Friday, May 30, 2008

Another TV Favorite Passes On -- Harvey Korman, 1927 - 2008

It's been a depressing week for fans of classic television. We learned yesterday of the death of comedian Harvey Korman, the tall, versatile and always magnificent supporting player probably best-loved for his years co-starring on various versions of The Carol Burnett Show. After several years in Hollywood making the rounds as an actor on various early 1960s-era series like Hennessey, The Untouchables, Surfside 6, Perry Mason, I'm Dickens, He's Fenster, Perry Mason, Route 66, Dennis the Menace, The Lucy Show, The Jack Benny Show, and so many others -- be sure to check out his IMDB credits for the whole impressive list -- he got his big break when he became a regular on The Danny Kaye Show, appearing as Kaye's second banana in assorted sketches. When Kaye's show ended after four years, Korman made a smooth transition to working with Carol Burnett, and the rest is television history. (There is an incredible and long interview with Korman about his television career here on YouTube, from the Archive of American Television.)

In addition to his years with Burnett, which led to a continuing working relationship with fellow comic Tim Conway in projects other than the Burnett show (check out this amazing set of three interviews with Korman and Conway about their long collaboration), Korman frequently appeared on the big screen in movies such as George Axelrod's satiric Lord Love a Duck, Three Bites of the Apple, Herbie Goes Bananas, and of course he was a favorite of Mel Brooks, starring in several of the director/writer's best efforts including Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety. Korman had a short-lived eponymous show of his own in 1977, and continued to be a frequent TV guest star on series like The Love Boat, Ellen, Diagnosis Murder, and ER, in addition to doing voice work on popular animated series The Flintstones, Garfield and Friends, The Wild Thornberrys, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command and many more.

What better way to appreciate Korman's contributions to television comedy than by watching a few of his bits, starting with this sketch from The Danny Kaye Show.

And here's a bit from with Carol Burnett as they play "The Old Folks":

And here's Korman and Conway together in their famous "Dentist" sketch:

And a fan put together a nice montage set to the song "Put On a Happy Face" which highlights Korman's comic career:

The really bad thing about losing somebody like this is that you realize you've taken him for granted, probably all these years, assuming he'd always be around, making comedy for us to enjoy. At least we have DVDs and video (copious amounts of his material on YouTube, so far at least!) and those hours of Harvey Korman will be a legacy that will surely go on.


Dean Treadway said...

Oh my God. Now this is devastating to me. I loved Harvey Korman. In my opinion, he should have been nominated for an Oscar for his slimeball performance as Hedy ("That's 'Hedley'!") Lamarr in Brooks' Blazing Saddles (I love the scene where he's trying to get his henchmen all riled up to kick some ass with a rousing, nasty speech that concludes with him talk-singing this: "Now go do--that voodoo--that you do--so we-ELLL!")

But that is not even touching on his most famous roles on The Carol Burnett Show, the chief of which will always be his role as Ed, the always-on-edge husband of Eunice, the put-upon Sounthern wife who wanted something out of life she never, ever got. Carol Burnett once said that if "The Family" (as the running skits were eventually known) was played out as drama, using the exact same writing, they would approach the heartbreaking quality of the best Tennessee Williams plays. This is true. No other variety show had this level of penmanship; "The Family" was astoundingly funny, but it had a strong current of disappointment and loss running through its veins. Korman's magnificent performance as this simple-tasted but ultra-fed-up hardware store owner named Ed was a key element in transmitting this to audiences.

Of course, the other side of the Burnett coin was his priceless interplay with the other cast members, none more so than Tim Conway, whose magnificence in always confounding Korman's expectations with his improvs almost always resulted in Korman's inability to contain his own laughter. Back in the mid-70s, when Saturday Night Live was Burnett's new competitor for the variety show crown, the upstart SNL writers looked upon the Korman/Conway crack-ups as a sign of the show's comedy weakness. But now, still under producer Lorne Michaels, SNL cast members regularly bust up over each other's hijinks. But with them, it feels like fakey self-congratulation. With Korman vs. Conway, it really seemed as if Korman wasn't expecting anything like what Conway was delivering, and when we saw him laugh, we were laughing with him as much as at him.

I loved his sly voice, his prematurely grey hair, his lankiness, his often dry and fey delivery, his mock-anger, his willingness to throw himself totally into roles. He was a comedy mastermind. God, he was great! See ya, just keep on laughin', man.

Geez, this HAS been a depressing week for TV and movies! Give us a break up there, willya?

Jane said...

I couldn't take the Sturm and Drang of the multiple TV giant deaths anymore, although Lisa's magnificent posts and your scholarly comments were riveting. Ever the escapist, I had to post something that I know (at least Lisa) would find uplifting. Onward to the stars.

Jane said...

A tip of the cowboy hat to the brilliant Harvey Korman..."Don't call me Heddy!" And as a gauntlet thrown down for Dean, I would be willing to argue that the most poignant moment of Carol Burnett's program would not even be a molecule on an atom of dew on the hair of a gnat's bottom, compared to the least poignant moment of any line from The Glass Menagerie. Ever.

Sorry, I am quite sensitive when it comes to Mr.T. Williams. Just ask Lisa about the dueling Blanche DuBois's.

Dean Treadway said...

I guess I could understand that, Jane. It's possible that I misinterpreted Burnett's quote--she said that "The Family" was simply "like" a TW play, and not as good as or better than one. I think I was reflecting my own taste there. Because, though I like the three biggies--Cat, Streetcar, and Menagerie--given a choice, I'd much rather watch "The Family." ...cuz they're funny. Not many laffs in TW (though Stanley startling Blanche with his imitation of a cat screech always makes me smile).

"molecule on an atom of dew on the hair of a gnat's bottom," huh? That's pretty small. Sure you don't wanna go for half a molecule?

Lisa said...

And I have a big confession to make. I can't stand The Carol Burnett Show or Carol Burnett, never could, but loved Harvey Korman. I'm just relieved that there does seem to be a lot of his material extant and available. The other interesting thing about him is that he's just on the edge of being really attractive, and that can be rare in a comic. In another era he might have made a very credible light comedy second lead in movies, but he wouldn't have left such a bountiful legacy for comedy fans.

Jane said...

Holy smoke, Lisa. We really were separated at birth. I never "got" Carol Burnett either, and I always thought I was the only one. The one thing she ever did that I thought was enormously clever was to wear the rod with the green velvet dress that Scarlett made out of curtains in GWTW. Great visual.