Watch: Carol Burnett once intentionally left Harvey Korman hanging and he completely lost it onstage
Plus: Tim Conway once explained just what a "Harvey Korman type" is.
Not all the laughs on The Carol Burnett Show came from the audience. Some of the biggest laughs escaped from performers onstage, unable to keep from cracking up at their hilarious costars. And while Vicki Lawrence was famously the hardest cast member to get to crack, others on the cast including Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman often added an extra layer of fun, trying to get the players sharing their scenes to break.
This honestly wasn't to the show's detriment, either. The audience soaked up the delight emanating from The Carol Burnett Show's stars. We wanted to laugh, both at them and with them. It was a subtle part of the show's successful formula, and looking back, for a lot of fans, it's a source of fondness just as much as the guffaw-worthy characters these actors portrayed over 11 seasons.
According to Korman in an interview with the Archive of American Television, however, Carol's variety show was never expected to last that long. Korman said, "CBS had a contractual obligation to have [Carol Burnett] do a variety show. I think they figured she was going to do 13 weeks and get out and that would be the end of it. I don’t think they ever expected it to be a hit."
But it was a hit, and that had a lot to do with finding the perfect supporting characters to surround the star Burnett, and on the cast of The Carol Burnett Show, Harvey Korman remains a standout element. It's no wonder then that they specifically sought out someone like him to join the show.
From the start, Burnett and her crew knew they were looking for someone like Korman to plug into their show, and when The Danny Kaye Show ended just before Carol's began, Burnett decided why hire a "Harvey Korman type" when you can go for the original? The story goes that she didn't wait to set a meeting with the famous TV straightman. Instead, she walked right up to him in the parking lot the moment the curtains closed on his prior show.
Korman remembered she said, “Would you like to be on our show?” Korman said his response was, “Would I!”
What's a "Harvey Korman type," you might wonder? In his interview, Korman is joined by castmate Tim Conway, who defined a "Harvey Korman type" as follows: “I think a man who is extremely talented, can do voices, can do characters, can do just about anything with a sketch. Very physical. … and able to do just about anything and most importantly, knows when to shut up. That’s, I think, the most important thing about a combination of comedy people is for the other guy not to jump in and just shut up and let something play.”
Korman laughed in agreement, then he said what he thought a "Harvey Korman type" was: "I think a man who is extremely talented, can do voices, can do characters, can do just about anything with a sketch. Very physical. … and able to do just about anything and most importantly, know when to shut up. That’s, I think, the most important thing about a combination of comedy people is for the other guy not to jump in and just shut up and let something play.”
This leads us to the point of today's story. Because Korman was such a dependable straightman, Burnett once decided to let the audience in on a joke aimed straight at him, knowing he'd fall into a trap she laid out specifically just for him during a first season sketch that aired on The Carol Burnett Show in 1968.
While Korman is unwittingly backstage, Carol turns to the audience and explains that the scene will require Korman to bend over at a certain point, where her character is supposed to slam a swinging door into his head. Instead, Carol explains, "We're going to throw him a curve now," saying she's going to intentionally miss her cue, leaving Korman hanging.
Why would Carol do this? "We just want to see what he does," she says with impish delight. Watch the video above to see how it all plays out for poor unsuspecting Harvey Korman.
Of course, this little joke was one in a long history of The Carol Burnett Show cast members throwing "curve balls" at one another. Korman said the special camaraderie of the cast was due to a speech Carol delivered just before their very first show:
"Before we walked into the rehearsal hall, she said, ‘I don’t care what happens, whether the show makes it or not, I just want to have fun. I want us all to love each other and have fun. And let’s do it.' That’s the attitude we went into the rehearsal hall with for the very first show. And that never left.”