In his seven years on “Saturday Night Live,” Dana Carvey created one of the most memorable characters in the show’s history.
Yes, Church Lady, we’re talking about you. Isn’t that special?
Then there was Garth Algar, who went on to big-screen fame in “Wayne’s World,” and Hans, one half of Hans and Franz, the thick-headed, thick-accented duo of Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabes who wanted to “pump you up.”
Even though it’s been 20 years since Carvey left “SNL,” some of the impressions he performed there have become legendary, especially those of President George H.W. Bush, onetime presidential hopeful Ross Perot and former TV pundit John McLaughlin.
These days, Carvey is primarily a standup comic. It’s what he’ll be doing in Spokane on Saturday night when he performs as part of the annual Coaches vs. Cancer benefit sponsored by Gonzaga University basketball coach Mark Few and his wife, Marcy.
Standup is a “nice form of creative expression,” Carvey said in a telephone interview this week, “an art form with a small ‘a.’ ”
It’s not about the instant gratification involved in hearing an audience laugh. It’s about seeing the work you’ve done over weeks, developing a bit or a routine, pay off.
“You get to be the writer-producer-director,” he said.
It’s also pretty uncomplicated.
“Standup is its own microcosm of show business. It exists in its own universe, its own world. Whereas movies, television everything else is collaborative, standup is fairly simple. You go, you get laughs, they pay you, you leave.”
And, being a comedian, Carvey continues on with a riff.
“I really get paid to travel,” he quipped. “The gig is the fun part. I get paid to climb into a metal tube eight miles in the air with strangers and fly through static electricity.”
He finds comedy, or the raw material for comedy, everywhere. A random bad smell at his office. The indifference of pharmacists. Television.
“I love male enhancement commercials. I just think they’re delightful,” he said, chuckling. “Male reduction commercials however … no, it’s a PG show.”
Not really. He does like adult topics. While many contemporary comics do rely on so-called “blue” material, Carvey said he doesn’t really go that way. He’s more into abstraction.
“I like my act right now,” he said. “It ebbs and flows, but I like a lot of the stuff I talk about. I’ll talk about parenting from all different points of view. I talk about marriage, sex and love, health, embarrassment, politics power. These are the things that interest me. And I believe I’m better at it than I used to be now that I’m old … er.”
His show features a few jokes, but most is what he calls one-man sketch comedy. The standup format, he said, is great for this because, unlike a television show, there are fewer time constraints.
“So if I’m doing ‘Al Gore: The Broadway Musical,’ and the audience likes it, I might go for five minutes,” he said. “Television is quick. Boom, boom, boom. But standup is like jazz. You guys like this? Then I’m going to stay in this area for a while.”
While there are some brilliant comics – George Carlin and Jerry Seinfeld, for example – who are word for word the same every night, Carvey said that’s not his style.
“I’m always trying to get back into the Volkswagen Bug in high school with my friends. And they were stoned, I was straight, and we’d get on one motif and work it for eight hours,” he said. “And I’m trying to get that with an audience.”
A big part of Carvey’s comedy is, of course, his impressions and characters, many of whom are coming to Spokane with him.
In our 30 minute conversation, he did the Church Lady, Schwarzenegger, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. and George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Regis Philbin, one sentence of a perfect John Hamm (“I don’t even know you”) and a dozen other characters. After much work, he said, he’s finally got President Obama.
“I found Obama a very fascinating project, to find a way to satirize,” he said. “Obama’s been the more intellectual, more contained. Also a deceptively deep voice.”
But he doesn’t think of himself as an impressionist like Rich Little. He’s a comedian who does impressions and characters.
Is there a voice or a character that ever stumped him?
“Obama came pretty close. Romney would have been a monster,” he said. “They once wanted me to do Dick Gephardt, but how much energy was I going to put into that?”
The 58-year-old Carvey is familiar with the Spokane area. He was born in Missoula, and although his family moved to California when he was 3, they still made plenty of trips back to Lake Mary Ronan and Flathead. He even remembers staying at the Ridpath, although we don’t recommend it now.
“I have great memories of Spokane and Coeur d’Alene and that whole area,” he said.
And when he comes back to town on Saturday and gets on the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox stage, he hopes to make new memories.
“I’ll try to make history,” he said. “I don’t know that I will make history, but I’m always trying to make history. I can’t really say what kind of history.
“It’ll be full force, full force standup. Hopefully it will do well. Hopefully. It’s a humbling thing, standup comedy.”