SAN JOSE, Calif. - For more than a decade, Dana Carvey, the man who saved Saturday Night Live, the guy who was tagged to become the next great talk-show host, has cruised like a stealth bomber.
The man responsible for the Church Lady, Garth Algar and skewed impersonations that come off like a frantic Rich Little on peyote moved away from Hollywood to Marin County, Calif., to manifest what is often dismissed as the entertainment industry's most disingenuous excuse: He wanted to spend time with his family.
Children grow up, as Carvey, 53, has witnessed. Now that his two sons are teenagers establishing their very teenage independence, Carvey's time has been freed up for him to tape an acclaimed HBO special (Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies).
Shot in Santa Rosa, and shaped in a Mill Valley theater, the special is out on DVD, he says.
Carvey fans can't help but wonder what happened to the comic who was regarded as one of the funniest men in America in the 1990s. Just as he seemed poised to follow the likes of SNL alums Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy to film stardom, it was Mike Myers, his Wayne's World co-star, whose career skyrocketed. Carvey's movies misfired both critically and commercially. After the failure of 1996's sketch comedy-centric The Dana Carvey Show - which featured the likes of Steve Carell and Steve Colbert - Carvey and wife, Paula, moved the family from Los Angeles to Marin County to adopt a more suburban life.
"Once the kids came, I kind of semi-retired," Carvey says by phone from a hotel room in Los Angeles where he is working on the early stages of a coming movie comedy for Paramount. "That was really the choice that I made."
Carvey described the oft-repeated scenario of the Hollywood dad who, in the autumn of his career, writes the reflective autobiography laden with regret over how he never spent time with his children.
"They always apologize later," Carvey says. "I really didn't want to be one of those guys."
The San Carlos native's track record is notable for a show-salvaging role on Saturday Night Live that in 1986 made him a star and revived the then-foundering program. He scored a monster hit, the Wayne's World movie in 1992. After David Letterman left NBC's Late Night for CBS, Carvey turned down the offer to fill a vacancy that his friend Conan O'Brien eventually filled.
Carvey has also endured the squirreliest of curve balls when in 1998 his cardiologist botched his open-heart surgery by bypassing the wrong vein. (Carvey says he is fine now, that his cholesterol, once above 400, now hovers around 100.) He sued the doctor for $7.5 million and used the settlement to launch the Peaceriver Foundation, which donates money to cardiac charities.
Though Carvey continued performing 20 to 30 stand-up performances a year while playing "Mr. Mom," comedy fans say that his more recent live shows have a renewed fire that mirrors the onstage antics of his heyday in Bay Area clubs in the early '80s. Squatting Monkeys Tell No Lies, which was shot in Santa Rosa, straddles the manic and reflective. Carvey is perhaps a little more political than in the past, but he never veers too far from the unapologetically silly. Among his oddest bits are his take on the post-makeover Al Gore, where the former presidential candidate speaks like an effeminate Forrest Gump.
"I think when Dana was working on his special, he kind of fell in love with stand-up again," says Cobb's Comedy Club booker Tom Sawyer, who regularly hired Carvey for the club in the '80s. "Before, he was kind of walking through it and now he's really passionate about it. And it shows. He's just on his game, and that's how he was before he got Saturday Night Live."
Carvey shaped his routines in Squatting Monkeys during regular visits to 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Hosted by Carvey pal and comic Mark Pitta, the venue's comedy nights are also pit stops for another Marin local, Robin Williams, who drops in to test-drive new material.
SNL, or more specifically, the enduring characters Carvey created on the show, have been a boon and a burden to the comic. Fans want to hear him do his Church Lady or drop a "wouldn't be prudent" from his caricature of former President George H.W. Bush. But Carvey, who might briefly appease the crowd with such familiar characterizations, leaves little room in his set for the old standbys - unless one counts him appearing to channel his old "Hans and Franz" routine for his impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to correctly pronounce the name of the state he runs.
Developing new characters and impersonations is a constant, he says. This in no small part helped the comedian earn comparisons to the chameleon-like Danny Kaye and Peter Sellers.
"I had Philip Seymour Hoffman," Carvey says. "I saw a movie and I had him for a day and I lost him. It just hits you or it doesn't."
Carvey has also become more focused on returning to film. He says he's working with former SNL head writer Fred Wolf (Joe Dirt) on a script for Paramount on "micromanager baby boomer parents." In a sense, it's a project born out of his decade of family life away from the entertainment industry.
Still, it seems a long shot that Carvey will completely give up on stand-up, something he continued at a time when his most dominant character at home was the chauffeuring dad.
"I've been at this for 25 years," Carvey says. "I did SNL. ... I did some movies. My kids have grown up. I've saved a lot of money - that will go over good - and I'm having fun."