Tim Conway could make you weep in the very best of ways.
The comedian, who died today at the age of 85, did it all the time on The Carol Burnett Show, where Conway rose to fame. His knack for improvisation, deadpan delivery and comic timing made his castmates, especially Harvey Korman, laugh until they cried. Here, take a look at arguably one of Conway’s most famous sketches.
Naturally, Conway’s career encompassed more than the Carol Burnett Show, from stage to the movies to even voicing a character on SpongeBob SquarePants. He won six Emmy awards and numerous other honors in a career that spanned six decades. But as funny as he was, Conway took entertainment very seriously, as we learned when Bob Smithouser interviewed the legendary funnyman for the Plugged In print magazine in November, 2007. In honor of Conway’s passing, we reprint most of that interview here.
Bob Smithouser: How has television changed since you graced people’s living rooms every week?
Tim Conway: There is very little nowadays that isn’t offensive. Even commercials are getting offensive. Not too long ago, because of all the language cable channels were using, one of the major networks announced which words that they would start using in the coming season so they 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’ve turned down unbelievable amounts of work, not necessarily because the character I would’ve 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. For one thing, you don’t expect that from us.
Smithouser: We often hear of even Christian actors taking roles in questionable shows and arguing, “Because my character doesn’t compromise, it’s alright.”
Conway: 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.
Smithouser: Is that what motivated you to work with the Parents Television Council?
Conway: 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. But 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 get at it. I wanted to lighten the load a little 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.
Smithouser: When you got started in the 60s, writers and entertainers came from the worlds of vaudeville and radio. Today’s grew up watching television, so they just seem to be recycling that perspective.
Conway: 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?
Smithouser: Speaking of children, how do you feel that this generation may know you only as the voice of a SpongeBob character?
Conway: My granddaughter was the one who told me I was Barnacle Boy. You go in and 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!”
Smithouser: As you reflect on your career, what are you most proud of?
Conway: Probably that I performed and 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.