Harvey Korman considered himself a variety show survivor
Variety shows are an American staple. Where else could you see talents like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Sid Caesar on one stage in the same week?
A variety show is known for having a bunch of unique acts including singers, actors, dancers, comedians, and more. The variety show era gave us TV classics such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and The Danny Kaye Show.
The Carol Burnett Show is considered an elite variety show, with over 70 Emmy Award nominations and 25 wins. The show parodied all things pop culture and included an all-star cast featuring: Tim Conway, Vicki Lawrence, Carol Burnett, and Harvey Korman.
Harvey Korman was one of the many talented actors to be affected by both the rise and decline of variety shows. The Carol Burnett Show was able to help Korman rise to fame, but the decline of them left him without a job.
By the late 1970s, nearly every variety show had halted production, partially because of audience burnout. Out of all classic variety shows, Saturday Night Live is the last to remain, making it the longest-running variety show still being broadcasted today.
Korman's decade of sketch comedy on The Carol Burnett Show was considered to be a TV milestone. Korman became the master of a dying art and needed to find something new.
Rather than waiting around for what few roles might be offered, Korman went a new direction: directing.
Mama's Family was his saving grace. The series, which ran from 1983 to 1990, was originally based on a Burnett sketch titled "The Family." Korman co-directed over 30 episodes.
"Look, variety could be like vaudeville," Korman said in a 1983 interview with The Albuquerque Tribune. "It may never come back. I can't wait around. I have a reputation as a sketch comic. Now that's gone, where do I go? What do I do? Higgins isn't interesting enough to sustain for a half hour week after week."
According to the interview, Korman had to learn how to be a good director. Luckily, the Mama's Family cast was loaded with actors he had already worked with in the past, which made it easier to give direction.
Korman was able to use his versatility on The Carol Burnett Show and Mama's Family. He could play any character, ranging from quiet to chaotic.
"The autonomy of directing doesn't bother me," Korman said. "I don't feel any ego loss. I don't need acknowledgment for seeing my ideas work out for another actor, and it's not any less fulfilling for me. In fact, I get a bigger kick out of getting something to work well for another performer than I do for myself."
Korman said he admired Vicki Lawrence's ability to be funny while playing the role of someone much older than she. She was only in her 30s when she played the role of Thelma Harper, who was in her 60s.
"Carol and I, along with Vicki, were the focal points of the sketches," Korman said. "Without the two of us, Mama has become more human, more dimensional, and her relationship with others is softer and more believable. I don't know if viewers really miss Carol and me. Vicki's relationships with the other characters are so interesting and different that I doubt it."
Directing may not have been Korman's first choice for a career path, but he came to love it through his time with Mama's Family.
"I think I know comedy as well as anyone around right now," Korman said. "I believe I can get actors to do their best work. I enjoy the totality of directing."
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