Carvey's new shows — 'Saturday Night Special' and 'The Dana Carvey Show' vie to replace the aging 'Saturday Night Live'

By Bruce Fretts
April 26, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Let’s face it: Saturday Night Live has sunk into a middle-aged paunch. With Chris Farley and Adam Sandler having taken their juvenile antics to the big screen, this season’s new cast members are thoroughly professional — and totally anonymous. It’s no wonder Steve Forbes fit in so well as SNL‘s April 13 host — who could tell him apart from faceless Wonder bread men like Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, and Will Ferrell? The satire has grown equally gray, picking on such overripe targets as Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds.

Meanwhile, two new series, The Dana Carvey Show and Saturday Night Special, are striving to pick up SNL’s mantle of cutting-edge sketch comedy. Both programs came accompanied by big promises: SNL vet Carvey swore his show would be the weirdest half hour ever seen on prime time; SNS executive producer Roseanne (who also hosted the first episode) said of her show, ”I guarantee it’s never been done on television.”

So far, neither show has lived up to its hype. The hit-and-miss Carvey maintained a pretty impressive batting average for its first two weeks, thanks in part to a hopped-up pace that didn’t allow the stinkier bits to linger too long. But under pressure from sponsors (to tone down the gross humor) and ABC (to keep up the ratings between Home Improvement and NYPD Blue), Carvey has fallen back into old SNL habits. Which means protracted one-joke talk-show-host parodies (Larry King, Regis and Kathie Lee, Geraldo, Jay Leno … ).

You’d be hard-pressed to find even one joke in some of SNS’ initial skits. An amateurish frontier musical number proved only that the show’s ensemble cast sings almost as poorly as Roseanne does, while an impenetrable monologue by a demented hick (Heath Hyche) played like Jim Carrey auditioning for Deliverance. And Roseanne’s claims of originality notwithstanding, there was nothing revolutionary about skits built around a tough drill instructor or a guy in a bug suit (in fact, SNL did similar bits the very same night).

Both shows try to gussy up their conventional material by inserting short films between skits, with mixed results. Carvey’s cartoon ”The Ambiguously Gay Duo” slyly tweaked the homoerotic subtext underlying the relationship between Batman and Robin, and SNS’ marionette mini-flick ”Manetti” (imported from MTV) was a dead-on send-up of ’70s cop-show clichés. But Carvey hasn’t revisited animation since ”Duo,” and SNS‘ other shorts were self-consciously non sequiturish (e.g., ”Spooners,” a cartoon that thinks it’s avant-garde because it ends with the word Fin).

Unfortunately, the qualities that should set Carvey and SNS apart have turned out to be their weak spots. Political impersonations are Carvey’s forte, but his show had the bad luck to premiere just as the Republican primaries were winding down. And while Roseanne rightly wants to break up the late-night-comedy boys’ club, recent SNS sketches featuring thong-clad lady mud wrestlers and a hysterical woman (Jennifer Coolidge) leaving psychotic messages on a date’s answering machine were about as feminist as Playboy‘s party-jokes page.

Yet there’s something squeamishly fascinating about both shows. Each verges on self-destruction at any moment, stirring up memories of Richard Pryor’s censor-plagued 1977 NBC variety show. Carvey savagely needles his own sponsors (whose names, until recently, were incorporated into the show’s title each week), at one point even implying that Mountain Dew looks like urine. And Roseanne gleefully bites the hand that feeds her, casting ex-Monty Pythonite Eric Idle as power-hungry Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch. You watch each episode of Carvey and SNS wondering if it’ll be the last. Saturday Night Live, alas, may never die. The Dana Carvey Show: B- Saturday Night Special: C-