Here are the brilliant Tim Conway and Harvey Korman in their classic, fall down laughing, "Dentist's Sketch". Even Harvey loses it during the sketch, thanks to Tim's irrepressible ad-lib antics --although in actuality that happened more often than not, whenever the two worked together. But belated kudos should also go to CAROL BURNETT SHOW writers Kenny Solms and Gail Parent, who dreamed up the framework within which these two comic geniuses could do what comic geniuses instinctively do, given the proper "situation". The result was a sketch that still works, more than 40 years later. CLICK ON THE ARROW in the middle of the picture above and try, just try, not to laugh. And while I'm still rummaging around in this corner of my mind's attic, I'd be remiss if I didn't tip my topper to the two people who made it all possible -- the infinitely talented, remarkably charismatic, impossible not to love, Carol Burnett and her (then) husband Joe Hamilton, who was one helluva Producer. Without the creative insights of that dynamic duo, none of what would become the now legendary CAROL BURNETT SHOW would have ever seen the light of your TV sets.
NOTE: Telling this story that I've titled "MEMOIRS OF A MEDIATED MIND" in this blog format was prompted by requests from some of you, after I republished a couple of articles that appeared in the SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY ALUMNI MAGAZINE 28 years ago - one of which was entitled "From Hollywood To Hopiland"*. The article told of my having left a successful career as a comedy writer in Hollywood and gone to the Hopi Indian Reservation where I would experience a series of events that - as some of you commented after you read the article - sounded like something out of a Hollywood movie. What the article didn't explain is what made me leave Hollywood and go to Hopiland -- which would turn out to be only the first leg of a journey I'm apparently still on. What follows, explains what it was that triggered my leaving. But I warn you now, that what I'm about to relate really sounds like something a Hollywood writer would conjure up, put in screenplay format and shop around from Studio to Studio, confident that someone would eventually pick it up. It's that bizarrely unbelievable. In fact, at an event that the CBS Network held honoring the CAROL BURNETT SHOW, which had made many many many millions of $$$$$$$$$ for them during the 11 years it was on the air, as I was telling this part of the story to longtime Los Angeles TV news luminary Kelly Lange who'd also asked me how it was I left Hollywood, something happened that prevented me from finishing the story. As she too was listening to what I'm now going to relate, dear friend and former co-writing-staff member on the BURNETT SHOW, Gail Parent, who'd brought Kelly over to my table in the first place, suddenly interrupted me and said "Oh Bill, you're so impressionable!" , and got up and walked away -- so I never finished telling Ms. Lange the story. I don't blame Gail. If I was sitting at a table and somebody started telling me what I'm about to tell you, I might very well have done the same thing. But Gail, if you're reading this, this is exactly what happened. And to prove that I still love you, I'm dedicating this particular segment to you and your CAROL BURNETT SHOW writing partner Kenny Solms (who possesses one of the kindest hearts in Show Business) -- Hence the video excerpt above from just one of the countless "fall-down laughing" sketches you wrote during the years we worked together. And Gail, if you do in fact read this, please call Ms. Lange and tell her that - if she's still interested - the part of the story she never got to hear, is now online and available for her - uhm- enjoyment, I hope.
*For those who missed seeing the reprint of the SU Magazine article, you'll find it in the "THAT 70'S SHOW" Category of this blog.
It’s called the “Red Eye”, and back in my Show Business days it was my favorite plane ride. You got on in New York just before midnight, flew across three Times Zones, landed in Los Angeles in the wee hours of the following morning when traffic was still navigable, got in your sky blue ‘67 Mercedes 250 SE convertible, drove up the San Diego Freeway, crossed onto Highway 10 going West that empties out next to the ocean, then North up the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu and your little oceanview apartment, with its own private sun deck that overlooked Las Flores Beach. Sweet.
So I settled into my aisle seat, strapped myself in and didn’t even mind the wait before we got permission to take-off. By then I was deep in thought over what I had experienced during the last few weeks of my life – beginning with the two Live TV productions we had managed to successfully mount and execute on location in a foreign land, and the people I’d met in the process. Quick flashes of all the international stars that had showed up to participate in celebrating a nation’s 25th year in existence in "VENUE ONE" - a stage built on the very grounds where King Solomon’s Temple once stood -- From the stereotype-shattering Star whose always classy, sensuously hypnotic talents had held audiences in two (and now three!) continents in her thrall for almost half a century, Josephine Baker - to comedian Alan King at the top of his game - to movie star Susan Strasberg, daughter of Actor’s Studio founder Lee Strasberg, who had a special connection with this nation, for at the age of 17 she made her debut on Broadway in the leading role of the Pulitzer Prize winning play “The Diary of Ann Frank”, to (then) groundbreaking woman correspondent Barbara Walters, to an appearance by our "Executive Producer" Prime Minster Golda Meir. DISSOLVE TO "VENUE TWO" . I'm in the wings of the stage of the 2,000 year old Amphitheater in Caesarea. Standing just a few feet away from me, waiting for his cue to take stage as the Bible's "Prodigal Son", is the premier Superstar of Ballet Superstars, the incomparable Rudolph Nureyev. His beautiful, strangely aloof presence is in absolute repose. I don't know about the "absolute repose" part, but if I looked like that wearing practically nothing, I'd probably be pretty aloof too. Suddenly that nakedly costumed, perfectly conditioned presence is infused with superhuman energy that sends it leaping and twirling and leaping and twirling into a spin that blurs that magnificent presence for more than a few breathless moments till it reappears again in a dead-stop Center Stage pose that's immediately followed by the astonished gasps of the mesmerized audience, then A BEAT and then a ROAR of approval and APPLAUSE that DISSOLVES TO the quiet, book-filled study of Israel's "Founding Father", David Ben Gurion who is honoring me with a first person account of how he helped give birth to his country as we DISSOLVE TO a beautifully appointed room in the King David hotel where I'm having tea with Golda Meir, virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern and the great cellist, Pablo Casals who is telling us how he begins each day – even now, in his ‘90’s – by “practicing” . That’s the word he uses - “practicing”. And when I jokingly ask him if he really thinks he needs the practice on that cello, which he's just finished playing in a brief, private concert and that he's now lovingly holding as if it's alive - perhaps it is - he cheerily explains that what he's doing every morning is fulfilling an obligation he believes he has, for having been given the gift of playing as he does -- adding: “One serves as best one can.” So much for my joke. And DISSOLVE TO the beautiful English countryside that surrounds the Brockwood Park School --- I'm walking with Mary Zimbalist, Krishnamurti and his dog ‘Whisper” -- no exchange of words is necessary, we just walk -- and now I'm in an enormous tent that's filled with thousands of mostly young people - We're all listening intently to one of JK’s always challenging talks ... and now I'm at that table in the Dining Hall shaking hands with Professor David Bohm, for the very first time.
All of these scenes taken together could have been enough to qualify my little trip away from LA LA Land as a life-changing experience. But, as if all that I had been in the process of recollecting so vividly wasn't enough, Life was about to play one more card from its eternally surprising deck.
It was no more than a minute or so after the pilot had announced that we had just leveled off at such and such an altitude where we'd just reached such and such a cruising speed and finished off his mini- infomercial by suggested we all get some sleep as he proceeded to dim the cabin lights, when a nice-looking, well dressed young man in his early 30's in the aisle seat across from me courteously and soto-voce asked, if he could speak with me. He was holding a little few-months-old baby in his arms and a woman who I assumed was his wife occupied the window seat on the other side of the empty seat next to him, so I said: “Sure.”
He then asked, in an unmistakably British accent: “Do you have anything to do with Indians?”
Indians?! I had never even met one. Unless he meant India Indians. I had just left Krishnamurti who was definitely that. But that’s not what he meant.
“I mean American Indians... You know, Native Americans.”
This was 1973 when the latter term was just being introduced as the proper way one referred to the original inhabitants of this land we call America.
I said “No, I don't even know any." - while in my mind, I was thinking that I wasn’t sure I had ever even seen one, except in the movies. And most of them were white guys or women who were darkened up to look like what movie people thought Indians should look like. (They don’t do that anymore. )
And that’s when the British guy hit me with this game changer: “Then I guess you’re not aware that you have Indian entities around you”.
Indian what?! Here we were 30,00 feet in the air and this guy was telling me I had what? around me? What the hell was an “entity”? It is psycho-physiologically impossible for comedy writers to respond to a situation like this with anything but a joke. Doesn’t have to be a good joke – just as long as it at least has the rhythm of a joke and is delivered wryly. But before I could say something like “Oh, you mean Tonto... He’s an old family retainer we keep around for laughs... ”, he kept on talking!
“Not to worry, they’re friends and they're here to keep you safe. I noticed them when you got on the plane. "
If the guy hadn't been holding that little baby in his arms I would have figured he was nuts and called a stewardess - or a cop! Maybe he was nuts. Maybe the baby was just a prop - Same thing with his supposed wife. And that British accent! Maybe they were all from some kind of Monty Python group - including the baby. They found a captive audience (ME!) and figured they'd audition for a spot on the BURNETT SHOW.
All of the above raced through my travel weary brain. But keep in mind, I was already a veteran of six years in Hollywood and, travel weary or not, that does something to your brain that makes it impervious to shock. Not that you don’t hear or see what’s happening, you just process it all differently - like you’re watching a movie. And this was a movie I had never seen before. Who had?! So I watched and listened.
(TO BE CONTINUED)