It's a grand day at the Grand Hotel restaurant, and Dana Carvey is having a grand time. The mood is light, the star treatment deluxe.
Small talk about two couples currently courting scandal changes the mood. And his persona. Madonna and Sean? Joan and Peter? The soft face grows hard, the nostrils flare, the left eyebrow darts toward heaven. Within moments he's off as Church Lady, "God's special servant" and "Saturday Night Live's" latest comic creation.
"Madonna, well, well, well," he clucks, voice riddled with venom. " 'Who's That Girl?' Shouldn't our tour be entitled 'Who's That Satan?'!! Well, our husband, he's serving time behind bars, isn't he? Well, isn't that special? Apparently, Madonna, Sean has a little temper, doesn't he? Just punch, punch, punch. He doesn't like to discuss like Christ would. He just likes to slug!!!"
Mrs. Collins-Holm gets the next lecture.
"Well, Joan, I guess Petey just didn't want to leave, did he? We married someone, what, 15, 20 years younger? ... And now the big Swede is taking us for the dough. Wants a loooot of our 'Dynasty' cash, doesn't he? We had sex and now we suffer."
Impudent, yes, but malicious? "Never," says Carvey. As he explains it, the tirades of Church Lady -- whom he perceives as a 54-year-old virgin -- are meant to help. In this time of woe, he says, she is a beacon of moral white light for all of mankind to flock to.
Plus, he says, "I would never do anything in my act to hurt someone. I'm not mean."
He doesn't look it. In town for last night's stand-up gig at the Kennedy Center, the 32-year-old satirist, whose catty tag line "Isn't that special?" has become this year's catch phrase, seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all. The nap he had just woken up from, one that had given him helmet hair, might have had something do to with it. So might the eyes, saucer-sized, blue, as soft as Timmy's on the "Lassie" show.
Could this be the man who flings vitriol like "Apparently, some of us do our thinking below the Bible belt!" to a chin-quivering Jim Bakker? The man who, as superstud Mountain Man, asks, "Ever strap yourself nude to a mountain and threaten yourself with a jackhammer?" The man who then metamorphoses into the pitiable Ching Chang, a lonely wisp of a man who sells chickens as house pets?
Yes. And along with bringing Carvey sudden attention (he loved the Newsweek article, thought the People piece was pablum), the characterizations have added new life to a program recently branded "Saturday Night Dead."
An introverted Californian adolescence and an adult eye for the absurd are responsible for his new-found fame. Born with the gift of imitation, he would wander through his house as a child spouting Lyndon Johnson-isms. During the painful teen years (he has described himself at this stage as a fetus with shoes), his voices became friends, allies against a social freeze. He realized comedy was what he wanted to do. "I really, really wanted to be Rich Little," he says wistfully. A stint as a dishwasher at a Holiday Inn solidified the ambition.
By his midtwenties he made a commitment to his craft. Producers, recognizing his ability but not knowing what to do with it, cast him unsuccessfully in a series of secondary roles, most notably as Mickey Rooney's straight man in a short-lived 1981 NBC sitcom. People "were telling me I was fabulous, like they do when you're doing sitcom work," and he was pulling in the bucks.
Many nights, he went home and sobbed.
"He wasn't getting the recognition he deserves for being funny," says his wife Paula, 27. "He was doing all these straight parts based on the fact that he had a cute face. No one ever believed he was a comedian."
Crafting a nightclub act while bogged down in the sitcom muck buoyed his creative instincts. It was around this time that his characters begin to gel. Especially Church Lady.
"It was an attitude that I just bounced around," Carvey says. "At one point it was a schoolteacher being very condescending to kids as they made sailboats. Like, 'Now, everyone take this paper, and fold point A to point B.' It was just about how teachers would do this in grade school and theirs always looked incredible, and yours always looked awful. And then these teachers would go off on ego trips and say, 'Well, it looks like mine is a liiiiittle bit superior to yours, doesn't it?' "
Religion came to the character one day after Carvey's mother remarked that his impersonation reminded her of the gleefully wicked ladies at their church. "Mom would bring a casserole to potluck dinners," he says, smiling as he remembers, "and then feel inferior. I remember walking into church after our family had missed a few Sundays, and their turns of the heads, that 'Well! Good to see they finally made it!' attitude."
These frosty women in gray, says Carvey, made an impact -- they shaped his and his four siblings' religious attitudes. "I would take the offering cards and draw cartoons on the back of them," he says, grinning but serious. "Two of my brothers are complete atheists."
Carvey's talents as an impersonator were noticed in 1985 by since-deposed "SNL" producer Al Franken. He was liked, but not signed. One year later head producer Lorne Michaels caught his act. This time, he got a contract.
The first part of the 1986-87 season, as Carvey remembers it, was uneventful. Then came a duet of "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" between the Church Lady and Willie Nelson. This March a Jim and Tammy Bakker appearance on "Church Chat," Church Lady's gospel talk show, fanned a fire that had been smoldering -- his recognition factor "went throught the roof."
Carvey realizes people are passionate about his brazen Christian soldier, but he admits that he's slightly surprised his creation is so well received by churchgoing communities. Evidence: "Christian Life magazine just did an interview with me. They love her."
The key to the character's success may be that while many comics have done evangelists, no one has ever done the zealot behind the punch bowl. "She gives off an attitude that has an aftertaste," Carvey says. "No one messes with her, and the teen-age kids love that. She'll take on anyone -- cops, Reagan. If he came after her, she'd say, 'Well, we don't know quite what we're doing, do we, Ronnie?' "
The Church Lady could make Carvey a rich man. Emphasis on "could." Carvey, who says he wants to keep his soul, refuses to make her into "a commercial whore." He's been approached by cola, beer and candy companies and turned them all down flat. "The Church Lady," he says, slipping into the spinster's voice, "would not push Lite beer."
But she would push her views, and will continue to do so next season, though Carvey wants to cut the number of appearances so that she doesn't become overexposed. Filling the void will be other characters, like Brad, the peanut-butter-and-jam-eating nerd who makes nuclear reactors out of paper clips, and the twin sister of the Church Lady, evil and agnostic.
Not wanting to leave her out in the cold, Carvey has also decided to tinker with the Church Lady. She'll go Hollywood.
"She's going to get a little rhinestone about her," he says. "She'll get a little glamor." This move will culminate in her aerobic workout, complete with religious jumping jacks (arms up -- "To heaven!"; arms down -- "To hell!").
Carvey also plans to add some glitz to his rather suburban life. A movie with him as the star is in the planning stages, as they say, and he's quite excited about it. The dark side of success, he claims, won't interfere with his success. He knows what happened to John Belushi and other "SNL" veterans, most of the information gleaned from Doug Hill's expose' on the show, "Saturday Night Live: A Backstage History," which vividly detailed drug abuse and decline. Carvey remembers that halfway through the book he "became terrified."
So afraid of the glitter and gutter was he that he pretended it couldn't happen. Convinced the show would be canceled within weeks, he told Paula to remain in California so he would have a place in the sun after the ax fell. Now he's going into the second season of a five-year contract. Paula's moving to New York in September.
Out on the street after lunch, fame catches up with him. A woman walks by quickly, notices him, does a double take, comes back around.
"You know me, don't ya? Don't ya?" he taunts, laughing.
The woman, silent for a moment, is hit with a blast of recognition. She smiles. "You're the Church Lady!" she says. "You're the Church Lady!"
"But my name, my name," begs Carvey.
"Sorry," says the woman, "I don't remember it."
He laughs, then whispers it to her.