[Editor’s Note: Gene had the privilege of working with Tim Conway for many years on The Carol Burnett Show and on Tim’s Variety Hour.]
One quality that is often overlooked in comedy performers is “uniqueness.” Many people can be funny, only the outstanding can be hilarious, yet different from those comics that went before them. Tim Conway epitomized that creativity. Often it seemed on The Carol Burnett Show that Tim Conway’s goal in life was to force Harvey Korman to laugh. That’s partly true. Tim’s goal in life was to make everyone laugh.
There were times when that included Tim Conway himself. Once on the Burnett show, Tim was doing a sketch with Steve Lawrence and Harvey Korman. The basic premise of the playlet was that the central character was being pursued by two potential clients. It was cleverly written so that it seemed like a wife was leaving her husband for another man. It was funny writing. Tim, though, was determined to make it funnier.
As he sat in a restaurant booth with the two other performers, he had secretly had a piece of spinach (or something that looked like spinach) stuck between his front teeth. He thought that when he opened his mouth, the other two actors would break out in uncontrollable laughter. They didn’t. But when Tim noticed that his joke didn’t work, he broke into uncontrollable laughter—so much so, that we had to postpone that sketch and reshoot it later.
We had another sketch in which Harvey Korman had no lines and Tim had only one line which set the premise for the bit. The rest of the routine was done in pantomime. That was the plan, but not when Conway got hold of it.
He spoke his opening line, then continued on for almost another 10 minutes of hilarious, improvisational dialogue (actually a monologue because Harvey never said a word). No one except those in the studio at the time ever saw the sketch because Tim’s side-splitting speech was cut due to time limitations. Instead, the sketch as originally written was aired.
Tim Conway brought a “uniqueness” to any script he was given. He read over the lines, absorbed them, and then always brought something a tad different to each character he played. Burnett fans will remember Tim’s “Old Man.” The shuffling walk and slow movements were Conway’s innovations. In one scene, he tripped at the top of the stairs, and brilliantly managed to fall down the stairs in slow motion. In the “Eunice” sketches, which later became the sitcom, Mama’s Family, Conway played Harvey’s assistant at the hardware store. It was his idea to add a fake hearing aid and talk to Mama as if she were stone deaf. It brought lots of added laughs to the sketches. The poorly fitting toupee and the unidentifiable accent were innovations he concocted for his infamous “Mr. Tudball” sketches.
Tim added something different, unusual, and ingeniously funny to all of his characters. This didn’t just happen. It took dedication, thought and creativity to invent these comedy gimmicks and have them work.
That was the brilliance that Tim Conway brought to any show he was on. He was dedicated to laughter and he worked hard to create comedy. He will be missed, but fondly remembered so long as people enjoy comedy.
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