Let Johnny and Joan fight it out on the sidelines: In a time of talk show profusion, the one to catch is Church Chat. As portrayed by Dana Carvey, the Church Lady has become the best reason to see Saturday Night Live in years. "She's in tune with the times," SNL creator-producer Lorne Michaels says of the character. "As we watch the crumbling of the Moral Right, it's like protest is back, and it's okay to laugh. Finally the audience is responding to dissent again." The response is not all laughs, by any means: Carvey is the target of protest mail from irate churchgoers.
The role of dissenter is one for which Carvey, 31, seems extremely ill cast. He's so excessively amiable and lamblike that on his 21st birthday his mother felt constrained to give him a book titled How to Say No and Not Feel Guilty. "That's why it's fun to play a bossy little bitch," he says, "because I'm a diplomat in real life." His wife, Paula, agrees that Carvey and the Church Lady have little in common. "There's nothing judgmental about Dana," she says. "He takes things very lightly."
Raised with four siblings in San Carlos, a San Francisco suburb, Dana was an introvert. "I was more than a nerd—I was invisible," says Carvey, whose parents are both teachers. "I never had a date in school. I would've been terribly insecure with a girl." Instead he immersed himself in cross-country running. That's where he worked to perfect his comedic skills, trying offbeat impersonations of Jacques Cousteau and Marlin Perkins on teammates during their 10-mile training runs.
Carvey started doing stand-up comedy while studying radio and TV at San Francisco State University, and after graduating in 1978 he hit the West Coast club circuit. That's where the Church Lady was born, broadly modeled on the Lutheran women who were always pressuring Dana's mother to produce a worthy casserole for the church suppers. "I wanted to show the backbone behind the pulpit," says Carvey. "The Church Lady is the one who stays 10 feet away, keeping track of the donations."
Lorne Michaels hired Carvey for SNL after seeing him perform at a West Hollywood club last summer, but bringing the Church Lady to TV presented a ticklish problem: Dana had never done the character in costume. "I'm not a cross-dresser, and I've never done anything in drag," he says. "I didn't want this to be a piece where everyone laughs because the boobs are too big." To that end Carvey wears no padding. The Church Lady, he reasons, "is asexual, anyway."
But she's not unproductive. The character has begotten a five-year SNL contract for her creator. This means that Dana will be seeing much more of Paula, 27, whom he married four years ago after a four-year courtship ("She was the only person I knew shier than I was," he says). Working as a California state assemblyman's press secretary when Dana was cast in SNL, Paula stayed in L.A. while he went to New York. But in the fall she'll be joining him in his one-bedroom Upper West Side digs.
At the moment Dana's main diversion in the apartment is developing new comedy routines, such as the Church Lady Workout. "It's an aerobics class," he says. "Move your arms up to heaven, now down to hell, up to heaven, down to hell." His dream guest would be Vanna White. "I'd love to be sitting with a copy of Playboy when she comes out. I'd say, 'Well, let's see. Looks like we're in our little nightie, and our nightie is a see-through, isn't it? We like that, don't we—our bulbous buttock region on display and our breasts askew? We're living our fantasy, aren't we, Vanna? Let's see. If we turned over the letters on our Wheel of Misfortune, what would they spell? Could it be, oh I don't know...Exhibitionist?!"
Could it be, oh I don't know...that Dana Carvey is exposing what could become the wickedest funny bone on TV? Could very well be.
The show is called Church Chat, and its presiding hostess looks like the Sunday school teacher everyone has known and feared. Dressed in a frumpy suit, rumpled hosiery and black orthopedic shoes, the Church Lady specializes in chastising her fallen celebrity guests with a squeaky, grating voice that's shot through with holier-than-thou outrage. Danny DeVito confesses he's so busy making movies he doesn't have much time for his wife. "Oh, I see, Danny," says the dour dogmatist. "We only go home when it's con-veeeenient." Quarterback Joe Montana, innocently praising football, draws a sneer and a sarcastic "Well, isn't that special." And when a Shirley MacLaine imitator announces that she's God, our hostess really gets riled. "Sorry, Shirley, but I don't think our Heavenly Father is a sassy little redhead.... Who helps you with your little ideas, Shirl? Could it be, oh I don't know...Satan?!"