The straight man who couldn't keep it straight

>> Friday, May 30, 2008

Checking the news before bed, I see that Harvey Korman has passed away from an aneurysm at age 81.


You live long enough, you start outliving people, that's the way it goes. The earlier generations slip away slowly but surely, and at 81 Korman's death is hardly a remarkable thing. He had a good, long run, longer than a lot of people get. And yet I can't help feeling a little sad. Okay, it's been a long time since Korman's best work graced us--maybe thirty years, even. But he was a part of the landscape, part of my backdrop even after he'd all but retired, only popping up for the occasional second-rate later Mel Brooks films almost as a favor to his old friend.


When I was growing up, reruns of the Carol Burnett Show were on every single weekday in the afternoon. I can remember watching them in the afternoons or early evenings, before or even during dinner. I haven't seen an episode since the early '80s and yet I probably remember nearly every sketch from that show, there are probably Carol Burnett sketches hardwired into my neurons now that I've long forgotten. The single best thing about the Carol Burnett show, though, wasn't so much the written comedy (which was frequently hysterical): it was that whenever Harvey Korman was partnered with Tim Conway, he was physically incapable of keeping a straight face even though he was always supposed to be the straight man in the classic Conway/Korman sketches. In this day and age, when Jimmy Fallon has mysteriously been able to retire from Saturday Night Live to pursue leading roles in movie comedies, the uninitiated might think Korman was an amateur and incompetent like Fallon, but the reality is that practically nobody could keep a straight face onstage with Conway in his prime. Korman was the perfect foil for Conway precisely because he sort of transcended the straight man's traditional role of proxy for the audience and helplessly became part of the audience.


The infamous dentist sketch, of course, may be the paradigmatic Conway/Korman sketch:



Any younger readers shouldn't mistake Korman's breakdown during the dentist sketch or my aside about "second-rate Brooks movies" the wrong way. Korman was a brilliant, professional comic who could carry a scene just fine, and in several of Mel Brooks's classics, Korman could dominate. Dracula, Dead And Loving It was a travesty, a sad sight to see Korman sleepwalking through poorly written and paced scenes as an obvious favor to Brooks, but Korman's work in Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety and History Of The World Part I, from Brooks's fecund genius period, is absolutely brilliant. Here's Korman trying to swear in a motley crew of evil henchmen in Saddles, and trying not to lose his cool and assault the moronic ruffians before they can rape, pillage, burn and rape (some of them like rape) the town of Rock Ridge, obstacle to his dreams of dominating big-voiced, gorgeous German hussies (note that Korman is also one of the few people in the world to pronounce the word "evil" correctly, enunciating both of the "e"s in the word):



And, also from Saddles, here's Korman making the word "shitkicker" much funnier than it ought to be (with an assist from Slim Pickens):



As I mentioned, Korman was a fixture when I was growing up. He was a villain in one of the "Herbie" sequels, had a cameo in the Star Wars Christmas Special, showed up a number of times on The Love Boat, played The Great Gazoo on The Flintstones, sold gadgets and disguises to Inspecter Clouseau. His IMDB page lists some ninety-four film and television appearances, a bulk of them from those years in the '70s and '80s when my pliant young mind was at its most impressionable, making him something of an icon for my generation. And if his death as an old man isn't a surprise, it's also a given that he will be missed, remembered fondly, and above all else: loved.



3 comments:

Janiece Murphy Friday, May 30, 2008 at 9:34:00 AM EDT  

I hadn't heard about this.

It makes me sad, also, for the reasons you mentioned. I loved the Carol Burnett show.

My favorite Conway/Korman sketch was the Watchmaker.

Sigh.

kimby Friday, May 30, 2008 at 9:46:00 AM EDT  

Another piece of my childhood gone forever.
I loved the Carol Burnett show, but only for Korman and Conway.

And the circle of real entertainers gets smaller and smaller.

Nathan Friday, May 30, 2008 at 6:59:00 PM EDT  

I saw Carol Burnett interviewed recently and she was talking about everyone's favorite sport on the show was trying to make Korman lose character on the air.

When they did the "Gone with the wind" sketch, she made sure Harvey didn't get to see the "curtains dress" until she made her entrance during the show.

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