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Family Room

A Chat With Tim Conway

Whether playing a bumbling ensign on the '60s sitcom McHale's Navy or cracking up co-stars on The Carol Burnett Show, Tim Conway has always been one funny guy. Later in his career, he toured with fellow Burnett alum Harvey Korman, and hosted the Christian stand-up DVD Thou Shalt Laugh 2. We talked about TV comedy, including its moral slide:

Let's start with your latest project, Together Again. How did that come about?
Harvey and I did a live show together about eight years ago. We took along a girl, Louise DuArt, who was on Broadway and is a great impressionist. So we put together a little show that was kind of like a traveling Carol Burnett Show. It took off. We ended up doing eight years at about 125 shows a year throughout the U.S. and Canada. Then we decided to make a DVD of it. It's out now. There's only one copy. I have it. I bring it around, house to house. Actually, you can get it through timconway.com.

How has television changed since you visited people's living rooms every week?
On the Burnett show, our comedy centered around crazy characters and situations, and Carol never believed in offending anyone. There is very little nowadays that isn't offensive. Even commercials are getting offensive. Not long ago, because of all the language on cable, one of the major networks announced which words it would start using in the coming season so it could compete. How far have we come that you have to announce, "We're going to use the s-word, the f-word and really open it up this year"? I have turned down unbelievable amounts of work, not necessarily because the character I would have been playing was going to be offensive, but because the characters surrounding me were going to be offensive. I didn't feel comfortable being part of that.

We've heard of Christian actors taking roles in questionable shows and arguing, "But my character doesn't compromise, so it's OK."
Is it? Not if you want to watch the whole show it isn't. Kinda hard to just watch one character. [The late] Don Knotts is one of my best friends. We talked a lot about how many things we had turned down, especially in the later years, because the material was so bad. And not just bad, but grotesque. For one thing, you don't expect that from us.

Is that what motivated you to work with the Parents Television Council?
Steve Allen asked me to be part of it when it first started. At the time I wasn't sure I should, because I was in no position to cast any stones. When I found out we weren't going to be burning scripts and shredding videos, I thought I could help encourage [the industry] to put those shows on after 10 p.m., beyond where the kids can see them. I wanted to lighten the load a bit for parents. Nowadays, I watch television with my kids and I'm so embarrassed that I can't stay in the same room with them. And my kids are in their thirties and forties; it's not like they're teenagers. I came through childhood with three channels. You never found swearing or nudity or violence or anything of that nature. Violence was Roy Rogers shooting a cow. Now, with 400 channels, you can find anything you want on TV. You have to be very selective.

In the '60s, TV writers and entertainers came from the worlds of vaudeville and radio. Today's grew up watching television, and they just seem to be recycling that perspective.
That's exactly what it is. When writers are asked to do a situation comedy, they go, "We'll get six people and a funny dog and two funny neighbors." And there it is. All of the shows have a great similarity. There will be at least three different nationalities represented, and of course funny children. I have seven children and I don't remember them being very funny. Where do these funny kids come from?

Speaking of children, most haven't seen your classic physical comedy, from McHale's Navy and The Apple Dumpling Gang to Dorf. Does it bother you that this emerging generation knows you only as the voice of Barnacle Boy on SpongeBob?
Not necessarily. Of course, it's easy for me to do the physical stuff. I'm a natural athlete—every muscle toned to perfection. Funny, my granddaughter was the one who told me I was Barnacle Boy. You go in to record something and the guy says, "It's gonna be a cartoon in a year." And you go, "Swell." So one day it came on and my granddaughter said, "I think that's you." And I said, "You know, you're right!"

Some of your funniest TV moments found you improvising in ways that left your fellow actors fighting back laughter. How did you do that?
George Burns could make Jack Benny laugh just by looking at him, and I could do the same with Harvey. I was a writer on the Burnett show, so I would write a sketch for Harvey and myself, we'd rehearse it one way, and then when we did it on air I'd do it totally different. So he never knew where I was going with it. "The Dentist" is a sketch that wasn't working at all. So I told Harvey I might try sticking myself with novocaine near the end. He said, "OK, but it's not going to save it." He laughed harder than the audience. Those were great times. It became part of the show. The producer was fine with it, because it got the crowd going. We didn't have a laugh machine, so if you didn't hear a laugh you heard the air conditioner.

As you reflect on your career, what are you most proud of?
Probably that I entertained and left people laughing and, though it may be presumptuous of me to assume that everyone is interested in clean humor, I did it funny for funny. For the most part, I don't have anything to apologize for.

Published September 2007