Comedian-actor Tim Conway

Long regarded as one of the funniest comedians around, Conway recounts stories from his inspiring memoir, What’s So Funny?

Tim Conway's extensive career has spanned nearly four decades. Best known for the characters he created during his 11-year stint on The Carol Burnett Show, he's won six Emmys, a Golden Globe and numerous accolades from critics. He's also been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Conway got his start on the staff of a local Cleveland (OH) TV station and made his mark when that position led to a regular gig on The Steve Allen Show. He continues to appear in movies and various television series and in theaters and casinos around the U.S. and tells his rags-to-riches story in the memoir, What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: So there’s funny and then there’s hilarious. So hilarious, in fact, that even costars can’t keep a straight face during skits. That just about sums up the comedic talents of one Tim Conway whose brilliant work in “The Carol Burnett Show” remains the standard by which all sketch comedians are measured.

He’s won six Emmys, been inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame and has written an autobiography titled “What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life.”

Before we begin our conversation, first a look at a skit from “The Carol Burnett Show” which goes on a little longer than the producers had intended. But that was because Carol and Vicki couldn’t stop laughing.

[Clip]

Tavis: All right [laugh]. So behind the scenes, what had the director asked you to do?

Tim Conway: Just say “elephant” because we’re running very long in this show. So I wanted to fill the people in on what else we’re talking about and doing there.

Tavis: So you’re up against a wall on time. He just says, “Tim, can you just say elephant?”

Conway: Right.

Tavis: And all of this just ensues.

Conway: Yeah. And then we were very, very long. I blamed the director for that [laugh].

Tavis: How much of your comedic genius on this show in particular had to do with the liberties that you all were given to just kind of freestyle when you needed to or felt that you needed to?

Conway: Well, I think when I learn the rules, then I kind of go against the rules because why would you have somebody sitting out there not saying anything but elephant? So I try to fill in those blanks, yeah. A lot of times, it doesn’t work out because people are doing this. But it’s not my show, so why would I worry?

Tavis: I downloaded this. I printed this out because it was so hilarious to me. I wanted to just kind of share with the audience what your personal biography says. So this is Tim Conway’s personal biography. I mean, I’m literally reading this. “I was born and then I did The Carol Burnett Show for 11 years. What else is there to know?” [Laugh]

Conway: Well, I didn’t want to get too lengthy in that, you know [laugh].

Tavis: But I love that. “I was born and then I did Carol Burnett for 11 years. What else is there to know?” Those 11 years the best years of your life or is that overrating or overstating?

Conway: This is the best year of my life, I think, yeah [laugh], as you near the end. Sorry, felt a little twinge there [laugh]. Could have been a big thing for you, you know. He died right on the show.

Tavis: I would have made news with that. I would have killed with that, wouldn’t I?

Conway: Yeah. You would have gotten another week out of the show, yeah [laugh].

Tavis: There is so much in this, I don’t really know where to start. So let me just throw some things out at you that just kind of got my attention. First of all, you were not born with the name Tim Conway. That’s not your given name.

Conway: No. My mother was Romanian, so she named me Toma which is pretty unusual and that was my original name, Toma Libertarian Morganski, I think. I don’t know. I never learned to spell that last part.

Tavis: And how did it become Tim Conway and why did it become Tim Conway?

Conway: Actually, Steve Allen changed it for me. I said, “I’ve never liked Tom.” He said, “Why don’t you just dot the O and make it Tim?” I said, “That’s my favorite name,” so I did that. So I tried to stay, uh – this is why I don’t have a talk show. Can’t talk [laugh].

Tavis: There is a funny story – since we’re talking about your mother and your birth and your given name, there’s a hilarious story in this book about your christening.

Conway: Yes.

Tavis: Would you care to remind us of what…

Conway: Well, they put you on a little like a crib thing there, a little rocking thing, and then everybody walks around the child. And I had rolled over and rolled off that and hit the table and went down to the floor and rolled under the apparatus there that they were – so the priest said, “And so bless…he’s gone.”

My dad said, “He has risen” and the priest said, “I don’t think so.” So I had rolled down on the floor and rolled under this apparatus.

Tavis: But you did rise, though. You came back.

Conway: Oh, I did. One of the guys kicked me in the head and they said, “Wait a minute. I hear something. It’s a miracle. He’s here.” So they picked me up and put me back, yeah.

Tavis: So you started out doing sketch comedy.

Conway: Oh, yeah, comedy [laugh].

Tavis: Let me fast-forward again. There’s so much in the book, I can’t do justice to it even in a full show. But this is not so funny and yet it becomes, to my read at least, the beginnings of your comedic career. So you’re in school a few years later, of course. You have dyslexia and when you’re asked to read in front of the class, kids can be cruel and they’re laughing at you, they’re making fun of you because you can’t read.

Conway: Right, or write.

Tavis: [Laugh] read or write. So the kids are – you’re standing up being called by the teacher to read in front of the class. They’re laughing at you and somehow in that process you realized that there was something fun about making people laugh.

Conway: Yes.

Tavis: I mean, that kind of thing would shut somebody down, to be laughed at, but only you could find something in that that…

Conway: Well, I did and I found that it got me out of a lot of trouble, especially fighting with other kids because I would use that humor to challenge them rather than my golden wrists and gloves. So it was an instrument to keep people away from me. You can’t hit a guy who’s being funny, I don’t think.

Tavis: This is all so fascinating to me. I mean, Bob Newhart…

Conway: Not to me.

Tavis: Maybe not to you. Newhart may be the only comedian I can think of immediately. I’m sure there’s somebody else I’ve talked to over the years, but Newhart comes to mind rather immediately. He was the only person I could think of who ends up in comedy that doesn’t have some strange story about how comedy kept them out of trouble or got them – I mean, Pryor is the penultimate example. But there’s so many comedians who – they say comedy is oftentimes borne of dark places.

Conway: Well, Bob and I are very close friends and are often mistaken for one another. And he has mentioned that, that comedy kept him out of a lot of trouble and I think it kept me out of a lot of trouble too.

When a cop would pull me over and say, “Let me see your license” and I’d say, “Let me see your shoes,” he would put his shoe up on the window and I’d say, “Those are nice shoes. Now here’s my license.”

One thing led to another where I spent a lot of time behind bars because the police in Cleveland had very little sense of humor [laugh].

Tavis: They didn’t find that so funny, did they? Your dyslexia notwithstanding and people laughing at you at some point notwithstanding, you end up being a pretty decent athlete.

Conway: Yes.

Tavis: Until you got hit in the back.

Conway: Yeah. Well, I was a great athlete, not just pretty good. Every muscle toned to perfection, as you can see [laugh]. Yeah, I was a pretty good athlete because I was small, you know. And the coach made me a guard on the football team which is, you know, you should be a guard.

I was up against guys your size as a guard and I guess he did it for jokes [laughs] because there was a lot of pain involved in that. But I was like a little mouse. I would kind of scratch into the secondary and tackle the guy with the ball or that think that looked like a ball, elongated ball. So I became a pretty good athlete.

Tavis: Until you got a pretty good hit one day.

Conway: Yes. A guy ran…

Tavis: And they had to lift you – I’ll let you tell the story.

Conway: Well, a guy ran into my back and cracked a vertebra. He was on my team, incidentally. So evidently, he had something against me [laugh] and I just kind of laid on the tarmac there. We played at an airport [laugh].

And they came out to – and the coach said, “Get up and stand up. Show them you can walk off.” So they stood me up and I fell down and they stood me up and I fell down. And they said, “Maybe there’s something wrong with this.”

Tavis: You think [laugh]?

Conway: Yeah. So the vertebra had been pinched and had cut off a lot of things like my speech and things like that. So they laid me back – well, they didn’t have to lay me down. They just stood me up and I plopped back down. So I lay there for a while or lied or lay-lied there for some time [laugh] and…

Tavis: I could never figure that out either.

Conway: So they finally put me on a stretcher and took me off the field. I consider myself very lucky from that day forward that I wasn’t paralyzed because I should have been.

Tavis: I mean, all jokes aside, which is always tough with you in these conversations, but all jokes aside for at least 30 seconds, so you tell the story years later how you were in your chiropractor’s office and he pretty much tells you that the back pain that you’re having at this age or were having at that time was connected to that injury way back in school.

Conway: Yes, and I should have been paralyzed actually because the nerves in my spine were pinched.

Tavis: But you had to tell the jokes. The jokes had to get out. The jokes had to get out.

Conway: Oh, yeah, yeah. So I went to a football party afterwards and passed out in the trees and the bushes. So they said, “Gee, maybe something is wrong with him” and they called the ambulance and they took me to the hospital and here I am. I said, “I want to be well enough to do Tavis’s show.”

Tavis: Well, they got you here 80 years later. When did you know – was there a seminal moment when you…

Conway: Tuesday.

Tavis: Tuesday. You told me that already. It was Tuesday, yeah. But what year was it on Tuesday when you figured out that you were gifted enough to really do this comedy thing? How did you figure this out?

Conway: Very early, I think, in high school, 11th or 12th grade.

Tavis: You knew then that comedy was your future?

Conway: Well, it got me out of a lot of trouble, you know. I didn’t have to fight many big people, guys like yourself, although I could handle you because I’m a natural athlete.

Tavis: Yeah, every muscle toned to perfection.

Conway: Yeah. So I used – ’cause I was stupid in high school and I really couldn’t handle what they told you to do like spell or read [laugh], so I used kind of the – I would have been, you know, on a stretcher trying to read if I hadn’t gotten up and walked off that field.

Tavis: How then – I’m fast-forwarding again. How then did you roll out this career? What do you regard as, again, seminal moments that got this career really moving here in Hollywood?

Conway: Well, people laughed at me because I couldn’t pronounce names and I couldn’t read aloud without putting words into sentences which were never there. I was reading out loud one time in class and I was reading about President Eisenhower.

And I read the sentence, “He wasn’t in bed with the nurse,” but I said, “He was in bed with the nurse” and they said, “President Eisenhower, was it?” You know, I just went with it, yeah.

Tavis: You went with the bit.

Conway: Yeah.

Tavis: And did it kill?

Conway: Oh, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: To what degree would you attribute your success to the physical part of your comedy? Because, I mean, you can kill with one-liners all day long. But so much of what I think people love you for and regard you for, certainly in the Carol Burnett years, was there was so much physical comedy too as well.

Conway: Well, I was a great athlete.

Tavis: Yeah [laugh].

Conway: I really was. And my wife – my wife, my mother who was my wife – my mother took in my pants so my uniform looked pretty swift. And I was probably the best-looking guy on the football team.

Tavis: So you were a great athlete and really good-looking.

Conway: Oh, yeah, yeah. And a great helmet. So I was a pretty sharp guy, you know. What with this knowledge of presidents and things of that nature, and I could recite “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” so what more can you ask for?

Tavis: You had it all.

Conway: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: Speaking of your mother taking up your pants, there’s a funny story in the book. With you sometimes, I’m not sure if it’s true or you’re just pulling my leg. But I think it was a true story of the time you were boxing and you had to box with one hand? You remember this story? Is that a true story?

Conway: Yeah. Well, I was boxing Billy Butler and Billy was about a foot taller than I was; big, tall, lanky guy. And I kept hitting him in the stomach and he kept hitting me in the head. I think that the people in the crowd saw the humor in that, that this guy’s really going at his stomach and the other guy’s pounding me in the head.

So being a natural athlete as I was, I went out for every sport and that helped me get with the guys. You know what I mean? I wanted to be a cheerleader, but they were all girls, so I didn’t have a shot at that.

Tavis: See, the funniest part to me about the story of the fight with your one hand is that you were such a small guy, according to the story, your shorts kept falling down. So you were trying to hold up your shorts with one hand…

Conway: Mother had made the shorts and my name was “Little Butcher.” So she kind of put that name on there for me. But my pants kept falling down and the more I swung at this other guy, with almost every swing, my pants fell a little further. So the audience was treated to [laugh] a newborn baby actually. So I just went with it, you know.

Tavis: It’s comedy. You gotta go with it.

Conway: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: Jonathan, I don’t know if you can see. Can you zoom in on that photo? Yeah. I’m putting this up because that’s such wonderful haberdashery you’re wearing there. The lines are so nice and the design is so pristine and so clean.

I raise that because you’re also a tailor. You’re a great athlete, you’re a good-looking guy, your mother was a seamstress and you’re a tailor.

Conway: And she taught me how to – I made that jacket.

Tavis: Yeah. Put that back on again, Jonathan. He made this. It is one of a kind, I must say.

Conway: Yes, it certainly is.

Tavis: It is one of a kind.

Conway: Yeah. One sleeve is longer than the other too.

Tavis: Yeah.

Conway: I made a lot of clothing that I wore in school just for laughs.

Tavis: Yeah. What has been, for all these years – you been at this 60 years now as a professional essentially. What has been the joy for you in making us laugh? What have you gotten? I know what I’ve gotten out of watching you, but what do you get out of making us laugh?

Conway: Very little [laugh]. I’m busting my hump making you laugh.

Tavis: And you get nothing out of it.

Conway: Get nothing out of it, yeah. The enjoyment of seeing an audience and knowing that they’re laughing. It’s hard to be sad when you’re laughing, so I enjoy making people happy, yeah.

Tavis: And, you know, while you could be resting on your laurels now, every time I look up, I see you popping on some other show, guest appearance here and…

Conway: A lot of times, they don’t want me. Well, for instance, this show. I been standing outside that door for almost a week now saying, “Could I go in and talk to you?”

Tavis: We just had a hole in the schedule today and we slotted you in. Yeah, right [laugh].

Conway: Well, yeah. Thank goodness somebody got sick. I couldn’t stand here another week. So that’s pretty much what I did, just waited around for somebody to puke and jump in there and take that spot.

Tavis: I loved seeing you and Ms. Burnett, whose been a guest on this show a number of times. The two of you were on – I saw an episode of “Hot in Cleveland.”

Conway: Oh, yes.

Tavis: That was funny, that was funny. You guys were reunited, as it was.

Conway: Oh, yeah. I am from Cleveland. Well, the outskirts of Cleveland, Chagrin Falls. So it was good to be home again, although it was filmed out here. They had pictures of Cleveland.

Tavis: Pictures of Cleveland, yeah [laugh]. My time is up and that’s a shame ’cause I could do this all night. My nose is running, I’ve been laughing so hard for the last 30 minutes.

So it’s been my honor to have Tim Conway, great athlete, toned to perfection every muscle of his body, awesome tailor, sometimes comedian and, once every blue moon, author of a new text called “What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life” with a hilarious and lovely forward by his dear friend, Carol Burnett.

Conway: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: What a delight to have you on this program, sir.

Conway: Never liked her. Isn’t that amazing?

Tavis: [Laugh] Thank you for the time.

Conway: Well, okay.

Tavis: I appreciate it.

Conway: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: March 24, 2014 at 1:19 pm