Tim Conway: Remembering a Comedy Genius

By Daniel Dullum

In October of 2003, I received a call at my office in Sacramento, Calif., asking if I were interested in an interview with Tim Conway to promote an upcoming comedy concert at the Sacramento Auditorium.

After asking about the current tour with longtime colleague Harvey Korman, I asked if there was anything else he had lined up that my readers should know about. Conway responded, “I do have a dentist appointment coming up…”

We covered as much ground as time allowed that afternoon, and Conway was most generous and great to interview, though there was often a thin line between a straight answer and a put-on.

After The Carol Burnett Show was cancelled in 1979, Conway and Korman continued to work together in various stage and film projects, like the tour that brought them to Sacramento.

Now, they’re both gone —Korman died in 2008.We lost Tim on May 14, complications from “a long illness,” we’re told by his publicist. Conway was a unique talent in that he never craved the spotlight, preferring to be the second-banana, the guy getting laughs behind the star.

Remembering a comedy genius, here’s my report, from Oct. 7, 2003:

 

In the course of conversation, Tim Conway couldn’t help but look back fondly on the golden age of television variety shows that existed in the 1960s and 1970s—like the seemed to be his second home, “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“In-demand comedic talents like Conway and his peers could stay busy just making the rounds of the three major networks’ variety circuit.

“At the time, there were at least a dozen shows —Sonny & Cher, Glen Campbell, Ed Sullivan, a lot of stuff that was at CBS. Plus Dean Martin, Hollywood Palace, all of those things were available to us,” Conway said by telephone from his Los Angeles home. “They were great fun because I probably worked with everybody I ever wanted to work with in this business.”

Though the variety show is as good as extinct on network television these days, Conway and Harvey Korman—his long-suffering comic foil —are on the road, giving audiences another chance to sit down together and enjoy their good-natured, yet off-beat humor one more time.

In the years they worked together on “The Carol Burnett Show” from 1967 to 1978, Conway specialized in breaking up Korman when he least expected it. For their live shows, that element remains unchanged.

“We started out winging the whole thing, then the booing and hissing got to be so loud that we decided, ‘Maybe we should write something down!’” Conway quipped. “It’s really a traveling variety show,” he continued. “The best way to describe it is as The Burnett Show. We do some of the old characters like ‘The Old Man,’ ‘Dorf,’ ‘Mr. Tudball,’ stuff like that. The audience is familiar with what we’re doing.”

One of the beauties of the Conway/Korman show is their ability to put a contemporary spin on classic characters, without worrying about trying to recreate their past glories.

The Burnett Show was always a kind show. We didn’t really tear anybody apart. We made fun of ourselves rather than someone else. So, we had a very broad audience. We never divided it by saying we’re Democrat or Republican, so it appealed to everybody and still does.”

Acknowledging that chemistry between performers either happens or it doesn’t, Conway said he had no idea his talents would mesh with Korman’s until they worked together on The Carol Burnett Show.

“I hadn’t met Harvey before the Burnett show. He was doing The Danny Kaye Show (CBS, 1963-67) at the time I had done a couple of Kayes, but I never really met Harvey,” Conway said. “We clicked on the Burnett show, and we have ever since.”

In 1989, Conway took his Dorf character and created a home video, Dorf’s Golf Bible, that spawned a cottage industry for the veteran comedian.

“It started out as a lark with the golf,” Conway said. “We just took a couple of cameras out and horsed around on a golf course for a couple of days. The next thing you know, you have to make sequels.”

Early in his career, Conway worked in the promotion department of a Cleveland television station where his on-air skits caught the attention of Steve Allen. His big break came as a popular regular on the 1962-66 sitcom McHale’s Navy.

Conway endured a number of short-lived series before his semi-regular status on The Carol Burnett Show earned him four Emmy Awards (Korman also won four Emmys during the show’s run).

Though he misses the variety format, Conway is skeptical about its possible return.

“I don’t know. A lot of people get in the way now—producers, directors, assist producers, assistants to the assistants,” he said. “When we did the Burnett show, I don’t ever remember talking about the ratings in the 11 years I was there. Joe Hamilton (producer and Burnett’s husband at the time) never let any executives see the show until it was actually taped.

“They weren’t allowed in the booth at any of the rehearsals, anything, and the show did very well because the people involved with the show knew what they were doing.

“I don’t think a network today would allow that to happen.”

Besides the tour, Conway appears on “Yes, Dear” (with former Burnett regular Vicki Lawrence), “Hollywood Squares,” and provides cartoon voices for SpongeBob SquarePants.

Conway noted that it’s Korman who has increased their travel schedule every year.

“We started out doing 30 or 40, then we did 50, now we’re up to 85 of 90. We really enjoy each other,” he said, adding, in jest, “He thinks I’m a very good friend of his, so we’re trying to keep that masquerade going …”

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