Dana Carvey is quick, even when he’s late. His people had to chase him down for a recent phone interview in advance of his Thursday headlining Paramount Theatre gig at the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.
“Sorry,” he said, apologizing for the tardiness, “they didn’t tell me. And I don’t even know who ‘they’ are. But if I find out who they are, they will be punished.”
I told him we were good.
“We booked this, as you know, in March of ’11,” he went on. “It’s kind of like when you go to the dentist and they say ‘Are you good for Jan. 9, 2014?’ … ‘Uh, yes, that’s good. I’m glad you, uh — ’cuz the 8th is a mother.’”
The legendary comic — yeah, I’m going to go ahead and call him that, his “chopping broccoli” routine alone puts him in that category, not to mention “Saturday Night Live” impressions such as Ross Perot and characters including Massive Head Wound Harry — seems to be holding up well in spite of constant harassment from his handlers, his cellphone and its various social networks.
“They’re just browbeating the (expletive) out of me,” he says. “God, I’ll tweet when I can. Let it go. There’s six people tweeting as Church Lady and some of them are merchandising.”
Carvey, who calls himself “a quiet celebrity with a small c,” spent the previous night at a small, nearby theater working out material so he’d be in shape for his Austin gig. I asked him if he, like me, hated having an androgynous first name. Around third or fourth grade, he says, he wanted to be called Tom. When he got into show business, people thought Dana was a stage name.
Carvey took his first steps toward that career as a 20-year-old, living with friends on a frontage road in a bad neighborhood near the San Francisco airport. “You know,” he says, “smoking a lot of weed, playing Risk. I was a busboy and I was taking one class at San Francisco State. I was going nowhere fast.”
He saw an unknown Robin Williams perform in Berkeley and then signed up to do five minutes at an open mic. “I did mostly bad Rich Little impersonations (of celebrities) having sex,” the comic recalls. “Jimmy Stewart as a waiter was another big one (he falls into Stewart’s iconic voice) ‘Well whaddya’ … whaddya’ want? You don’t know what you want? (Stewart’s voice rises angrily) Well (expletive) you!’ That was the single biggest laugh in my act for at least a decade.”
By 1979, when he could count on making $700 a month, Carvey official began calling himself a comedian, which he found more impressive than his job as a Holiday Inn dishwasher piloting the “Hobart 3000.” When the comedy scene exploded in the ’80s, Carvey, without a backup plan, rode the wave.
He auditioned for “SNL” twice, once in a midnight show where he bombed terribly following Sam Kinison. In his more successful formal audition with Lorne Michaels, he performed “chopping broccoli” and the Church Lady, which he now considers corny. “That bitch will never go away,” he says, affectionately.
A gifted mimic, Carvey says he lacks the ear of a Darrell Hammond or Kevin Pollak. But “I can find an angle,” he says. “A lot of (my impressions) was just the makeup and being asked to do them.”
Carvey will work his most popular characters and voices into his Moontower set (he ran me through a hilarious bit about how people turn into the Godfather when relatives ask them for money), but he sounds way more excited about his new material — observational humor about relationships, sexuality, human self-destruction and religion. Lest you think the words “Carvey” and “edgy” don’t belong in the same sentence together, check this out:
“I do a thing about what if Jesus was not an alcoholic, but a ‘functioning’ alcoholic. Matthew would be, like, ‘I don’t know, Luke, what can I tell you? He drinks a lot. When he healed that leper, he was really, really lit up. But the lesions are gone. What are we supposed to do?’”
Dana Carvey performs at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Paramount Theatre.