How Dana Carvey’s ‘SNL’ Impression Pushed Johnny Carson Out the Door

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How Dana Carvey’s ‘SNL’ Impression Pushed Johnny Carson Out the Door

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Bill Simmons recently guested on Dana Carvey’s Fly on the Wall podcast and reminisced about the Carvey/Phil Hartman era of Saturday Night Live when “the sketches were mean in a good way. Like some of the (Johnny) Carson stuff Dana did. You go back and you watch it, you’re like, ‘Ooh, man, was Carson okay with this?’” 

By the end of his run, Carson wasn’t okay with the sketches at all.

Initially, Carvey says, Carson was flattered by his SNL impression. In the oral history Live From New York, Carvey details how he developed his Carson — “not the Rich Little version, which I thought was great, but ‘That’s funny stuff. You’re a funny young man. Will you come back and see us sometime?’ I think Johnny said that to me every single time I was on his show.”

In particular, he told Simmons, Carson liked Carsenio, a Johnny Carson/Arsenio Hall mash-up that parodied both hosts. “They're making fun of Arsenio as much as they're making fun of us,” was Carvey’s read of the elder comic’s reaction. (According to Bill Carter’s The Late Shift, however, the Carsenio sketch “enraged members of the Carson staff.”)

But Carvey, along with Hartman as sycophant Ed McMahon, created other sketches that hit Carson in his most sensitive spots. Simmons remembered that particular moment in pop-culture history. “I loved Carson,” he said. “Everyone watched Carson. But he did start to seem a little old by the time we got to the late ‘80s. And you guys crossed the beams and went after him a little bit in a fun way, but you still went after him.”

The sketch that crossed the line was one in which Carvey’s Carson interviewed Susan Dey, played by Jan Hooks. The joke was that Carson was unaware that The Partridge Family had been off the air for 15 years, making the comic seem “a little senile.” In another interview with Howard Stern, Carvey said he put up a red flag about the script but Lorne Michaels assured him Carson would be okay with the bit. 

Apparently not. After the sketch aired, Carvey told Simmons, he was effectively banned from The Tonight Show after years of being a regular guest. Not only that, but the depiction of Carson as an out-of-touch old man seemed to set his eventual retirement in motion.

The problem, Carvey says, is every comedian eventually becomes a caricature of themselves. “Jay Leno told me — he was guest hosting back then — that Johnny would walk down at NBC in Burbank and just yell out, ‘They’re making fun of me! Now it’s time to go.’ That was Johnny who obviously was very bright, kind of reading the tea leaves.”

There were a lot of reasons Carson decided to leave late night. His Tonight Show audience, like the man himself, was aging and advertisers didn’t like the demographic trend. Younger hosts like Hall and David Letterman were bringing in younger viewers. He’d been at the job for decades, gradually cutting back on his workload with each new contract. In other words, by the early 1990s, he knew it was time to go — and Carvey’s SNL sketches simply reinforced Carson’s decision to head for the exit signs. 


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