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There’s a place Dana Carvey attempts to visit every time he steps on stage.
It has nothing to do with Saturday Night Live and is in a different emotional galaxy than Wayne’s World.
“What I’m doing is always trying to get to that moment in the back of the bus with my high school buddies,” Carvey, 56, said recently by phone.
“We’d redundantly repeat different phrases over and over again until we’d giggle ourselves into oblivion. It was never a set-up punch. The inexplicability is always the goal. People can take what they want. There might not be a joke there, but it still can make people laugh.”
Yes, his shows include characters that Carvey is happily obligated to reprise, such as his classic Church Lady from SNL, or Garth from Wayne’s World, but he’s always trying to push the boundaries—to see what works and what doesn’t, and to keep himself and his act motivated and relevant.
All the time, he knows what will kill an audience in a 200-seat club could kill a comedian in a 1,200-seat hall.
“The stuff I do now is more universal,” Carvey said. “Some of it can be edgier in different settings. I’m working on a bit that claims every group of people has good and bad. There must have been a few adorable Nazis. Maybe not many.
“But if you go to the clubs now and see what they’re doing ... whew. They’re doing rape jokes, and all of it is blown out and wild. I’m not sure what’s off-base anymore if rape jokes are working. Wow.”
So, rape jokes are out.
But don’t be surprised to see Carvey work the edges in other directions.
“I was in Pennsylvania and started in asking ‘How much did Jesus drink? I saw him in the Last Supper with a glass of wine. Was he a two-glass red wine guy, was he three? Was he a highly functioning alcoholic?’
“That might be a little edgy for people.”
Those are the kinds of calls Carvey can make on stage. In the give-and-take between performer and audience, the traffic cop is the person on stage, and Carvey not only acts as the cop but also is the guy at the midpoint of the crosswalk when the light flashes “Don’t Walk.”
“Some comedians keep their act static for multiple decades, which allows them to do a lot of dates,” said Carvey, who for the last 20 years has limited his standup work to about 30 shows a year.
“If you’ve ever been to Vegas, you do get a sense some guys are phoning it in. Being present in the moment takes a lot of energy. Not pushing is horrible. You have to invest yourself in the moment, and it’s jazzlike.”
Self-deprecation is a part of the arsenal of every comedian not named Andrew Dice Clay.
It’s also about taking chances and knowing that not every time you go on stage that seat with your buddies in the back of the bus is not a place you’ll reach.
But you can try.