Tim Conway Delivers Laughs Without An Apology Tim Conway's career stretches from sitcoms in the 1960s to a dozen Disney films and 11 years on The Carol Burnett Show. Last year he won his sixth Emmy for a guest spot on 30 Rock. The 78-year-old legend says he enjoys being funny -- a clean, family-friendly kind of funny.

Tim Conway Delivers Laughs Without An Apology

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Tim Conway is on tour with a stage show this summer. At the age of 78, he's a legendary comedian who still looks a bit like a bank clerk - a short, bald, bespectacled man concealing a famously incendiary wit. His career stretches from sitcoms in the 1960s, a dozen Disney movies, 11 years on "The Carol Burnett Show," to winning a sixth Emmy for a guest shot on "30 Rock" just last year, and being the voice of Barnacle Boy on "SpongeBob Squarepants."

I got to interview Tim Conway at a recent taping of the PBS TV series "Backstage With."

Mr. TIM CONWAY (Actor, Comedian): I guess I was destined to do this. People have often said, you know, what else would you do if you weren't doing this? The answer is nothing because I'm not capable of doing anything else. This is pretty much it.

SIMON: Were your parents funny?

Mr. CONWAY: My parents were very funny - they didn't know it. But they were. They were actually sharing an IQ.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: They just did humorous things that - well, for instance, my dad put in a doorbell one time and he put it in backwards so that it rang all the time except when you pressed the doorbell. You'd sit at home at night and you'd hear this hmmmmmmmm. And when it would stop, my dad would go, I'll get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: So you grow up with that kind of attitude and I think you're bound to find the humor in there somewhere.

SIMON: Did you make people laugh at school?

Mr. CONWAY: Well, I was dyslexic - was, still am - 'cause I would see words that weren't there. And people just started laughing and I thought, well, this is a good way to make a living. I'll just go downtown to read and have people laugh, you know?

SIMON: You discovered you could make people laugh.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes.

SIMON: But it was almost to cover up some embarrassment.

Mr. CONWAY: That's a good idea. Wish I had thought of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: No, that's true. I guess I was really kind of the class clown. Because when you're small, you either are funny or you get beat up a lot.

SIMON: So, are certain things funny, certain words clever or witty, or are people funny?

Mr. CONWAY: I enjoy being funny and kind of not shock value, not language-wise. Well, for instance, I was in a department store out in Los Angeles and I was in the men's department and I was leaning against the counter. And evidently a lady thought that I was working there. So she came up to me and she said, excuse me, where is your underwear?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: So I showed her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: So, she calls the store manager - hey, listen (unintelligible) I said she asked me where my underwear was, I showed her. Yeah. It's that kind of harmless humor I really enjoy.

SIMON: Now, it's always been important to you to work clean. To be...

Mr. CONWAY: Yes.

SIMON: ...a family entertainer.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes, yeah. I avoid all the language and nudity and violence and everything. I have enough of that at home. So I never - Don and I - Knotts -used to talk a lot about things like that, that, you know...

SIMON: You did a number of Disney films together.

Mr. CONWAY: Yeah, together, yeah. In that an audience comes to see what that character from television is in person - you don't want a disappointment, and you don't want to come out here swearing and doing a bunch of foul language and things of that nature. So you give them what they expect and then you don't have to apologize, they're happy, and everything works out fine.

SIMON: Are you comfortable on stage when you're performing, maybe a little more comfortable?

Mr. CONWAY: I make a good living.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I love that joke.

Mr. CONWAY: Yes, I am. Yeah, it's fun. The things you get to do in show business are amazing. You know, you get to ride a horse, you get to dress like a cowboy or, you know - the first time Don and I were - we were doing, I guess it's "The Apple Dumpling Gang," and Don was talking to me about getting dressed in the morning. You know, he'd say, Tim, it's so dang cold in that dressing room. You know, I don't know what to do, and they don't have any heaters or anything, you know.

So we're supposed to be two dancehall dandies. And so we had these costumes on. I had a little, like, skirt on and these mesh hose. And I said, well, why don't you have the guy bring the wardrobe to the room and you get dressed in the morning, have - put all the makeup on and everything and then you'll be in the heat of the room and then - 'cause I was driving him back and forth to work -so I said I'll drive you to work, you know, okay. He said, you know, that's not a bad idea. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: ...so we do about three days going back and forth. Now, we're shooting in Stockton in California, where real cowboys live. I mean, these guys are rough boys. And one day we come home and rather than my going to the motel with Don, I said, Don, I'm going to across the street and get a beer and then I'll see you a little bit later. Okay. So he gets out of the car, still dressed like this, goes into the motel. And I'm at the bar with these cowboys having a beer, and all of the sudden I look up and here comes Don still dressed like this woman.

Comes over to me and he says, Say, Tim, you got the key to that room?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: Now, these cowboys are looking at me like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: So I said to Don, Well, don't you think we ought to talk about price first?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: We're lucky we're alive. I tell you - or he's alive, yeah.

SIMON: I noticed you used a word when you talk about being on set and riding a horse and being dressed as a cowboy or...

Mr. CONWAY: Uh-huh.

SIMON: ...you say you refer to it as work, going to work.

Mr. CONWAY: Yeah. Well, strange it may seem, it is. Yeah, it is work, but I mean, you can't wait to get there. At Disney, I was in another one, "The Shaggy D.A.," and you're reading the script. First of all, you know you're going to be working with an animal. So I was working with a huge sheepdog. And you're reading the script and you're reading the script, and you see the words pie fight, and you go, Oh God, no.

Because pie fight means you're going to get hit with a pie and you know as soon as you get that cherry pie, you're going to be in that cherry pie for the rest of the day and probably about three or four days afterwards, for all of the shots. And you really, you talk about - 'cause the first thing in the morning you're sitting in makeup and the guy says, You ready? Yeah. Phhhhtt and he hits you with a pie, and that's what you're in all day long. Icky, you know?

So for three days I'm in this pie. Now I figure, hey, now I'm out of the pie thing, but no. Now in the script I get into a car and I'm driving this car and I go through a pillow factory. Of course, why wouldn't you? So now I not only have cherry pie, but I have feathers all over me with this. Now - not through yet - I go through a paint shop where they're painting a car.

So now I go - I got the pie, I got the feathers, now I'm being painted orange. So now we're shooting a scene at night and it's, like, 3:00 o'clock in the morning and it's kind of cold out there. And I have just I have all of this stuff on me. I have the pie, I have the paint, I have the feathers. Now I'm on a bicycle with this midget - I know we're not supposed to say that - but he was a midget at the time. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: ...he's in the dog outfit and he's pedaling the bike, and I'm going down the street, steering it. So...

SIMON: Oh, he was the shaggy...

Mr. CONWAY: Yeah, the shaggy dog. They wouldn't use a real dog 'cause a real dog wouldn't do it, you know.

SIMON: A real dog has a union.

Mr. CONWAY: Yeah. Yeah. I'm not going to - are you kidding me? (Unintelligible) so we're driving down the street, right? And the guy says to me, in the outfit, he says, I can't see. You know, so I go like this with his hair and pull the hair back from the dog. So now he can see, we're driving down the street.

So the director stops the shot and he said, Oh yeah, hold it, cut, okay. So he brings me over and he says, Come here a minute. He said, Do you think it's logical that you would do that, to put the dog's hair back?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: I said, Let me tell you something. I've been in this pie for a week. You see these feathers all over me, you see this yellow paint and this guy driving me on a bicycle? I said, You think this is logical?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: So he kept it in.

SIMON: We have a prop that we'd like to bring on stage. And let's ask our costume and prop department. Yes, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Here we go. It's a roll of toilet tissue - I think we can all agree. Well, there's a - part of the Tim Conway legend - there's a famous legend about you and a roll of toilet tissue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: Somebody has been spying. Oh, I think I know what you mean. Yeah. Well, I don't drink that much anymore. Yes, I was at Ernie Anderson's house one night and I had been over-served, which is a terrible thing. And so I went in the bathroom and I took the toilet paper and I totally wrapped myself in toilet paper to look like a mummy.

So I came out and everybody thought, boy, that's really funny. So I drove home that way.

SIMON: You had eye slits?

Mr. CONWAY: Yeah, just little eye slits. I'll show you in a moment, as a matter of fact. I went home driving like this and I thought it would be funny if I got pulled over by a cop and if he asked for my license, because they had taken a picture of me like this and I'd cut it off and I put in on my license.

SIMON: A picture of you as the mummy?

Mr. CONWAY: A picture of me as the mummy. And so if he asked for my license, I would give him, which this is...

SIMON: It's a picture of you wrapped in toilet paper. The mummy is what I meant to say. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You're a fine looking mummy, Mr. Conway.

Mr. CONWAY: Thank you very much. So he said, Can I see your license? I said yes. And he looked at me and he goes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CONWAY: And just handed it back to me and said, Okay, just kind of take it easy on the way home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Tim Conway speaking with us at a taping this week of the PBS TV show "Backstage With" at WBIZ in Cleveland.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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