When I was a kid, one show we looked forward to each week was ‘The Carol Burnett Show.’ The unscripted laughs were part of the fun.
One of the best parts about CBS’s The Carol Burnett Show, which ran for 11 seasons, were the sketches involving Tim Conway and Harvey Corman. What made them so great was Conway and his ad-libs. He tried to break up everyone, but Korman was his real target.
“I think Conway’s goal in life is to destroy Harvey,” Burnett told EmmyTVLegends.org once in an interview.
Burnett explained that they recorded every episode before a live audience twice. The first was a “dress rehearsal” but taped as though it were the real show. After that first performance, everyone would reset and prepare for the “real” show. The editor had the option to pull from either show or both when one joke worked better in one show than another.
Conway would ask the director if he “got everything he needed” from the first show. If the director said yes, Conway knew he had carte-blanc to ad-lib to his heart’s content for the second show.
Conway vs. Korman
The first time she says she saw it happen was in a sketch called “The Dentist,” in which Conway played a newbie dentist. Conway began ad-libbing accidental injections with novocaine and hilarity ensued. In fact, at times, it looks like Korman is almost in pain trying to hold back laughter until he just can’t anymore.
You can watch the full sketch here, and it’s worth a watch.
Conway also had a recurring character called “The Oldest Man.” He used a white wig, a slow speech pattern and a walk made up of little shuffles. He did his best to break up Korman as often as possible. Somehow they developed a private joke involving his use of the word Koala and Korman was always a goner:
I’m going to refer you now to a specific sketch between the two called “The Hot Dog Vendor.” Korman plays a businessman who stops by for a hot dog and a milkshake. Conway’s “Oldest Man” runs the stand.
“The Oldest Man” character in this sketch is exactly what kept popping in my mind during a stop at a grocery store coffee bar.
Is this a ‘Carol Burnett Show’ sketch?
I stopped by a “higher-end” grocery store the other day and decided I would visit an in-house coffee bar. An older woman — I’d guess she was in her 60s — was running the bar at that moment. She asked me what I’d like to order and I ordered a caramel macchiato. From what I’ve seen, that seems to be a basic drink for most coffee bars.
She was very nice, but moved only slightly faster than Conway’s character. Her first action was to move to the espresso machine and reach for a binder underneath. She looked up the recipe for the drink.
She set the machine and grabbed a cup. Then she stopped and returned to me.
“What kind of milk would you like?”
“Regular is fine,” I said.
She went the refrigerator and pulled out regular milk and began pouring it in a metal pitcher. After getting it ready for frothing, she paused again and returned to me.
“Do you want the espresso just poured over the milk or do you want it mixed?”
No one ever asked me that before. Honestly, I never paid much attention to how most baristas made the drink. So I just guessed: blended.
She slowly returned to the espresso machine that hadn’t yet done anything, apparently because there was one last button, probably labeled something like “Brew,” that she hadn’t yet pressed. It appears that button didn’t occur to her until she frothed the milk, poured it into the cup, and realized there was no espresso to blend or pour.
Have you ever tried to keep a straight face against a funny thought at a funeral?
Some of you know exactly what I mean when I ask that question. A funny thought hits you at a place where laughing out loud — or even cracking a smile — would be wholly inappropriate.
A funeral. A church service. A serious business meeting.
They’re places we know we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be overcome with laughter. I think that’s why, when a funny thought hits us in such a place, it’s that much more of a challenge not to laugh.
It was at about this moment that the “Oldest Man” sketch popped into my head. Every time this kind, sweet lady came over with another perfectly innocent question, I thought of Conway. She wasn’t trying to be funny. I think she genuinely wanted to give me exactly what I wanted and was new enough at her job that she didn’t want to make any mistakes.
I completely respect that and I appreciate her concern.
At the same time, it just reminded me more and more of that sketch. The more she asked, the harder it was to avoid chuckling.
She came back to ask about whipped cream. I managed not to chuckle and just said, “Yes, please.”
She turned and walked the slow pair of steps back to the cup. Then she stopped and returned again.
“Do you want to taste it before I go any further to make sure it’s OK?”
I did chuckle a little that time, but I assured her I always add a little sweetener, anyway, and that it looked like she’d done everything just right. For the first time, she cracked a smile, which made it a little easier for me to get away with cracking a smile. (Even though, of course, we were both smiling for different reasons.)
I wouldn’t have wanted her to think I was amused by her cautious approach to making coffee. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to make her feel bad or less secure than she obviously seemed to be.
For the record, the coffee was made just the way I hoped. I guess blended was the right choice, after all.
But that blasted Carol Burnett show sketch stuck with me the entire time.