Thursday, May 29, 2008

RIP Harvey Korman

My earliest distinct televisual memories are not of Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers or even Warner Brothers cartoons, but the Carol Burnett Show. Yes, I am old enough to have seen the last few seasons when they originally aired. And some thirty years later, I have to say that most of that stuff just doesn't get old.

Given my proclivity for colorful language, and my concern for maintaining a certain level of "cool" cred on this blog, perhaps the foregoing assertion comes as a bit of a surprise to you. After all, Carol Burnett and the troupe did "family entertainment" (yuck!) -- and thus, compared to, say, Lenny Bruce (another hero of mine), they were in fairly tame territory. Certainly they didn't get too far into the "satire as a weapon of social critique" thing that I love so much.

But the way I see it, Burnett was "family entertainment" in a vaudevillian sense. Hers was, essentially, a comedy show for grownups that also happened to appeal to kids. Most "family entertainment" today takes the opposite approach: it is, essentially, kids' entertainment that throws an occasional (usually pathetic) bone to grown-ups. (Dreamworks, I'm looking at you.) Burnett could count on drawing the kids because she never really got into anything terribly controversial (or topical) -- instead, sketch after sketch was about social interaction in a more abstracted and (dare I say it?) "timeless" sense. Sort of like the Marx Brothers. Or Shakespeare.

Harvey Korman was, of course, an essential ingredient in Burnett's comic stew. He was the show's John Cleese -- no one in the cast was better at lampooning bombastic authority. Actually, perhaps the best evidence of Korman's talent in this regard came via a different context, when he played the sputtering bureaucrat Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles (another one of my many favorite films).

But there were other things about Korman's role in TCBS that would make a big impression on me. My favorite (inevitable) moment on any given episode was when the actors or the material would become so silly that the dramatic illusion (they're actors: they're on stage and they can't laugh at what they're doing) could not withstand the pressure. Korman was usually the first to crack (by cracking up), and while perhaps most acting coaches would frown upon such a thing as "unprofessional," to me that was always the high point (and maybe the point) of the show. It meant that the humor had become so important that Korman could no longer control himself -- and what could be funnier and more honest than that? (Needless to say, I would later be drawn to the sort of music that allowed for precisely the same possibility that things could bubble over at any moment.)

Anyway, what you have in the clip above is classic Korman -- physical comedy par excellence, an exquisite portrayal of pomposity (somehow simultaneously suggesting the humility of the actor himself), a hint of Korman's talent for ensemble work, and, toward the end, a brilliant example of the man's skill as an improviser: taking a "mistake" and turning it into an unanticipated moment of hilarity.

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