Appreciating Harvey Korman

Rarely has a supporting player in comedy been as widely recognized, loved and respected as Harvey Korman (1927-2008). While virtually never the STAR of anything, Korman often stole the show in character parts AROUND the star. He attained the summit of his field in television sketch comedy, was memorable in several films, and also played guest starring roles in tv dramas and sitcoms.  His mixture of dignity and insanity reminds me a lot of British comedians; Americans usually possess one or the other quality but seldom both. His characters were often British or French or otherwise continental. He specialized in “affected” characters; snobby waiters, hotel clerks, and the like.

Unusual for a Chicago comedian of his generation, Korman was not one of the Compass Players/Second City people; he studied at the Goodman School of Drama and then moved to New York where he studied at HB Studios. Frustrated with his lack of progress in the theatre and a nightclub comedy act he moved to Hollywood where he began to get work in film and television. His first film credit is a Herschel Gordon Lewis exploitation film Living Venus (1961). Lots of television work ensued. He made repeated appearances on The Donna Reed Show, Dr. Kildare, The Jack Benny Program, The Lucy Show, The Munsters, and The Danny Kaye Show. One of his first well-remembered stints was as the voice of the little floating Martian the Great Gazoo on The Flintstones (1964-66). He’s hilarious as a lecherous school principal in the 1966 George Axelrod comedy Lord Love a Duck with Tuesday Weld, Roddy McDowell, Max Showalter, and Ruth Gordon. He also has a turn as a German colonel in the Allen and Rossi comedy The Last of the Secret Agents (1966).

1967 was when the Harvey Korman of legend came into being when he began a decade-long run on The Carol Burnett Show. He won four Emmys for his work in that legendary ensemble, and it gradually lifted him out of the forgettable sort of movies he had appeared in during the late ’60s and early ’70s. The chief engineer of this was Mel Brooks, who cast him in his best known film role, the villain Hedley LaMarr (referencing Heddy) in Blazing Saddles (1974), and later in High Anxiety (1978), History of the World Part One (1981) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995). Similar films from his high water period as a film comedian included Americathon (1979), Buck Henry’s First Family (1980), and two of the later Pink Panther films (1983-84) in which he played “Dr. Balls”.

In 1977 he learned the limits of what he dared aspire to as a star however, when he quit The Carol Burnett Show in order to spearhead his own vehicle The Harvey Korman Show, which was cancelled after six episodes. Korman later continued to work with his old castmates however, on The Tim Conway Show (1980), Eunice (1982), and Mama’s Family (1983-84). During this period, he was also in a couple of memorable television stinkers: The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, and Bud and Lou (1978), the Abbott and Costello bio-pic in which he was woefully miscast as Bud Abbott to Buddy Hackett’s Lou Costello.

The ’80s proved an awkward period. He did a half dozen episodes of The Love Boat, then attempted a couple of other failed sitcoms, Leo & Liz in Beverly Hills (1986) with Valerie Perrine, and The Nutt House (1989) with Cloris Leachman, co-created by Mel Brooks. Later he was in the films Radioland Murders (1994) and Jingle All the Way (1996), various Flintstones reboots, and did lots of voiceover work in animated cartoons.

To learn more about the variety arts (including TV variety), please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.