Dick Martin and Harvey Korman, both taken from us in one week? Oh, man, that is harsh! I’m not good at math so there’s no way I can possibly calculate the multitude of times these two wonderful performers made me laugh through the years.
Dick Martin of course was the co-host of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and that show’s mixture of burlesque, vaudeville, and topical humor is something we haven’t seen the likes of since. I never got to meet Dick Martin, but when I was a writer on “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch,” for one episode I was privileged to work with Laugh-In alum Ruth Buzzi, Joanne Worley, and Alan Sues. They were exactly as I always imagined them to be: funny, goofy, silly, and really, really nice. And when they spoke of Dick Martin it was with deep affection. Apparently he was a great guy.
I never met or got to work with Harvey Korman, but I’ve been a huge fan of his for as long as I can remember. I don’t have to go into how brilliant he was on “The Carol Burnett Show,” or how consistently great a show that was, because everybody knows that already. But in the years before he was on Carol Burnett’s show, he was a regular on “The Danny Kaye Show,” which ran for four seasons. I have always known of this show’s existence, but I have never seen a single episode. I find it strange that a star of Danny Kaye’s magnitude did a television program for four years and it’s hardly been seen since. I would love to see this show resurface, if for no other reason than to see early examples of Korman in action.
Both Harvey Korman and Dick Martin did their greatest work in television, but they both were in a few movies, and since this blog is usually about movies, I thought I’d explore their film appearances. Most of these films are pretty obscure, but that’s never stopped me before.
HARVEY KORMAN MOVIES
LORD LOVE A DUCK
This is a crazy and weird little movie. Co-Written and Directed by George Axelrod, who wrote the terrific screenplays for “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” this film is a satire on popular culture in Southern California. That kind of thing is quite common these days, but in 1966, the year of this film’s release, there weren’t many movies that satirized popular culture in Southern California. A little bit ahead of its time, it’s a fascinating, if uneven and not entirely successful movie, but Korman is very funny in it.
THE LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS?
I am tempted to say this a forgotten film, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate because I’m not sure it was ever remembered in the first place. It stars the comedy team of Marty Allen and Steve Rossi, who were at the height of their fame when this film was made, also in 1966. What, you say you’ve never heard of Allen & Rossi? Ah, such is the fragile nature of fame. They were a big deal in the mid-sixties but now they are all but forgotten, except by people like me, who think about them way too often. I have always been known to have a certain obsession with Allen & Rossi; their catch phrase “Hello Dere!” was referenced more than once on MST3K, and I actually have the poster of “Last Of The Secret Agents?” hanging in my bedroom. But I can’t watch more than two minutes of it; it is totally unwatchable. And I’ve never stayed with it long enough to even see Harvey Korman’s scenes. But when all is said and done, let’s not forget that this is an Allen & Rossi movie that features Harvey Korman, so it does have some meaning to me. What that meaning is, I have no idea.
I think most Harvey Korman fans would agree that this was his greatest big screen performance. “Blazing Saddles” still makes me laugh every time I watch it, but I don’t know if I can convey to you how new and funny it seemed when it first came out in the early seventies. In the decades since there’s been a lot of comedies filled with curse words and jokes about bodily functions. But it was still a novelty when “Blazing Saddles” came out. But with all the scatological humor, nothing was funnier than Harvey Korman’s character, Hedy Lamar (‘That’s Hedley!”), extolling a posse of cowboys to “Do do that Voodoo that you do so well!” And there’s been lots of farting in screen comedies since then, but the campfire scene in “Blazing Saddles” should have been the first and last word in cinematic flatulence. It’s the best farting scene ever because it was completely logical: in Western movies cowboys are always sitting around a campfire eating beans, and it’s a medically proven fact that beans can cause a person to pass gas, so therefore showing a bunch of cowboys faring as they ate beans made perfect sense. I know this may sound like a strange thing to say, but at the time, the “Blazing Saddles” farting scene was like a breath of fresh air.
DICK MARTIN MOVIES
ONCE UPON A HORSE
Here is another comedy western, this one made in 1958, that did not quite have the impact that “Blazing Saddles” had almost a decade and a half later. This film was a starring vehicle for Dan Rowan and Dick Martin a full ten years before they achieved true stardom with “Laugh-In.” I think the reason why Rowan & Martin were given this opportunity so early in their career was because in the fifties, the impact of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the most popular comedy team of that era, was still being felt. So Rowan & Martin emerged in the fifties at a time when comedy teams were all the rage. In fact, there was a team back then, Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, that was an exact clone of Martin and Lewis, and by that I mean a total carbon copy rip-off. Mitchell & Petrillo had their own starring vehicle in 1952 called “Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla” (yes, that’s the actual title of the movie!). Back when I was in charge of screening movies at Mystery Science Theater 3000, I recommended that we do this film on the show. Not one other person on the staff agreed with me. They looked at me like I was crazy for wanting to do it. I’ve always regretted that we never gave “Bella Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla” the MST3K treatment, although I have to admit, my co-workers were right. I was crazy for wanting to do it.
THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT
This film, made in 1966 (again!) was a Doris Day movie, at the tail end of the era when there was still such a thing as a “Doris Day movie.” Dick Martin had a supporting role in this featherweight concoction that couldn’t have been more irrelevant to the times in which it was made. I only bring this up because around this same time, Mike Nichols offered Doris Day the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate.” It’s true! She was his first choice to play that part! Now, Ann Bancroft was absolutely great as Mr. Robinson, but it’s fascinating to consider what might have happened if Doris Day had taken the part. She might have become newly relevant to the new audience of moviegoers and filmmakers that transformed American Film in the seventies. She could have ended up working with maverick directors like Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet and Hal Ashby and launched a whole new phase of her career. But it was not meant to be, mainly because Ms. Day did not wish for it to be. She turned down “The Graduate” and instead starred in her own self-named sitcom and then retired to Northern California to focus on animal rescue, and God bless her for that. Que Sera Sera. Whatever will be, will be.
THE MALTESE BIPPY
This is of course the seminal Rowan & Martin film, their magnum opus. It was the movie they made as a result of their huge “Laugh-In” success. Its only drawback is the fact that not a single person on this earth, including myself, is capable of sitting through it. Heavily hyped when it was released, a week later it was completely forgotten. But Rowan & Martin simply went back to making their TV show and entertaining audiences for several more seasons.
Harvey Korman and Dick Martin. Are we going to miss them? You bet your sweet bippy we will.
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