If Josh Greenbaum ’01 knew one thing for sure, he knew he liked comedy.
When he was about 17, he sat down to watch the pilot episode of “The Dana Carvey Show,” excited that a comedian he had long looked up to was finally getting his own show. But when he watched the first episode with his parents, they got up after the first skit and said, “this is garbage.”
While Greenbaum, in an interview on Sunday, said he liked the show and saw it as pushing the boundaries of primetime television, he was disheartened to discover that most people did not agree. Many viewers, like his parents, were not amused by a show in which the first skit featured President Bill Clinton breast feeding kittens and other animals.
The show was canceled after only seven episodes.
Years later, Greenbaum’s love for comedy led him to write and direct the Hulu documentary, Too Funny to Fail: The Life and Death of The Dana Carvey Show, which premiered on Saturday and looks at why The Dana Carvey Show, with a who’s who of comedy including Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Dana Carvey, “spectacularly failed.”
This is Greenbaum’s third feature film, following The Short Game (2013) and Becoming Bond (2017).
“I wanted to go find out the story behind that show — how did it come about and how did it crash and burn so quickly and so spectacularly?” Greenbaum told The Sun of the motive behind the documentary.
“I just felt that it would be a very funny story told by very funny characters,” he said, adding that he was “excited to jump into that world” of comedy.
Though Greenbaum took a few film and film criticism classes at Cornell, he majored in psychology and his interest in film did not fully develop until after leaving the University. He said his time at Cornell helped pair him up with individuals who he worked with throughout his career and encouraged him to explore the question of why certain things happen.
“The part that I constantly draw back from my Cornell experience was, given my psychology major, I was really interested in why people do the things they do — what motivates us,” he said, “and that’s something, when you’re writing and directing, you’re constantly asking that question.”
“You really want to get to the human truth of why someone is going to behave a certain way,” he continued. “All of my psychology background, not in a direct way, more in an indirect way, surfaces constantly in my work.”
The latest documentary project also had additional help from three Cornell seniors: Andrea Farr, Troy Bridson and Brendan Coyle.
Farr and Bridson interned directly with Greenbaum while Coyle interned at an independent production company for Too Funny to Fail, Delirio Films. All three participated in Cornell in Hollywood, an alumni-run program that pairs students interested in film with alumni.
“They were helping me with a lot of different projects I was working on, this being one of them,” Greenbaum said. “I try to test my films on all sorts of audiences, and all three of them were wonderful and smart having come from Cornell, but they were also young, which was nice, because it was like, ‘How does this play for a 21-year-old who has never heard of Dana Carvey?’”
Coyle told The Sun his work on the documentary — researching and finding original copies of specific Batman and Robin comic books for one of the sketches — was “really satisfying.”
“I was searching through these different forums where people were posting suggestive comic panels of Batman and Robin and I came across this one that they didn’t know about,” he said.
The research “really paid off,” Coyle said, when he watched the documentary and saw the comic panel he had found appear in the film.
Greenbaum said he is optimistic for the success of the documentary, noting that he has received positive feedback from Hulu and subjects of his documentary, including Robert Smigel and Dana Carvey himself.
Too Funny To Fail also currently has a 100 percent rating on movie-rating website, Rotten Tomatoes.
“It’s nice to have your subjects also proud,” Greenbaum said. “They put a lot of trust and faith in you as a filmmaker when they let you tell their story, so that was a nice note to get this morning from both Dana Carvey and Robert Smigel that they both loved the doc.
“These are guys I’ve looked up to for a long time,” he said. “There’s that expression, ‘Never meet your heroes because they’ll only let you down,’ and I’ve had kind of the opposite experience meeting these guys. They were kind, gracious, really giving of their time and really, really funny.”
The documentary is currently streaming exclusively on Hulu.