Harvey Korman, who died today at age 81, appeared in a number of big-name movies, from "Blazing Saddles" to "High Anxiety" (not to mention his voiceover work as The Great Gazoo, or his role in the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special"). But to a large contingent of fans, he will be remembered as much for how he made himself laugh as for how he made us laugh.
"The Carol Burnett Show" was a highlight of my childhood TV watching. I still remember taking a clunky old tape recorder and pushing it up to the TV to record the show so I could listen to my favorite sketches over and over. (Yes, young folks, this was before we had VCRs and TiVo.) Burnett was the leader, but Korman, Tim Conway and Burnett lookalike Vicki Lawrence were a rock-steady supporting cast.
"Carol Burnett" never went for the low blow, the tasteless joke. The comedians were adults, and came across as such. The infamous "Gone With the Wind" parody and the occasional sketch where a harried homeowner faced down a houseful of product mascots (flushing the Ty-D-Bowl Man, for one) were a precursor to the snarky parodies "Saturday Night Live" would become famous for.
Korman will be remembered for many individual roles -- Eunice's husband Ed on the Mama's Family skits included. He could play a rural American or a snooty British prince with the same ease. He had an imposing stature and voice, but within seconds, his face and body could relax into a comedic doughiness. It's said that "Brady Bunch" star Robert Reed regularly complained about how ludicrous that comedy's plots were and tried to get creator Sherwood Schwartz to change them. You got the feeling Korman would never think himself above a joke...if it was funny, if it made people laugh, he could pull it off.
But when I think of him on the show, the first thing I think of is his inimitable partnership with fellow cast member Tim Conway. There's a famed sketch where Conway plays a novice dentist and Korman his poor patient. Conway tries to follow instructions from a book as he tends to Korman, and ends up numbing his own hand and leg with novocaine. This leads to classic Conway slapstick as he tries to perform dental work with an unresponsive hand.
Korman begins the skit as the classic straight man, but very quickly starts to give in to Conway's mugging. He tries covering his laughter with his hand at first, but slowly he starts to shake and giggle. He manages to grab back his serious mien a few times, but by the end, he's just about sinking out of the dental chair into a puddle of laughter on the floor. I suppose today we might view the onscreen crackup as unprofessional, but it never even occurred to me to view it that way then. It was just a tribute to the show that even those who'd presumably read the lines a dozen times and rehearsed the scenes over and over could still be driven to uncontrollable laughter by them.
That's how Korman, Conway, Lawrence and Burnett always came off...they were professionals, but they weren't on any kind of "Actors' Studio" pedestal. They reminded you of your friends, or your parents' friends, or your funny uncle and aunt...who lived to laugh and were determined to get you cracking up right along with them.
It was comedy you could watch with the kids and with the grandparents, but it never felt dumbed down in order to reach such a broad audience. Korman's death reminds me how much I miss that kind of comedy. He, too, will be missed.
Share your favorite Harvey Korman memories in the comments.