Dana Carvey: Humor Pulled Him Through
By Idelle Davidson

A comedian takes on serious illness—in his own offbeat way

In March 1998, a surgeon at Marin General Hospital near Sari Francisco performed a heart bypass operation on comedian Dana Carvey. Two months later, the Saturday Night Live star discovered the doctor had bypassed the wrong artery, leaving Carvey at risk for a heart attack. What might have provided material for a hilarious skit on late—night television was, for Carvey, no laughing matter.

"lt was going to be a simple bypass,” recalls the actor, now 45. "I said, alright, you can crack me open like some kind of fabulous crab.’ So this idiot misses the artery." (T he surgeon later defended his error by saying that Carvey’s anatomy was unusual.) Carvey sued the doctor and won what he says was a “huge" settlement. He and his wife, Paula, vested the money in several charitable foundations. “We did not keep one penny," he says. Perhaps best known for the characters he developed on Saturday Night Live—Church Lady, Hans the bodybuilder, a geeky George Bush Senior, and sophomoric Garth of Wayne’s World—the Emmy Award-winning actor is finally able to see the humor in his ordeal. Anything that’s really dark or negative has an intrinsic comic effect,” he says.

"The best advice I could give anyone with a life-threatening disease is to give ‘em hell. I mean, you’ve got to go in with a ballsy, cocky attitude. lf I’m in my underwear for an exam, the doctor should have to be in his underwear too. Fair is fair." lt’s like conquering fear of a prostate exam, Carvey says. Have one every day; insist on several, he advises with funnyman exaggeration. “If you go in timid {Carvey impersonates a small child), ‘Hospital, IV, me scared,’ instead of (takes on a male cheerleader’s voice), ‘Find a vein! Yeah, that hurts, dig it!’ then you’ve got to get jiggy with it. lt’s kind of like the guys who hit the beach in Normandy. You’ve just got to go for it man, just say, ‘Rock on!"’


Carvey’s medical nightmare began 3 years ago while he was exercising near his Mill Valley, California, home. He felt a burning sensation in his chest. Doctors later discovered a blocked artery. “There I was, 42, I’d run 10 miles every other day, I had a perfect diet, and a completely blocked artery," says Carvey. He also shared a family history of high cholesterol. "It’s like saying your left foot is that of a duck. It’s so arbitrary and so bizarre when it hits you like that."

Then there’s the comic irony. "I have 500-pound baggage handlers at the airport, smoking cigarettes and eating Philly cheesesteaks, going, “How ya doin’ Mr. Carrey, I’m worried about ya. How’s that ticker of yours doin’?” says Carvey, laughing.

At first, he consulted with his physician, R K. Shah, MD, director of cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Carvey describes him as a “very charming, brilliant Indian man" who could tell that his artery was blocked just by looking at him. The comedian impersonates Dr. Shah using a thick Indian accent while recounting this tongue-in-cheek version of their conversation:

Dr. Shah: "You know you’re blocked, I know you’re blocked, everybody knows you're blocked."

Carvey: ‘“Well, how much?"

Dr: Shah: “One hundred and ten percent!"

Carvey: “Yon mean more than 100 percent?"

Dr Shah: “Don’t kill the messenger! It blows me away too, but it's more than 100 percent! We'll have to give you a Regis thing (referring to Regis Phithin, who has had a couple of angioplasties)."

After sobbing for about half an hour, Carvey decided to take charge. His sometimes dark sense of humor carried Carvey through not one, but three failed angioplasties within 90 days. With each angioplasty—the procedure that uses a catheter and "balIoon" to unclog the blockage—doctors told Carvey he had roughly a 70 percent chance of clear arteries for the next 20 years. But a few weeks later, the frightening burning sensation would return. Scar tissue kept forming inside the arterial wall, impeding blood flow to Carvey’s heart. The procedures wore him down, not only physically but also emotionally. It was time for open- heart surgery, suggested Dr. Shah.

Dr. Shah: “It’s not a problem, minimally invasive, we go in, we’re going to connect the arteries, and everything is going to be good. In fact, I’m doing one right now as I talk to you…”

But instead of going to Dr. Shah at his Los Angeles hospital, Carvey opted to have the surgery in Northem California so he could be close to his wife and two young sons. As they wheeled him into the operating room, Carvey impersonated Woody Allen, and appealed to the nurses and doctors: “I know this is a great idea but I thought that maybe we would just go out for a Frappucino.” Then he teased them: were they sure the saw was sharp?

“I definitely was scared but your brain goes to funny places,” says Carvey. “I thought, well yeah, I could check out. I mean I’ve been dead for ten billion years. Where was I during Napoleon, where was I during the 13th century?”

The 6-hour operation went by like 1 second, he says. “Then you wake up with tubes coming out of everywhere and you’ve got all that morphine in you so it’s not so bad. I saw this nurse and I said, ‘My God, you’re beautiful, how old are you?’ She said, ‘I’m 57 honey, it’s the morphine!”

At first, it looked like the operation had been a success. Then 2 months later, in May 1998, the burning sensation returned. “You know, it was such a test of strength to go through three angioplasties and open-heart surgery,” says Carvey, unable to hide a lingering bitterness. “You climb to the top of the mountain and they go, ‘Guess what, we screwed up.’” Carvey called Dr. Shah, who suggested he fly down to Los Angeles right away. Doctors there discovered the Northern California surgeon’s error. So surgeons at Cedars-Sinai immediately performed an emergency angioplasty—Carvey’s fourth inside of a year. It took another 6 months to be sure of the outcome, but this time, success.

Carvey has since revived his career. He still does stand-up comedy, appears occasionally on Saturday Night Live, and is writing a movie, which he will star in for Columbia Pictures. It’s tentatively titled Master of Disguise. And he is once more exercising like a maniac. In fact, Carvey talked to InTouch about his ordeal for almost an hour while working out on his stair climber machine.

He also has some serious thoughts about doctor-patient respect. “I’m pro-doctor, but I do think that they’re just people. I don’t let them do anything I don’t want them to do,” he says. “You have to have a sense that you’re not just a piece of meat they’re going to work on, that you’re in control and that you keep your dignity.” Carvey isn’t keen on doctors who refer to him by his first name and expect him to call them by their last name. “That’s absurd,” he says. “That means you’re in a subservient relationship, whereas you should be proactive about your health.”

Does Carvey have any other words of wisdom for people with cancer? “Try the best you can to have the attitude: ‘cancer-shmancer,” he says. “It’s a way to buck yourself up, to say, ‘I can take on anything.” He also has a way to deal with people who have none of the facts about someone’s illness, yet make judgments anyway. One such person approached him while he was exercising in a gym in Atlantic City. To set the scene, Carvey impersonates a woman with a Katharine Hepburn—esque voice: “I heard you have freakish anatomy,” she chided. Responded Carvey, “Yeah, I have a baboon heart: It’s ten times stronger than a human heart.” Then he went on the treadmill and ran at top speed. The woman called to her husband, “Honey, he has a baboon heart.” Laughing at the memory, Carvey says, “It was incredible.”

Exaggeration is a device that can take the steam and sting out of someone’s hurtful comments, he believes. Advises Carvey, “If someone says, ‘I heard you got cancer. Is that because you worry so much?’ you can say, ‘Yes, I’m worried and my whole entire body got cancer—only my eyeballs don’t have cancer. Next question.”

Humor aside, Carvey acknowledges that the fear of losing his health changed his life. “This sounds kind of spiritual but I think people with heart disease or cancer have a pathway to more awareness of what it’s like to be alive,” he says. “I couldn’t even compare myself to someone with cancer because I don’t feel that my journey has been nearly as hard as that. But when you have a good day, you really appreciate it.”

Carvey finds he has perspective now. “I would say, just enjoy the ride and know that a lot of people go around asleep and have no gratitude for their feet, their shoes, their hands, their money, their car, their house. They just want more, more, more,” says Carvey. “People who have had physical health problems and a wakeup call get the gift of really being aware they’re on the planet.”

InTouch September 2001