Did Christopher Nolan Rip Off Dana Carvey’s Post-’SNL’ Bomb?

Before ‘Memento’ there was ‘Clean Slate’
Did Christopher Nolan Rip Off Dana Carvey’s Post-’SNL’ Bomb?

While it may not be getting a theatrical re-release, or a flurry of internet articles, or really any attention at all, this week marks the 30th anniversary of Clean Slate, the Dana Carvey-starring comedy about a private detective with severe memory problems. Sure, it wasn’t a box office success back in 1994, but Clean Slate does have its share of defenders. And, hey, at least Carvey wasn’t forced to observe the tragic events of 9/11 while dressed as a deformed Turtle Man during production. 

Clean Slate was Carvey’s first big movie role following his departure from Saturday Night Live, and it found him, somewhat uncharacteristically, taking on a role that required no wigs, elaborate costumes or goofy voices (for the most part). In it, Carvey plays private investigator M.L. Pogue, who suffers from a rare condition called “Korsakoff’s syndrome,” which causes him to lose his memory every night when he falls asleep, à la Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates. 

Oddly, the part was originally developed for classic movie icon, and all around handsome man, Robert Redford before it was retooled as a vehicle for the “choppin’ broccoli” guy.

There’s a lot to like about Clean Slate. In addition to providing a showcase for Carvey’s skills, it features a stacked supporting cast, including Valeria Golino, James Earl Jones, Michael Gambon, and, briefly, a young Bob Odenkirk. Plus Bryan Cranston as a tennis club employee who, for all we know, became a meth kingpin decades later.

Clean Slate, however, bombed when it hit movie screens in 1994 — how did it do worse than 3 Ninjas Kick Back? — and has yet to gain a discernible cult following. It’s not even available on a single streaming service right now, meaning that the only way to watch this movie is to track down a physical copy or, barring that, to construct some sort of time-travel device, then waste it by watching a Dana Carvey movie in 1994 instead of killing Hitler. 

That being said, Clean Slate may have inspired a movie by one of the most famous filmmakers living today. 

The premise of Clean Slate is not so different from that of Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento, also about a guy trying to piece together a mystery while coping with a memory that periodically resets. And like Clean Slate’s Pogue, Leonard in Memento is also constantly leaving himself reminder messages.

A number of people have called attention to this over the years. In fact, Clean Slate director Mick Jackson once casually told an interviewer, “I believe Christopher Nolan’s Memento was inspired by it.” Even some reviewers at the time pointed out the similarities between the two films. And Patton Oswalt once playfully tweeted about Christopher Nolan’s “remake” of Clean Slate

Is it really possible that Memento was inspired by a ridiculous, mostly-forgotten ‘90s comedy? 

Well, as we’ve mentioned before, Nolan is a big comedy fan. And we know that he’s an appreciator of Carvey’s work because, according to actor John David Washington, Nolan would routinely quote Wayne’s World while they were making Tenet

But according to Nolan, the story was first pitched to him by his brother Jonathan, who then turned it into a piece of short fiction called “Memento Mori.” And Jonathan Nolan says that he got the idea after attending a psychology class, not after attending a multiplex in 1994. 

While they may be telling the truth, I couldn’t help but notice that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises prominently features a computer program named “Clean Slate.”

Perhaps Nolan was sick of people saying that he ripped off Clean Slate and introduced this plot line purely so that when people Google “Christopher Nolan, Clean Slate” they get pages and pages of Batman reviews — not unlike how some people think that Disney made Frozen to stymy searches about Walt’s cryogenically frozen head.

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter (if it still exists by the time you’re reading this). 


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