Conway: ‘People are much more relaxed with clean material’
Even as he nears his 80th birthday (Dec. 15), he remains highly active as a voiceover actor in countless cartoons including “Spongebob Squarepants,” as a guest star on sitcoms such as the hit “Hot in Cleveland” and even in a nationally touring show where he scores laughs with other veteran comics on stages nationwide.
Yet his personal life is just as busy and successful, as he is the proud father of seven children, including KFI-AM radio host Tim Conway, Jr., and doting grandfather to an array of grandkids. He’s attained it all by working clean in his comedy, and as his new memoir “What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life” attests, those personal and professional principles are rooted in his deep Catholic faith.
“I’m Catholic, and I turned Catholic when I was in college,” says Conway, a native of Cleveland who spoke with The Tidings while visiting friends and family in that city. “A good friend of mine, Father Dan Oliver, sent me in the right direction and I was very comfortable with it. That was at Bowling Green State University, where I majored in radio, TV and film. It’s a 12-year college and I made it through in 11.
“I don’t think people really notice my act being clean until they get into a show that isn’t that clean and everybody’s hair flies off, and kids say, ‘What did he say?’ I think people are much more relaxed with clean material. I know people know what to expect and I don’t shock them.”
Conway first found he had a knack for getting laughs as a grade school student. He was dyslexic, and when he read aloud in class his mistakes and mispronunciations made the other students laugh, “so rather than go the other way and feel sorry for myself, I rolled with it and continued with it as a living.”
One particular example that stands out in his memory was a time when he was asked to read from the war-related classic book “They Were Expendable,” and wound up saying, “They were expandable.”
“People were going, 'This guy is great! Expandable! What are you talking about, rubber people?' I thought, 'I must be funny, so I might as well continue with this.'”
Once he finished college and served in the army, he began working in local Cleveland television, but he soon decided to move to Hollywood, where he almost immediately found success. He started writing and performing comedy skits between morning movies on CBS before famed comic actress Rose Marie helped him land a gig as a regular performer on “The Steve Allen Plymouth Show,” but he attained name recognition after starring as Ensign Charles Parker on the popular 1960s sitcom “McHale’s Navy.”
After a few seasons on “Navy,” Conway was recruited by Carol Burnett to be part of her team of crack comics --- who were notorious for cracking up on-camera --- on “The Carol Burnett Show.” He was merely a part-time player on the show for the first eight seasons from 1967 to 1975, but when he finally became a regular, his onscreen chemistry with Harvey Korman in particular was explosive.
“I think Carol is probably the nicest, kindest lady I have ever met,” says Conway. “I’ve found no flaws in her so far, though I do keep looking. She’s a wonderful lady and I was very fortunate to do her show and be in her company. That’s what I was searching for to make me happy, and she has done that. I pay her for it.”
Both during and after his time on the Burnett show, Conway also starred in a series of family-friendly comedies on the big screen with Don Knotts, including “The Prizefighter,” “Private Eyes” and, most successfully, “The Apple Dumpling Gang.” The two had met and worked together years before as cast members on “The Steve Allen Plymouth Hour,” and Conway says he’ll never forget the comic magic they shared.
“Don and I were very good friends. He was just a silly guy, frail yet tough,” Conway recalls. “He just had a great sense of humor, the same as I had, so we used to make each other laugh quite a bit. We looked at life in a similar way and enjoyed making people happy. He did some wonderful characters, on the old Steve Allen show especially. It’s a shame they don’t show those episodes anywhere.”
Having many illustrious friends and co-stars ranging from Knotts, Korman and Burnett to Dick Van Dyke, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart, Conway has plenty of engaging stories to tell in his book, written with Jane Scovell. Known as “the best second-banana in show business,” Conway may have regarded Korman as his favorite co-star to work with, but has appeared most often in various shows with another “Burnett” actress, Vicki Lawrence.
“If I had to do it all again, I think I would change my name to Betty Conway, and try to make it in that way,” jokes Conway. “But I didn’t realize the book was a memoir. I’ve got to read that book!
“Seriously, I just started writing one day, and it took me three days to write this thing. Yeah, it took a great deal of my time. I just started typing and it just came out. I never thought it was a book; I thought it was a pamphlet.”
With six decades of comedy experience under his belt and a youthful spirit likely to extend his career well into the future, Conway has definite opinions on the state of comedy today.
“The language allowed to sneak in to comedy nowadays is not very conducive to sitting there watching with your children or grandchildren,” he says, then adds jokingly, “I don’t watch a lot of television, but I rob drugstores and banks and things of that nature. That keeps me busy in my free time. But I think operating the way I do with clean material I’ve enjoyed myself a lot more and I think people do too.”
“What’s So Funny? My Hilarious Life” (Howard Books) is available in bookstores and bookselling websites nationwide.
Carl Kozlowski is co-founder of www.radiotitans.com, and host of its shows "The Koz Effect" and "Kozversations."