Tim Conway: An Unsentimental Inventory

We heard the news early this morning that comedian Tim Conway (b. 1933) has been sinking into dementia for years. My sympathy for his family, though they have been dealing with it for a while now apparently. So I thought today might mark the most opportune time for a blogpost — his birthday or the occasion of his death being hugely inappropriate times for some of the things I’ll be saying. There is no appropriate time for publishing negative remarks about an artist, I suppose, which is why I’ve never done a post on Tim Conway yet. But I do have occasion to mention him from time to time, as his career intersected with some of our usual beats: slapstick, variety television, sitcoms. And he hasn’t died. In fact nothing in particular happened to Tim Conway at all today other than a press release. So here’s yer post.

I know he has his fans, but I don’t rate him high. I dug him for about a year or two I guess when I was about 10 or 11 years old, but once I discovered more sophisticated comedy (including more sophisticated slapstick) the honeymoon was over and I could never go back. And YES — slapstick can be sophisticated. It is a thousand year old art form. In the hands of great screen comedians like Chaplin and Keaton it was incredibly sophisticated. In the hands of Tim Conway it was never that, just a lot of threadbare, well-worn regurgitations of exceedingly obvious comedy cliches, making somebody else’s funny faces and stepping into waste baskets for the 10,000th time.  I was appalled when Steve Allen praised Conway’s comedy and dissed John Belushi’s in his book Funny Men: it’s like preferring Joyce Killmer over Byron.

Conway’s other comic mode besides the slapstick was more promising — a dry, almost Canadian manner that might have worked well for him as a comic actor if he’d gone with that strength. He sort of reminds me of Richard Nixon, a sort of mouth breathing, sweating, balding square. If he’d done really biting Nixon sketches I might enjoy that. But he’s too nice. If you’re too nice you’ll get no traction with me — it means you’re okay with everything — and everything ain’t okay. In Conway’s era, Americans were consumed by greed, dropping bombs on the Vietnamese, denying rights to black people. The other comedians were ya know, Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Nichols and May, Richard Pryor, the Second City People. Yeah, no, I’ve got no time for Tim Conway crossing his eyes, or fumbling with loaded pistols or whatever — comic business that was already out of date before he was born.

“People need that” is going to be the kneejerk reply. Frankly I don’t care what the privileged, entitled, fat ciphers of this empire think they need. They need a kick in the ass as far as I’m concerned. There’s your slapstick for ya.

My main impetus for this post was a desire to communicate the fact that there was more to Conway’s career than most people probably know or remember. They’re no doubt aware of a handful of well-known tent poles, but he also starred in many other shows that came and went quickly. So this thumbnail inventory:

Local Television in Cleveland (1958-61)

From roughly 1958 through 1961, Conway was teamed with local announcer Ernie Anderson (movie director P.T. Anderson’s father) at a couple of local Cleveland stations in a team that has been compared to Bob and Ray, but not terribly aptly. Straight man Anderson was pretty much just an announcer type; Conway did all the characters, and unlike Bob or Ray, he was always pushing out the “funny”. Conway later re-teamed with Anderson on a couple of comedy records, and they did some national TV variety shows as a duo. Anderson later went on to become one of the announcers on The Carol Burnett Show (we’ll be blogging more about him at a later date).

The Steve Allen Show (1961)

Rose Marie is said to have discovered Conway when she happened to see his local spots while in Cleveland. She encouraged him to audition for the cast of The Steve Allen Show. He got the gig, joining luminaries like his future collaborator Don Knotts, as well as Bill Dana, Tom Poston and Louis Nye. More about Steve Allen here.

McHale’s Navy (1962-66)

Next Conway was cast in his longest-lasting and most memorable sitcom role, the bungling Ensign Parker on McHale’s Navy. My blogpost on the show is here.

Rango (1967)

Conway was such a break-out star and audience favorite on McHale’s Navy, he was given his own sitcom to star in the year after it was cancelled. Rango was a comedy western in which Conway played a bungling Texas Ranger. It had much in common with F Troop and the later Dusty’s Trail. It also had a theme sung by Frankie Laine, a full seven years before Blazing Saddles revived the concept for comedy purposes. Rango only lasted one season, but as I’m sure you already know, it would not be Conway’s last comedy western.

The Tim Conway Show (1970)

Conway was reunited with his old McHale’s Navy cohort Joe Flynn (who somehow didn’t rate a name in the title) in this sitcom about a pair of guys running a tiny local airline. This one also lasted only one season. TV Guide’s Cleveland Amory quipped, “One thing you’ve got to say about this show — it may not be good, but it has a terrific laugh track.” But then Conway immediately got this:

The Tim Conway Comedy Hour (1970)

From here Conway shifted gears and headed up his own variety show. This too only lasted one season. Amory again: “The show’s average sketch is so overwritten…and so overbroadly played and directed, that it goes very rapidly over the unfunny line.” Conway’s most memorable sketch work was to occur on somebody else’s variety show — and you know who that somebody is.

The Carol Burnett Show (1975-78)

Conway had actually been making regular guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show since it launched in 1967. In 1975 he joined the cast of regulars. When I said above that I liked him for a couple of years, this is of course when it was. Like the other kids my age, I imitated him doing that shuffling old man, and the Swedish boss Mr. Tudball, and whatever. But soon after that, Saturday Night Live premiered and there was a sea change. I now look at the earlier period as a time when I didn’t know I was naked.

Family Films for Disney and Others (1973-80)

The World’s Greatest Athlete (1973), The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975), Gus (1976), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), The Billion Dollar Hobo (1977), The Went That-a-Way and That-a-Way (1978), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979), The Prize Fighter (1979) The Private Eyes (1980). You’d have to have a heart of stone not to love these heart-warming family comedies. And apparently that’s just what I have.

The Tim Conway Show (1980-81)

He tried it again in 1980, hoping no one would notice or remember that he’d already had a show by that name a decade before. (“New”, huh?) Now riding on his Carol Burnett glory he tried it again, and with some of Burnett’s cast members, but the gambit pooped out.

Ace Crawford, Private Eye (1983)

Conway’s next sitcom Ace Crawford, Private Eye only lasted one month. One of the cast members was Billy Barty, which is surely what gave him the brilliant idea for this:

Dorf videos (1987-2011)

Yeah, I bet Little People fuckin’ love Dorf. I guess Conway isn’t that nice — though this is nasty in all the wrong ways. This routine kind of reminds me of the music hall performer Little Tich, with the notable difference that Little Tich was an actual Little Person. You think it’s funny? Pretty much any person can do this.

Tim Conway’s Funny America (1990)

This semi-reality show was a sort of Candid Camera in which a disguised Tim Conway played pranks on people. It only lasted a couple of months.

Yes, Dear (2001-05)

He had a recurring role on this ensemble sitcom.

On the Spot (2003)

He was a regular on this improv sketch show with Jeff B. Davis et al. It lasted 5 weeks.

Don’t forget things like this.

In 2013 he co-wrote his autobiography, What’s So Funny? The answer is: another TV show!