Depending on how you were introduced, Tim Conway has many names: Dorf. Charles Parker. Mr. Tudball. Sometimes simply “The Old Man.”
Heck, even Tim isn’t his real name — it’s Tom. When he started out on TV in the late ’50s, he changed it to avoid confusion with British actor Tom Conway.
But whether he’s Tim or Tom, there’s no disputing his legacy in comedy these past 50 years, first on NBC’s The Steve Allen Show, most memorably on the legendary Carol Burnett Show, but also in funny family flicks like The Shaggy D.A. and The Apple Dumpling Gang.
He’s responsible for three of the funniest minutes in TV history on The Carol Burnett Show, playing a dentist who keeps injecting himself with novocaine. Co-star Harvey Korman — Conway’s great friend for decades — plays the patient, and can’t stay in character because he’s laughing so hard.
He returned to TV last year in classic fashion, playing washed-up TV star Bucky Bright, who torments Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) with long-winded tales of TV’s golden age.
He won an Emmy for about six minutes of work. Suddenly, everyone remembered how funny Tim Conway still is.
The old guard never forgot, and they’ll be packing the Niagara Fallsview Casino for two highly anticipated nights with Conway this Wednesday and Thursday.
His wife might not make the trip, however.
“We were in Toronto probably five years ago when we zipped down to the Falls,” he says on the line from Los Angeles. “I tried the thing with the barrel again, put the wife in there. I haven’t seen her, incidentally.”
Before packing his bags, Conway made time for some Q&A:
Q: What kind of show is this you’re doing?
TC: “It’s a thing I’ve done for the last eight years. I did it with Harvey (Korman) for a while, I did it with Chuck McCann, then with Don Knotts for a while. It’s kind of what you’d see on the Burnett show. Nothing too long that you can start throwing things and say ‘Get off!”’
Q: Do you still find things to do with those old characters?
TC: “Oh, yeah. You know, The Old Man on the Burnett was created during a show, when I started from the door to the couch and it would go on for six days. Mr. Tudball was from a situation on the show — I was a writer, and the office was way down at the end of the hall, so you had to walk all the way down to give the copy to (the assistant producer) to correct it, and then she’d have to bring it all the way back! By the time you walked back and forth, it was the end of the day.”
Q: That show was mostly live, wasn’t it? What if one of the characters bombed?
TC: “Then it wasn’t my fault! It was the director’s fault — the producers should have known better! It was close to live, and that’s the way Carol wanted it. We left in mistakes because that’s what show business was.”
Q: Stuff like The Dentist, where Harvey is on the verge of losing it …
TC: “Very poor performer! I really questioned his abilities (laughing). But all week, he kept saying, ‘This sketch really stinks,’ because I wasn’t doing any of the novocaine stuff. I didn’t do that until we actually taped it. And the first part of that sketch does stink, so he’s staring at me going, ‘I told you,’ and then I started with the novocaine and away we went.”
Q: Were there side bets on who would lose it first?
TC: “Yeah, Carol would do that with the grips. It wasn’t ‘Do you think Harvey’s going to go?’ but ‘When do you think he’s going to go?”’
Q: A lot of people say 30 Rock is one of the best ensembles since The Carol Burnett Show. Did you get that vibe when you were on?
TC: “Tina (Fey) called and said ‘Can you do this?’ and sent me the script. I said, ‘Really, Tina, there’s nothing here — do you want me to do a character or something?’ She said, ‘No — just do you.’ I swear, I love the show and I didn’t want to do anything to damage it because of a stupid performance. But I did it and won an Emmy, so that shows you what I know.”
Q: It seems like every time you guest star somewhere they throw an Emmy at you.
TC: “I know, isn’t that terrible?”
Q: Are a lot of shows calling you up to come do something now?
TC: “Yeah, but it’s not the same business. I mean, you can’t horse around like we did before. Now you go to a show and there’s 40 writers, and everybody wants to hear it exactly the way they wrote it. You say, ‘I don’t know if that’s funny that way,’ and they say, ‘Oh, yes, it’ll be hysterical.’ Because they’ve got a guy with a machine who can make it hysterical. So I’ve kind of stopped doing those things.”
Q: It’s just over a year since Harvey died. Were you two in touch right to the end?
TC: “Yes. He had a lot of things wrong, mainly a brain tumour that was removed — the size of a baseball, I guess. When he was in the hospital, he was in a semi-coma most of the time. He was there for five weeks. I bought a 2010 calendar in case he ever woke up, and I’d say, ‘Jeez, you can’t believe the year we had.’ So a lot of sympathy right to the end.”
“But we were close friends for about 40 years. I had never met him before the Burnett show. Carol took me down to the basement and he was chained to a pipe. She said, ‘Tim, this is Harvey. You’re going to be working with him.”’
Q: Was TV really better back then?
TC: “I don’t know if it was better, but we came through the best era. There was a lot of experimental work going on in television because nobody knew what a ’sitcom’ was. Everyone was experimenting on what was funny and what wasn’t funny. What appealed to me was The Steve Allen Show — it was just fun for fun’s sake. No point to it, no political or religious value to it. Those were great times. Now you’ve got to be a little edgy. You’ve got to swear, there has to be a little nudity. And that’s just at my house!”
Q: You could kick back and live off “Dorf” royalties — why are you doing all this work?
TC: “Well, I don’t think I could live off the royalties. But I enjoy the audience. I enjoy that I can sit down with however many people and make them laugh. I entertain myself a lot of times, which really annoys my wife. I’ll be on an elevator entertaining people and she’s going, ‘Just shut up.”’
“I was in a store one time in the men’s department. A lady came up to me — she thought I was a salesman — and says, ‘Excuse me? Where is your underwear?’ So I showed her. And she called the police.”