You want to laugh right away. You pick up the phone and the caller says he's Tim Conway, and you just want to laugh. His ability to disarm audiences and actors alike is so built into our collective cultural consciousness, that a simple introduction leaves you in stitches.
Conway has teamed up with his old Carol Burnett Show colleague Harvey Korman to tour with an evening of sketch comedy that offers audiences the kind of entertainment they grew accustomed to during the 11-year run of the classic variety show.
"If audiences were coming to see a Burnett show today, this would be what they would see," Conway told the Indy in a phone interview from New York. Conway and Korman have been touring the show for nearly two years, reviving the art of sketch comedy and revitalizing their professional relationship.
The material is almost entirely new, although the characters are often familiar.
Conway's Old Man character returns, the slow-motion shuffler who speaks and moves with impeccably slow timing, drawing out laughter from unanticipated exaggerations of the simplest movements and pronunciations.
"I think the Old Man is probably one of my favorites," Conway said, singling the character out from among the hundreds he's created in his career. As with much of his comedy, the character had its origins in Conway's own experience. "I broke my back when I was in high school. I'd cracked a vertebrae in half in a football game. Between the pain and the fact that I'd broken my back, for some time I walked like the Old Man. People were always making fun of me, but that's as fast as I could go. It was hysterical to a lot of people, so I called on that in a later time in my life, and it worked."
One of the secrets of The Carol Burnett Show was to keep the material fresh by keeping rehearsals to a minimum. "Towards the end I don't think it was even two hours," Conway explained of the preparation process for each week's live taping. "Carol didn't want to give a lot of it away by showing it to a lot of people." The shows were filmed in front of a live audience, and whatever came out on stage was what went on film, no retakes. "If a set fell on your head you might stop and say, 'Excuse me, could we do this again?' But most of the times, even that was left in."
No highlight reel from the show is complete without Conway breaking up his fellow cast members, surprising them with both spontaneous and carefully plotted-out bits to unleash on them. "When I wrote a sketch, a lot of it was pre-meditated," Conway explained, and bits such as his Hitler hand-puppet interrogation of Lyle Waggoner, his "Dentist" sketch with Harvey Korman, and his "Siamese elephant" bit from a Eunice and Momma sketch come to mind as examples of his merciless, cold-blooded tormenting of his peers.
Sometimes the situation offered up spontaneous opportunities for him to put his quick comic mind into action on the spot. He recalled a dry cleaners sketch where, as the Old Man, he ended up stuck on an automated rotating clothes rack. "It actually stuck on, so every time I passed Harvey I would do my line, but they couldn't stop it, so I would just keep going around and around on this thing. Harvey, of course, was wetting his pants because they couldn't stop this thing and I was hanging from a hanger on it and they were just dragging me around on this thing."
Trying to analyze what makes physical comedy work, Conway looks at everyone from Dick Van Dyke and Michael Richards to Al Gore in the debates last fall: "Is this not an awkward man trying to look casual?" Conway's comedy is always character-based, a physical expression of a character's vulnerability. "A physical comic doesn't necessarily have to do a back flip," he explained of his balance between subtle nuances and broad humor. "You don't have to fall out a window."
Conway got his break after directing a Cleveland talk show that was "so bad we couldn't get guests, so I was also the guest." Conway ad libbed bull fighters, trumpet players and truck drivers, and he earned an invitation to join the cast of The Steve Allen Show, the pinnacle of what Conway aspired to. "They did to an audience what I wanted to do to an audience. To have the opportunity to do my very first show in front of a national audience on Steve's show; I thought, that's about as good as it gets."
When the show's run ended, Conway had a string of less successful ventures broken up by his gig on McHale's Navy. If you do a web search for "TV's Biggest Flops," you'll quickly find Conway's show Turn On, cancelled 20 minutes into its first episode. "I own the world record on that one," Conway admitted. "It was way ahead of its time," Conway explained, citing a joke about the Pope that crossed a not-so-fine line. "It was twenty minutes into the show, and they said, 'Turn it off.'"
Three failed variety shows and a sitcom later, he concluded he "was not comfortable in having my own show. I was very comfortable in doing somebody else's show. I worked better as a second banana. I finally ended up on the Burnett show as a utility player, and that was where I was most comfortable."
Conway has maintained the tradition established on Burnett of sticking to comedy that he calls gentle. Burnett's cast "didn't pick on a person or a situation that somebody had embarrassed themselves nationally with," said Conway. "We just went for situations in real life that were amusing to people and that had happened to people and we recreated it for them."
When asked to pick a favorite from all the sketches he's played in, Conway comes back to "The Dentist," the only sketch in the new show that he and Korman recreate directly from The Carol Burnett Show. The idea came from Conway's own dentist telling him about a dental student who poked a needle of Novocaine through a patient's cheek and into his own thumb, paralyzing it.
The sketch is a classic, and Conway says it's "because Harvey had not seen what I was going to do with the Novocaine until the very end when we actually did it on the air. That's why he looks like a moron sitting there just wetting his pants. Before we did the sketch, he said, 'You know this sketch really sucks. It's not funny.' And I said, 'Well I'm gonna try a little something at the end, maybe it'll work, maybe it won't.'" With Conway in control, those gambles usually pay off, and his willingness to "try a little something at the end" are the famous last words that have launched far more than a thousand belly laughs.