A comedian, by his very definition, tends to be a character. In the case of funnyman Dana Carvey, it’s more accurate to say that he is countless characters.
Fans who have watched his sprawling career, which includes stand-up comedy, a regular gig on “Saturday Night Live” and big-screen success, are familiar with many of his alter egos.
Along with original creations like the smug Church Lady, zealous Australian bodybuilder Hans and metal-loving “Wayne’s World” co-host Garth, Carvey is adept at channeling 80 celebrities. His wickedly accurate impersonations include three decades of presidents and presidential hopefuls, as well as celebrities ranging from Jimmy Stewart to Liam Neeson.
Needless to say, there’ll be a full house when Carvey performs live at Reno’s Atlantis Resort Spa Casino on Friday and Saturday. And that’s just on the stage.
It’s been some 23 years since Carvey left “SNL,” but catching his stand-up act is hardly an exercise in nostalgia.
Earlier this month, the 60-year-old performer proved he still can bring laughs to the long-running sketch comedy show. He appeared as the Church Lady to interview Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (Darrell Hammond), whom he cheekily referred to as an “orange mannequin,” as well as Trump’s erstwhile opponent Ted Cruz (Taran Killam), whom he chided for being “preachy.”
He also serves as a mentor on the USA Network’s new reality show “First Impressions,” in which amateur impressionists vie against on another for the chance to win $10,000. Hosted by Freddy Prinze Jr., the program, which debuted this month and features guest judges like Steve Carrell, is a comedy aficionado’s dream.
It’s certainly proved to be a dream for 19-year-old wunderkind Ryan Goldsher, who took the prize for his uncanny impersonations of superstars like Robin Williams, Mark Wahlberg and Morgan Freeman.
Carvey, who was born in Missoula, Mont., and raised in San Carlos in the San Francisco Bay Area, certainly understands what it’s like to be young, funny and on the brink.
He always had a knack for making people laugh, including his parents and four siblings. He showcased his first impression, legendary Liverpudlian Paul McCartney, after seeing the Beatle’s historic debut 1964 on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” When he used McCartney’s voice to ask for pancakes the next day, his mother “screamed with laughter and dropped her spatula,” according to an ABC news story.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in broadcast communications from San Francisco State University, he decided to tap an audience beyond his appreciative family. He began performing stand-up and soon moved to California, ready to conquer Hollywood.
After some unsuccessful early forays into television, including a sitcom canceled after eight months, he returned to stand-up comedy. The watershed moment came for the performer when producer Lorne Michaels asked him to join the cast of “Saturday Night Live.” He proved to be a popular asset for the show, whether lampooning politicians of the day or simply waxing weird. In 1993, he won an Emmy for his final season.
On the silver screen
It’s the dream of many SNL cast members to achieve big-screen success. Some, like Chevy Chase, Adam Sandler and Kristin Wiig, find their careers on a runaway train. Others, like Joe Piscopo, falter right out of the gate. It seems to be a matter of chemistry.
Carvey’s filmography, which includes some 11 movies, shows a transition that falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. He played the lead — and wooed ’80s it-girl Valeria Golina — in “Clean Slate,” a comedy about a private eye struggling to crack the case and get the girl despite a case of total amnesia. Most often, however, he has shone as a sidekick.
His appeal as a character actor was most notable in the hugely successful 1992 film “Wayne’s World.” Carvey’s filmography has continued apace as he has appeared in films like “The Master of Disguise,” where he trotted out 36 of his impressions, as well as the Adam Sandler films “Little Nicky” and “Jack and Jill.” He recently provided his voice for the animated feature “Hotel Transylvania 2,” and he lent his pipes to another full-length cartoon, “The Secret Life of Pets,” due in theaters this summer.
His IMDb entry may have been lengthier had it not been for a major health scare that hit him in 1997. Carvey was out jogging one day when he began to experience chest pains. Doctors told him he likely had a blocked artery.
Considering he had a family history of heart disease and high cholesterol, as well as an abundance of career stress, he underwent a routine angioplasty to unblock the artery. The artery became blocked once more due to scar tissue and so Carvey, at the recommendation of a cardiologist, had bypass surgery.
He was hiking near Lake Tahoe when he again experienced chest pains. A subsequent angiogram revealed that the surgeon had bypassed the wrong artery. He had an emergency angioplasty to open the still-blocked artery.
Given his brush with death, it is little surprise that Carvey has kept an eye on the things that really matter, chiefly his family. He has two sons, Thomas and Dex, with his wife Paula Zwagerman, to whom he has been married since 1983. For those familiar with his standup, the quirks of his sons figured prominently in his act during their growing-up years.
He has turned down many an opportunity, but, as he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2012, he has no regrets.
“I wanted to raise the kids and be a present father,” he said. “When I developed a movie, I was gone for a year. That didn’t really work for me. That isn’t fair, to make these life forms and then disappear.”
With his two of his favorite life forms grown up, he now has some freedom to add more projects to his schedule, which includes some 60 stand-up gigs a year.
Carvey, who has been cited as the 90th greatest comedian of all time by Comedy Central, has a philosophy behind the folks he makes up and those he copies.
“I enjoy pushing my characters to the limit,” he has said. “No matter how far out there I go, I look for things that make the characters human.”