For some time now, Dana Carvey has been cultivating this vision for himself: His creative fires unleashed, he is making big, bright movies, a modern-day Danny Kaye or Peter Sellers; a young, raw Jerry Lewis; fast and smart, cometlike, a throwback, bringing the '50s alive, the '60s alive, blazingly filling up the summer nights the way his idols once did. "Huge," he says of his dream. "It would be huge." And difficult to surrender.
But now, the door to his dressing room at Rockefeller Center is closed, and he is contemplating a different vision. He is sitting slightly forward in a big, black recliner, and his legs are up. His hair is matted, as usual, as if he had fallen off a sled and lost his winter hat. "Yeah, yeah," he says slowly. "I'm thinking about the talk show."
And then he is off. "It wouldn't be a talk show," he says. "It would be like my own comedy playhouse. It would be a blast. I would improvise, go into a thousand characters, a thousand attitudes. I would do my own set of characters, just like [Johnny] Carson did his."
It is late on a Friday evening, during one of those mad, scrambling, endless nights that helps "Saturday Night Live" achieve the excited disorder of a show being put together no matter what. But for the moment, the commotion of stagehands and writers down the hall on the set in Studio 8H is but a far-off hum to Dana Carvey.
Clearly aware that he has become a subplot in the intrigue surrounding David Letterman and Jay Leno (which show each will be the host of, at what time, on which network), he is mulling over the "left turn" that has only recently appeared in his life. NBC has discussed with him the 12:30 a.m. position that Mr. Letterman is sure to relinquish.
"A talk show, my talk show, would give me plenty of freedom," he says.
But it would mean rearranging or even delaying the movie life. He has been working on a script for a movie called "Bad Boys" with Jon Lovitz, a former cast member of "SNL," and was hoping that it would start filming as early as February. The sequel to "Wayne's World," the film that made his character Garth a symbol of adolescent reverse chic, is to begin production in June. And then there's the working title of what he calls his favorite film project: "Hans and Franz: The Girly Man Dilemma."
There has always been about Dana Carvey a quality that makes people wonder, Just who is this guy? In eight years on "Saturday Night Live" he has slid from character to character -- from Church Lady to Garth, from George Bush to Ross Perot to Johnny Carson himself. He moves from a supporting role in one sketch to the lead part in another and then back again.
He has the same demeanor, he says, whether he is lying around his house in Los Angeles or running around the Central Park reservoir near his West Side apartment, or even when he appears at the White House at George Bush's request, as he did a few weeks back.
Mr. Carvey says it must be his face that causes the confusion.
"Many people think I'm just floating around and saying, 'Gee, aren't I lucky to be here,' " he says. "But it's not true.
"If they connect the dots, they'll see I worked hard and put myself in this position."
It is a face with a high, pale forehead. His cheeks are small, his mouth rather odd and twisting. At 37, he has features that appear somehow unfinished, ordinary and pleasant, like an 8-year-old's that are still getting used to one another. Just when their predictable lines seem to blur into a kind of sameness, something rushes from way back, usually from behind the eyes, to give them form and light and the hint of surprise.
At the studio on this Friday night -- it is close to 11 p.m. -- his wife, Paula, and Dex, his 18-month-old son, wait and watch as Mr. Carvey moves serenely from one scene rehearsal to the next. Once back in his dressing room, where there is a sink, his armchair, a straight-back chair, and an overhead speaker that announces the time of the next rehearsal, he springs at the slightest suggestion into character . . . characters, that is. He does not leave his chair. In fact, he has it reclining back, but he might as well be bouncing off the walls, such is his sudden fever.
"Real fast now, see, here's the deal," Ross Perot says. "I've got movies. I've got TV."
"What is it going to be?" Regis Philbin says, in a crescendo.
"Is this wild?" Johnny Carson says with his chin out. "This is just wild."
"Wrong!" blares John McLaughlin.
When his visitor lets on that he does the world's best Jerry Lewis impersonation, Dana Carvey reaches the edge of his seat.
"Really?" he says. "Let me see."
"No, I don't think so."
"Come on man -- let it go," Mr. Carvey says, and then with gentle prodding, he begins to screech in his best 1950 Jerry Lewis voice, "Deee-an, Deee-an."
And then his visitor, loosened, screeches back.
"That's the way," Mr. Carvey says, and he confides that he enjoys hearing other people do voices almost as much as he enjoys doing them himself.