How 'Rick And Morty' Succeeds With Sponsors (And Why 'The Dana Carvey Show' Didn't)
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David Letterman didn’t believe Dana Carvey.
The imp-faced comic had just left Saturday Night Live after a white-hot run that reanimated the show’s nearly dead comedy corpse. Rumors had Dana actually taking over Letterman’s time slot (Dave’s contract was up) but that wasn’t meant to be. So what does a sketch comic do after leaving America’s most visible sketch comedy show?
“I kind of decided that it would be fun to do sketch comedy again,” Carvey said in the documentary Too Funny to Fail: The Life and Death of the Dana Carvey Show. In case that sounded like he was just repeating himself, he added an important caveat. “But with more creative freedom.”
Doing more sketch wasn’t hard to believe. But Letterman wasn’t buying the show’s title. Carvey says at first, it was some kind of post-modern joke.
"Yeah, it’s called The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show."
Post-modern joke, yes. But it was also good, old-fashioned nostalgia.
“I grew up with ‘Chevrolet presents Red Skelton,’" says Carvey. “The new Red Skelton Show, presented by PET Evaporated Milk.” The winking title gimmick of The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show was 90's irony-funny, but it was also an homage to all the comedy variety shows that had come before.
At first, advertisers were eager to get in on the joke. It didn’t take long to set a line-up of presenting sponsors for the first slate of Carvey shows, although maybe Mug Root Beer and Diet Mug Root Beer shouldn’t count as separate products:
- "The Taco Bell Dana Carvey Show"
- "The Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show"
- "The Mountain Dew Dana Carvey Show"
- "The Diet Mug Root Beer Dana Carvey Show"
- "The Pepsi Stuff Dana Carvey Show"
The show titles just sounded funny. But the joke didn’t stop there. The first show, with Taco Bell as the sponsor, began with a hokey production number -- dancing tacos joined with dancing bells in a parody of the old 70s variety show opens.
The post-modern part came when the dancers presented Carvey with an oversized novelty check, congratulating him on his status as a "shameless whore." Cue a Taco Bell brand manager watching at home and swallowing hard.
But it got worse for Taco Bell.
The Dana Carvey Show’s writers’ room was a murderer’s row: Louis C.K., Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Steven Colbert, Steve Carell, Robert (30 Rock, Kimmy Schmidt) Carlock, Dino (Conan, Mr. Show) Stamatopoulos, and Carvey himself. If it wasn’t the greatest collection of comedy scribes ever assembled, it might have been the meanest, the most subversive, the most willing to risk it all to see what they could get away with.
For the first show, that meant opening with Carvey doing Bill Clinton as a President so in touch with his feelings that he opened his shirt and breastfed puppies. In prime time. Right after sappy family sitcom Home Improvement.
Pepsico, which owned Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and all the rest, was not amused by having sponsored a lactating President.
“Taco Bell got a million letters,” says writer Bob Smigel. “And they announced, "We are no longer associated with The Dana Carvey Show."
Taco Bell and Pizza Hut pulled advertising shortly after the show’s premiere. A Pizza Hut exec said that the company didn’t feel comfortable with the show’s humor, explaining that several sketches “went too far.” At $600,000 an episode, the dual pull-out cost the show more than a million bucks (even though for some reason, the corporate giant’s soft drinks stayed on as sponsors).
“I love how sponsors dropped Dana Carvey for having cats feeding off Bill Clinton’s nipples—but shouldn’t sponsors drop the White House?” asked cast member Elon Gold. “You know, after Bill Clinton gets a blowjob?"
TV critic Howard Rosenberg, on the other hand, thought Taco Bell did exactly the right thing, writing, “Some will accuse Taco Bell of timidity. On the contrary, they should be lauded for their good taste in changing their minds after looking at the limp tamale they were sponsoring and correctly judging it to be an artistic Chernobyl."
Even today, reruns of that episode on Crackle have the Taco Bell song edited out.
You’d expect all this would have restrained the shows’ writers and encouraged caution. Nope. Instead, they leaned in, poking fun at corporate cowardice in the following week’s show. Mug Root Beer dancers poked back in the opening song:
There are certain words Dana better not say! And he better not breastfeed any puppies today or we will sure as hell will be on our way!
So be careful, you little punk -- Dana Carvey!
And then the show started talking trash about the products themselves. The Mountain Dew open featured unsavory dancers like Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, and High Fructose Corn Syrup.
“That was the one time I can remember,” says Smigel, “where we actually implied that there was something unappealing about the actual product.”
“We lost a sponsor every week,” says Carvey. “Sponsors were bailing out like crazy.”
Can you blame them? “When you bite the hand that feeds you that hard,” says show director John Fortenberry, “there's a good chance you're not gonna get fed again.”
Writer Spike Feresten concurs. “The only way you're staying on the air is to make somebody money. You gotta make somebody money.”
Things got so bad that the show’s final sponsor was a local Chinese restaurant that the cast and crew frequented.
Dana Carvey has a hell of a show! And at Szechuan Dynasty, you can order to go!
It was another joke, and yet it wasn’t. For a show hungry for sponsors, take-out Chinese was all it had left. ABC dumped the show after eight episodes.
Does your brand talk about bae?
Fast-forward twenty-five years. Holy Mountain Dew, how things have changed.
The same “isn’t advertising ridiculous?” meta-jokes that killed Carvey have become the go-to for Sassy Corporate Twitter. Post-modern gags aren’t anathema for advertisers--they’re the norm. If, as the Washington Post claims, millennial humor is weird, then corporate social media wants on that bus.
While Taco Bell was terrified to be in close proximity to Bill Clinton’s nipples, Denny’s is perfectly happy to embrace being the 1 a.m. destination of choice for stoners everywhere. We live in a world where Hamburger Helper drops mixtapes and not everyone hates it.
For big brands, it’s not an entirely risk-free strategy. Twitter accounts like Brands Saying Bae keep track of old ad guys trying to sound hep by appropriating language they read in a parents’ guide to teen slang. The result sounds like broken English -- almost right but awkward, the advertising equivalent of that Buscemi meme.
Many companies believe the risks of getting cozy with edgy comedy are worth the rewards. Wendy’s (itself a Sassy Twitter Brand) has found a number of ways to portal gun into the Rick and Morty universe, including this ad for new breakfast items.
Like The Dana Carvey Show and Mountain Dew, Rick and Morty ridicules the very products it’s advertising -- funky breakfast offerings like the Breakfast Baconator, Frosty-ccino, and Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit (a bruiser who threateningly pounds a lead pipe into its palm). Our heroes want nothing to do with promoting Wendy’s products so they take off running with the food in hot pursuit.
That’s OK with Wendy’s. It gets the joke and pays good money to be in on it.
But what about the risks for Rick and Morty? Fan-favorite shows don’t stay favorites by appearing to sell out to the highest bidder. Maintaining ironic credibility is a tricky balance, says the show’s co-creator Justin Roiland.
“When I'm writing those commercials, I try to just poke fun at the concept of advertising,” Roiland says. “My whole goal with writing those commercials is trying to stay true to the characters, trying to keep Rick cynical. Rick is the type of person that would see right through any f**king advertisement and who these big corporations are, the whole corporations weighing in on socio-political stuff. It's just so f**king ridiculous. It's funny to me, and Rick is somebody who would see right through that s**t.”
As long as Rick can, effectively, give the middle finger to Wendy’s -- and Wendy’s is OK with it -- then everyone is happy. That means more “eff you” commercials, like this one where family members are sacrificed to the evil breakfast food.
Not enough? To celebrate the show’s fifth season, Wendy’s transformed one of their California locations into a pop-up called Morty’s. In keeping with the show’s sensibilities, cars had to drive through a grotesque Morty-mouth to order up a Big Bacon Classic. ‘Wendy’ looks properly morty-fied at the prospect.
We’ve come a long way from the days when companies were afraid to take these kinds of comedy risks. It’s too bad Dana Carvey’s product-poking humor came along twenty years early for him to reap the profits. Or did it?