‘I Did It Funny for Funny.’ A Conversation With the Late Tim Conway

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Tim Conway

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.

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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.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

charitysplace 11 months ago
He died? Bummer. After Robin Williams, he was my brother's favorite comedic actor. May have to revisit some of his feature films in his memory. Rest in peace, Funny Man.
Anonymous 11 months ago
I don't know of this man, but he was right! So much humor in kid's movies I watch often rely on rude humor, which to me isn't funny at all. I have nothing against a little slapstick stuff, but rude humor just makes me uncomfortable. 
 If you look at some of the really old comedy films, starring Buster Keaton , Harold Loyd, Charlie Chaplin or the Marx brothers, it doesn't take much of them before my whole family is roaring with laughter. (And if you haven't seen the Marx brothers you have missed out on a great experience.) A lot of that old humor was doing funny without gags, nothing that I wouldn't want my younger sisters exposed to. 
 Nowadays there is still good clean comedy (Lego movies, Studio C videos and others) but some just have so much baggage attached to it. 
-Emma Bibliophile 
Karl The Klown 11 months ago
I am hesitant to support anything with the word "Marx" in it 
Anonymous 11 months ago
Emma Bibliophile is absolutely right about old-time comedy, especially the Marx Brothers. One-liners, physical comedy, wordplay, surrealism -- they're brilliant. Duck Soup, Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers and Monkey Business are their funniest movies. 

-- The Kenosha Kid
Karl The Klown 11 months ago
I think you missed my joke......
Anonymous 11 months ago
@Karl The Klown  Ah history... 

Side Note... I about fell out of my seat laughing so hard.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Anonymous 11 months ago
Karl the Klown, I'm just encouraging you to check out the Marx Brothers, regardless of the political connotations of the name Marx.

I know you joke, but sadly, the FBI did keep a file on Groucho for supposed Communist or anarchist sympathies, although he was never blacklisted or hauled before the HUAC. In those days, an infamous last name like Marx and a distaste for bourgeois convention could get you into trouble.

-- The Kenosha Kid
Anonymous 11 months ago
Chicco: the guy with an italian accent who played piano and conned Groucho in A Day at the Races
Harpo: the guy who didn't talk but played lovely harp and said so much while saying nothing
Groucho: the guy who conned all the rich old ladies while pretending to be a rich man. 
Also Groucho was king of the one-liners. 
My favorite:
 Outside of a dog, a book is man' s best friend. Inside of a dog, it' s too dark to read.
-Emma Bibliophile
 
Karl The Klown 11 months ago
@Kenosha Kid
I think you misread what I was trying to say. It was a complete joke. I would not write someone off based purely on a last name. And yes, I am aware of the "Red Scare" that was happening at that time. 
Oh what awkward times those were...
Anonymous 11 months ago
@Kenosha kid I stand corrected.
-Emma Bilnilophile
Anonymous 11 months ago
@Karl The Klown  

I get the jokes you are trying to make. Keep up the good work my friend.

Posted By A-Non-Mouse
Anonymous 11 months ago
I get your joke Karl the Klown, but when I heard about Marx and read the manifesto I was surprised it wasn't funny. I thought he was a relative of Groucho, Harpo, and Chicco. There was another one, Zeppo,but he was not very funny. Can you believe those were their real names. 
-Emma Bibliophile
Anonymous 11 months ago
Marx was their real last name, but the goofy first names were just stage names.

-- The Kenosha Kid
Anonymous 11 months ago
@ Kenosha Kid are you sure? My stepdad said those were their real names.
- Emma Bibliophile
Karl The Klown 11 months ago
Oh you are very much mistaken. The manifesto is hilarious on so many levels 
Anonymous 11 months ago
Groucho = Julius
Chico = Leonard
Harpo = Adolph
Gummo = Milton
Zeppo = Herbert

-- The Kenosha Kid