When Dana Carvey appears with his fellow former “Saturday Night Live” castmate Dennis Miller at the Kennedy Center on July 12, it won’t be a political point-and-counterpoint.
While Miller has moved on to conservative radio (and was thus too busy to do a phone interview), Carvey, whose impersonations made a laughingstock out of President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, among others, during his “SNL” days of 1986 to 1992, may sidestep politics altogether.
“My style is very, very different,” Carvey, 59, said over the phone from New York.
“I find it’s fascinating to move someone on the right a little left — and move someone on the left a little right, which is near-impossible,” he said. “I ride both sides.”
Mostly, his stand-up involves personal observations and absurdist banter — such as musing on the invention of ventriloquism in 13th century England.
The man whose Bush impersonation got him invited to the White House is still working on big political impressions. But it hasn’t been so easy in recent years, he said.
“When we had the Southerners in there — [George] W. [Bush]and [Bill] Clinton — it was more of a ready-made, kind of like Sarah Palin or like Ross Perot. “With Obama, the problem wasn’t just that he was a Northerner, but that this guy was not a walking, talking cartoon — so what are we going to do?”
Carvey said he concentrates on the rhythms of a speaker and not the tone, because he doesn’t have the ear of, say, his “SNL” colleague Darrell Hammond, who perfected Clinton, or even Jay Pharoah, the current “SNL” cast member enlisted to do Obama on the show.
“There are many different Obamas in his rhythms,” Carvey said. “There’s Obama giving an address to the nation. There’s Obama at a press conference. There’s Obama at a rally.’’
Carvey said he stays with politicians not because they deserve to be lampooned, but because they’re usually the voices everybody can recognize.
“Today if I do a ‘Walking Dead’ bit with those characters, only a small percentage of the audience” would get it, he said.
But sometimes, funny voices are funny voices, even if they are not widely known.
“Garth was an impression of my brother,” Carvey said of the good-natured sidekick he played in the “Wayne’s World” series. “I do an impression of dad in my act now.”
And on “Saturday Night Live,” he excelled with a couple of old show-biz impersonations that few young people would recognize today.
“The favorite thing I ever did was Mickey Rooney, period,” Carvey said, rather definitively.
Its catchphrase — “I was the No. 1 star in the world. Bang! You hear me? The world!” — was the first thing Carvey says he heard Rooney say when they were cast together on a short-lived 1982 sitcom, “One of the Boys.”
“The first day I walked in!” Carvey said. “I just wrote it down verbatim as he said it.” While it killed when he was a cast member, it didn’t go over as well with younger audiences who might have been clueless about Rooney when Carvey came back to “SNL” to host three years ago.
Ditto his Carson.
“My son, who is 22, said to me last year, ‘Hey dad, who was Johnny Carson?’ ” Carvey reported.
The Carson impression came near the end of his seven-year run as an “SNL” cast member.
Carvey said it took a long time to get relaxed on that show because when he was hired to be on it, its future was so shaky it had only an eight-episode season order.
“We had to hit the ground running, or we were going to be the cast that killed the show,” Carvey said.
“So there was a bit of frantic pushing going on,” Carvey said. “The Church Lady was kind of, ‘gotta kill, gotta kill, save the show.’ But by the time I left, the ratings were so high and the show was in such good shape — because of a lot of factors; Mike Myers notwithstanding and [Adam] Sandler and [Chris] Farley — that I could kind of could relax.”
Carvey’s impressions are so likable that George H.W. Bush considered him a kind of court jester, inviting him to official events.
“We’re still friends,” Carvey said of the 41st president. “I saw him a couple months ago. I have a 90-year-old friend. I’m surprised he parachuted on his birthday. But Barbara and I had a conversation about it. Barbara was worried about it, and he wanted to go.”
It wasn’t that he did such benign impersonations of Bush that they became friends, he said. In fact, he added, people didn’t know how insurrectionist it was.
“When you’re working in a more of a subtle, subversive way,” Carvey said, “then yeah, it kind of gets lost.”
It didn’t get lost on his short-lived prime-time sketch show “The Dana Carvey Show,” which lasted only seven episodes in 1996 but was the first big break for a lot of funny people, including Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.
Indeed, their two-man sketch, “Waiters Who Are Nauseated by Food,” got them both their eventual jobs on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.”
Carvey said he’s encouraged by the creativity in comedy these days and the myriad outlets available for it on TV and online. But as he develops new shows in Los Angeles, he also gets a kick out of being back on the road, particularly in Washington.
“There’s something magic there, the Kennedy Center,” Carvey says. “I was there with George Bush Sr. when I visited him at the White House. I was up in the box with him and there was a Secret Service guy there behind us.
“I said, ‘What’s he there for?’ and he said [in the Bush voice] ‘Well, ever since Lincoln, you always got an assigned guy right behind ya.’ I thought that was a pretty good call.”
Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller perform July 12 at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org
Catlin is a freelance writer.