Some shows are just too odd to be appreciated in their time. That’s a good chunk of the case the loving documentary “Too Funny to Fail,” about the 1996 sketch series “The Dana Carvey Show,” lays out, through interviews and impressively amassed archival footage. For a show in which a faux Bill Clinton nurses puppies and kittens from a gruesome teat-covered prosthetic, the question is not, how did it get canceled? It’s, how did it ever made it to ABC in the first place?
The answer is through high hopes and occasional mistakes in judgment, the same things that ushered the show,, like other brilliant but doomed projects, into an early grave. The cast and writers speak about the experience with a befuddled reverence, and the youthful determination captured in the old clips radiates so powerfully it almost sends us all back to our didn’t-know-better-yet selves of 20 years ago.
“Too Funny to Fail,” which premieres Saturday on Hulu, overflows with nostalgia-tinged charm, especially for anyone with fond memories of vintage “S.N.L.” sketches like Massive Headwound Harry. “The Dana Carvey Show” is where Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell got their start, and the rest of the performers and writers amount to a murderers’ row of contemporary comedy: Louis C.K., Robert Smigel, Charlie Kaufman, Robert Carlock, Dino Stamatopoulos and Jon Glaser, among others.
Mr. Carvey is, oddly, not the beating heart of this documentary. Instead, that’s Mr. Smigel, the writer and performer behind Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, The Ambiguously Gay Duo (which began on “The Dana Carvey Show”) and loads of other iconic “S.N.L.” sketches. It’s his emotional arc from the period that the film quietly follows, beginning with his elation at the chance to keep working with Mr. Carvey, then one of the biggest comedy stars in the world thanks to impressive impressions and widely beloved characters like Garth of “Wayne’s World.” Dedication to his colleagues and their mutual offbeat sensibility followed, before giving way to horror when it became clear just how badly the show fit within the ABC lineup.