Comedian Harvey Korman, Laughing Until We Cried
Saturday, May 31, 2008
If you were a boy growing up in the '70s and interested in learning how to make people laugh, there were three easily accessible instructional videos in the art form: "The Carol Burnett Show," Mel Brooks's movies and the "Pink Panther" films.
Harvey Korman, who died Thursday at 81, was an indispensable part of the first two and even showed up in a couple versions of the latter.
The bigger kids in the '70s were playing George Carlin's "Class Clown" and Richard Pryor's "Greatest Hits" albums. Those of us a little younger were not allowed to listen to those cutting-edge comedians yet. Instead, we grew up on a borscht-based diet of slapstick, ethnic exaggerations and groan-inducing puns. It's odd to think about it now: It was like training an entire generation of teenagers how to be 50-year-old Jewish stand-up comics.
The tall, Mephistophelean Korman was much more than that. Described as the quintessential second banana, Korman became the embodiment of a classic comedy role: The scheming, mustachioed Talleyrand, unctuously seeming to serve his superior -- usually played by Brooks -- but ever plotting for his own gain, only to be hilariously undone by his vanity and unfortunate choice of names. Think of him as a wonderfully hammy American version of David Niven.
In Brooks's 1974 ribald Old West spoof, "Blazing Saddles," Korman played Hedley Lamarr, a corrupt attorney general to Brooks's clueless governor. Korman's character is constantly referred to as Hedy Lamarr, the 1940s actress, which of course made no sense, timeline-wise. But that was Brooks's delightful world. It was merely a construct to allow Korman, in his upright, annoyed priggishness, to continually protest throughout the movie: "It's pronounced 'Hedley!' "
In Brooks's 1981 "History of the World: Part 1," which adroitly tells the stories of the Roman Empire, Jesus, the Spanish Inquisition (a show-stopping musical number!) and the French Revolution, Korman plays a powdered, prissy and lecherous noble at the court of Louis XVI.
Brooks was the king of the pun, and in "History," Korman's character was named Count de Monet. The gag still worked, at least in Korman's hands. The memorable scene came when a footman raced toward Korman shouting, "Count de money! Count de money!" (Hahaha!) Korman squeezed the footman's mouth like that of a fish, trying in vain to get him to pronounce it right: "That's de Mo-NAY! Say it with me: de Mo-NAY!"
(There is a scene in Brooks's 1977 "High Anxiety," a Hitchcock sendup, that involves Korman, a mental patient, a rubber band, paper clips and werewolf teeth. It is impossible to describe but a masterful piece of comic choreography.)
Most people, though, knew Korman from his work on "The Carol Burnett Show," which ran from 1967 to 1978 on CBS. As part of an ensemble cast including Burnett, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway, Korman was the yeoman comic, playing any number of roles. Korman did voice work on "The Flintstones" animated series (he was the Great Gazoo) before "Carol Burnett," and in live action was able to showcase his physical timing in addition to his vocal flair.
Korman's most memorable work on "Carol Burnett" came from mistakes.
He seemed incapable of sharing a scene with Conway without cracking up. Whether Conway was doing his shuffling old man or his "Mrs. a-Wiggins" boss, if he and Korman made eye contact, Korman was down for the count. The shorter Conway would gaze up at Korman, fixing him with a blank stare, as Korman tried in vain to get off his line, his face contorted in comic agony, his rigid body rippling with unsuppressible snickering. By then, the audience at home was in tears.
Understand this: It is a generous act by a comic actor to let the audience see him break character. That means he is comfortable enough in his skin to let the other actor have his moment. And Korman knew that sometimes the best way to get someone else to laugh is simply to let them see you doing it.