Friday, November 6, 2015

The Sketch Danny Saved by Obliterating

Danny Kaye had a blast helping to destroy this Mikado spoof on a 1964 episode of The Danny Kaye Show, and crack up Imogene Coca and Harvey Korman in the process.
The new Danny Kaye: Legends DVD contains several slick entries of the Danny Kaye Show, but one episode that was so riddled with screw-ups it could have turned into one of the most embarrassing productions Kaye was ever associated with. Instead, thanks to Danny’s ad-libbing, it turned into one of the most fun.

What helped tremendously that week were two of Kaye’s co-stars, guest star Imogene Coca and series regular Harvey Korman. Coca had decades of experience adjusting to mid-performance mishaps. In 1939, she and Danny had appeared in dozens of sketches together live on stage at Camp Tamiment, and in the 1950s she and Sid Caesar had performed countless more sketches on live TV. Kaye’s TV series wasn’t live, but almost. It was shot “live on tape,” meaning it was recorded straight through in real time and then aired on CBS, usually with minimal editing, four nights later.

Series regular Harvey Korman, on the other hand, had much more trouble keeping a straight face when the unexpected came up, as weekly viewers of the Carol Burnett Show know (which Korman signed on for weeks after the last Danny Kaye Show aired). Tim Conway, in particular, knew Harvey’s weakness and would delight in trying to crack him up and get him off script.

Danny wasn’t quite so bad, but would occasionally try to break up Korman to help liven up a so-so sketch. Such was the case on the taping of December 6, 1964. Practically from the start, things started to go wrong. During a quick cold opening astronaut sketch, Danny stumbled on some of his lines and laughed it off—but you can see that he’s amused by Harvey slightly dropping his straight face, just for a millisecond. A dance number and a “perpetually-unemployed Rudy” skit followed, without a hitch. But then came Tony Bennett singing a few songs and one of the camera operators, for some reason, kept shooting the overhead boom mic.

Next up was one of Imogene Coca’s patented routines, a spoof of Swan Lake, with her in a molting swan costume. Although a comedienne, Coca had also spent years studying ballet and would frequently parody it. Swan Lake, too, went off effortlessly, because it was a number built around Coca and one she had performed many times before.

But then the wheels came off the bus. At Tamiment, Kaye and Coca had done a Jewish Mikado. So for the TV episode’s big production number, they’d do a World War II Japanese Mikado, called the Fledermikado.

From the opening scene, the actors started tripping on some of their lines. Korman began losing a little of his composure. Kaye—probably sensing the sketch would otherwise be flat—called him out mercilessly. He also took note of all the other things that kept going wrong—what was supposed to be an avalanche of hats falling from the sky turned into a dribble. Harvey hit his hat on the top of a low doorway. Harvey’s fake beard fell off. Kaye used the fallen beard as a punchline and prop for the remainder of the sketch, at one point even pinning it on Coca’s chin. By the end of the skit, he had the entire dancing troupe in hysterics.

Proof that this disaster was far more hilarious than if they would have stuck to the script is the fact that, as was their custom, the episode was taped in front of a live audience twice, once where the sketch went relatively smoothly, and once where everything went wrong. You can see which version ended up airing the following Wednesday night.