The moment that word of comedian Tim Conway’s death at age 85 got out, social media filled up with fond reminiscences of his best sketches from The Carol Burnett Show: The dentist. The elephant story. The Oldest Man. Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins.
Such remembrances are standard fare when a beloved celebrity dies. But Tim Conway inspired a unique variation on them. People didn’t just remember Conway on his own; they remembered him in tandem with other people. That time he made Carol Burnett laugh. That time he made Lyle Waggoner laugh. All the times—so many, many times—he completely paralyzed Harvey Korman with laughter.
By having fun on the set and helping his fellow actors have fun too, Conway was helping them remember and receive the benefit of what they were giving to others.Conway cracking up his Burnett Show castmates is still one of the things people tend to remember best about a show that was already funny to begin with. The writing and the acting were consistently strong, but Conway injected a note of subversion that took the whole endeavor to another level. He made it his mission, not just to amuse the audience, but to completely undo his fellow performers. Once he zeroed in on one of them, with a serious expression but a tiny knowing twitch at the corner of his lips, that person was doomed.
It seemed incredible that the mousy little man with thinning hair, who looked more like an accountant than anything, was really Loki in disguise. But Conway had an impish sense of humor, a talent for improvisation, and an ability to hide his best ideas until it was time to tape the show. The result, very frequently, was that the cast was just as bowled over as the audience.
It got to the point where people were waiting for—make that rooting for—the moment when Conway would break things up. There was a sort of beautiful inevitability to it. A classic example is the “Family” sketch that he turned into an increasingly loopy riff on elephants. Watch Burnett cover her face the moment Conway ad-libs “I saw these Siamese elephants”; she already knows they’re all done for. As he keeps going, her expression somehow manages to be desperate, resigned, and fascinated all at once. (And Conway’s reaction when Vicki Lawrence finally felled him with a single devastating quip proved that he could take it as well as dish it out.)
For whatever reason, Korman became a favorite target. “I think it was Tim’s goal in life to destroy Harvey,” Burnett later recalled in an interview. Korman was a fine comedian in his own right, and under normal circumstances could hold his own with the best of them. The man deadpanned his way through a Mel Brooks movie, after all. But Conway’s antics created abnormal circumstances.
In the famous dentist sketch they did together, as Conway’s hapless dentist ended up repeatedly injecting himself with Novocain, his blend of physical comedy and dogged commitment to character reportedly made Korman wet himself right there in the chair. Conway’s ability to crack up his friend ensured that their names would always be remembered together, no matter how much each man accomplished on his own.
That’s the really wonderful thing about what Conway did. Some performers try to make themselves look good; a few generous souls among them try to make others look good. Conway made sure everybody had a good time. “I would much rather stand in the background and make small, funny things than be up at the head of the class,” he once said. Just making the audience laugh would have guaranteed him a spotlight; breaking up Korman or Burnett or any of the others pulled them into the spotlight with him, making them forever part of his greatest moments.
This is not to say that there’s only one way to do comedy, just that we can all learn something from Conway’s way of doing it. He was reminding his fellow performers of what attracted them to comedy in the first place, before all the effort and anxiety and sweat: the sheer joy of it.
The sad irony of a career as a comedian, according to many who’ve been there, is that it’s largely the domain of people who have been through a lot of pain. Tim Conway knew that as well as anyone. Being laughed at for childhood struggles with dyslexia and a broken back helped fuel his determination to get laughs for a living. He was in a brutal business, often rooted in turbulent emotions. But he never forgot why he was in that business: the goodness and the value of laughter.
He saw his faith in God as the alchemy that turned difficulty into joy, that helped him relax and have fun even when times were hard, and his own particular variety of humor seems to have stemmed from that. By having fun on the set and helping his fellow actors have fun too, Conway was helping them remember and receive the benefit of what they were giving to others. And in so doing, he strengthened the bonds between people who were working in an often isolating field.
There’s a kind of subversion that undermines and destabilizes other people. Much rarer is the kind that brings people together, but that’s the kind of subversion that was Tim Conway’s gift and his great delight to display. Mother Teresa used to say that we are called to “do small things with great love.” I don’t think it’s going too far to say that, in his own more modest way, Tim Conway shone a ray of light in a dark world by doing small things with great laughter.