How Tim Conway mastered the timeless, universal art of funny




 

There was always a special anticipation preceding a Tim Conway-Harvey Korman skit on "The Carol Burnett Show."

It wasn't what either was going to say or do. It was when Korman was going to laugh. Conway, who died Tuesday at 85, was that funny.

Breaking character to laugh is something actors try not to do. It's not considered professional and Korman tried to avoid it, Burnett told me in a 2010 interview

"Harvey used to get mad at himself because he was a consummate comedic actor. Put him in with Conway and there was no hope," she said.

Burnett raved about Conway's comic skills, and many comedy professionals I've spoken to over the years have praised him and pointed to his influence. It says something when a performer impresses his peers and Conway certainly did.

More: Tim Conway dies at 85; Carol Burnett is 'heartbroken'

Conway appeared in many TV shows and movies over a long, celebrated career, winning six Emmys, including his last for a 2008 guest appearance on "30 Rock," the brilliant creation of another brilliant talent, Tina Fey. Genius recognizes genius.

But the Ohio native is best known for "Burnett," where he picked up four Emmys, and an earlier comedy series, "McHale's Navy" (1962-66).

In "McHale's," a World War II comedy set in the Pacific Theater, Conway played Charles Parker, a naïve, befuddled ensign on a PT boat full of sharpies always trying to make a buck when they weren't fighting the Japanese. There was an innocence to the character that was reflected throughout Conway's comedy.

He followed with the short-lived 1967 comedy series "Rango" and in several Disney family movies in the 1970s, but his biggest platform was "Burnett" (1967-78), arguably the best variety show ever.

More: Remembering Tim Conway: Carol Burnett, Judd Apatow, RuPaul, more stars pay tribute

It's a testament to Conway's ability that he's so intertwined with memories of "Burnett," since he appeared in fewer than half the episodes and was a series regular only in the ninth through 11th seasons.

But what he did in those appearances is legendary. Conway created many humorous characters, but two of the most famous and funniest are The Oldest Man and Mr. Tudball.

For The Oldest Man, Conway, with a white-hair wig and slumped posture, performed various occupations, always at a glacial pace that eventually wreaked havoc on him and his surroundings. While singularly focused on his duties, the character was oblivious to everything else around him, creating many hilarious scenes.

Conway brought that bumbling manner to Mr. Tudball, a nose-to-the-grindstone businessman who worked with and clashed with his clueless secretary, Mrs. Wiggins (Burnett). His hopes for business efficiency were forever doomed. (Conway built on Tudball's vaguely European accent with Dorf, a character at the center of a popular series of comedic how-to videos.)

More: Tim Conway, beloved comic actor, dies at 85

Conway also did many one-off characters, which provided opportunities for his ad-libbing skill and a seemingly wandering focus, a manner that kept viewers - and often his co-stars - on the edge of their seats wonder just what he was going to say or do next.

His gift for physical comedy may have had its greatest showcase in the famous dentist office scene, with Korman playing a man with a toothache and Conway a rookie dentist whose greatest skill is ineptitude.

As he tries to administer novocaine to Korman's patient, Conway accidentally takes the shot in his right hand, rendering it numb and making it nearly impossible to treat Korman, who by this point can't contain his laughter.

It only builds, as Conway's dentist, in a futile attempt to compensate for his limp hand, accidentally shoots novocaine into his thigh, causing him to slump to his knee before propping himself on a chair with rollers in one of the best sight gags ever. Korman continues to crack up. Then, Conway accidentally takes a novocaine needle to the forehead. By this time, Conway is laughing, too.

As physical slapstick goes, it's Baryshnikov-level. And, as Burnett noted, referencing the skit's many millions of YouTube plays, it's a universal kind of comedy that works as well today as it did in the 1970s.

"The dentist sketch with Harvey and Tim (is) over 40 years old. I dare anyone to look at that today and not crack up," Burnett said.

I'll dare you, too. (Although Burnett's challenge obviously carries a megaton more comedic weight.) Take a look at Conway clips on DVD, YouTube, "Burnett" reruns on MeTV or embedded in this story.

Try not to laugh. Your failure will be part of an enduring tribute to the comedic skill of Tim Conway.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Tim Conway mastered the timeless, universal art of funny

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