Telling jokes isn't easy. Getting in front of a crowd of thousands of people with elevated expectations and a desire for an evening of mirth is difficult, mostly because you won't know what's going to play with these people. Can you tell genuinely insightful jokes about politics? How about religion? These subjects can be touchy, and Dana Carvey has decided that they don't have to be. In his 2008 HBO special Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies, the title alone pretty much tells you everything you need to know-- this is a comic who has managed to find out which words people find amusing, and he isn't afraid to use them even if they don't belong there.
In a one-hour set which feels less like an edgy HBO comedy special and more like an audition tape for corporate gigs, Carvey gets to trot out a number of impressions which should be recognized by the bulk of people in the English speaking world. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Gore, John Travolta, they're all here. Putting one's heart and soul into a routine is what a lot of funny people aspire to do today, laying out one's peccadilloes and phobias for the world to see as the comedian pretty much disembowels him or herself in front of a live audience. The other option is to play it safe, which few do well, but with this special we have a guy who has mastered it. George W. Bush gags? Oh yes, they're here, and these funny voices are what pass for political satire in this special-- and oh, the applause! It's really amazing, but it does show that there aren't just two Americas in terms of economy, but also in humor. There's a joke about John Kerry looking like Herman Munster. The early 1990s were a time where stand up comedy was available on television-- cable or network-- constantly, and it was not particularly common to see people making Mondale or Dukakis jokes after the election season was over. People moved on, and found new material. Perhaps it had to do with the changing political administrations, or perhaps DuPont developed a new technology which allows you to keep jokes fresh in some new plastic container only available to comedians that play venues of 1,000 people or more.
For a set jam-packed with so many jokes, it's really quite stunning how safe Dana Carvey plays it. The political aspects celebrate the mundane, allowing the comic to engage the audience by letting them all feel like they're in on the joke by trotting out voices they're sure to recognize. The bulk of the references seem to be designed to be understandable by anyone presently in their 50s, and due to the kind of things you might know if you're 50, odds are most younger viewers will get the references but unless English is your second or third language, they probably won't appreciate numerous callbacks to the wacky political voices. OK, we got it. Thanks. Carvey infuses his political humor with all the subtlety and with you might expect from Elmo's dissertation on the letter "Q".
Much like the recently released Mike Meyers vehicle The Love Guru, this special seems to be aiming to capture the audience who was aware of SNL back in the 1990s, and may have even enjoyed a few bits, but isn't one of the people who would nitpick the show. In short, if you're the kind of person who might actually find this blog and read it, Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies is the kind of special you probably won't enjoy all that much. If you're the kind of person who records a program just to check it out as you're a curious fellow, your attention span and immune system may well compell you to watch something else in the first 5 minutes.
Seeing the massive selection of what HBO has offered comedy fans over the years, this is on par with what you can expect. Some things appeal to a broad audience, which seems to be the opposite of where their niche programming seems to go. Robert Schimmel, David Cross, Robert Klein, and others have turned in specials which may not be things anybody could sit down and enjoy, but at the very least you can walk away knowing that someone (me) loved them. I don't think I can say the same thing about Pistachio Disguisey here. The comic earned a tremendous amount of good vibes from comedy fans during his stint in the trenches of sketch comedy, and it's hard to dislike the man. Hopefully he's making good money in corporate gigs, as the special makes a person yearn for something just a little bit better.
- There are comics who serve a specific niche. The Blue Collar crew, love them or hate them, has discovered their audience and plays to them. Dana Carvey is your man if you're 45-60 and generally unfamiliar with the material used for Tonight Show monologues over the past decade.
- Dana loves saying "Barack Hussein Obama," giving it a verbal emphasis I've only seen during the local news coverage of the West Virginia primaries. Mr. Obama is also the most timely of the references in the act-- and they're very brief.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger remains the goose that lays the golden eggs. "Hans & Franz", now "the Governator," proving once again that if you're looking to mine comic gold, look to bootleg shirts sold during a long-since-passed election.
- "Gay Al Gore" = "Lock box" plus a lisp. For an amusing joke of that nature, nothing can surpass the passing "Gaybraham Lincoln" gag on 30 Rock, which pretty much starts and stops with the mention of the name.
- Dick Cheney shot someone in the face? No shit! I must take this piece of information back to myself in the DeLorean so that I may capitalize on it before Dana Carvey, as surely no one else has come up with any material on this event.
- On Clinton: "Comedians will still be making fun of your horniness in the year 2008." Yes, but those who do tend to use current events, you see.
- Classic rock jokes. Let's throw the baby boomers a bone here, as nobody old enough to remember the music of the 1970s when it's new would be comfortable with a reference that takes place after the Carter administration.
Mr. Carvey will be performing live in San Diego on July 30, and has shows in Livermore, CA and Saratoga, CA on August 20 and 21, respectively. Tickets start at $65.