The passing Tuesday of legendary television comedian Tim Conway marks yet another death of a household name and the incremental but inevitable fading of the golden era of prime-time family entertainment.
Fans of the reserved native Ohioan aren’t likely surprised by the sad news. Previously disclosed dementia, coupled with a protracted battle with his family over his care and management of his finances in the last few years, have been widely reported.
But if you’re like me, the recent tabloid fodder does nothing to diminish the memories of Tim Conway’s comedic genius.
That’s because in my mind, he’s still the bumbling but lovable Ensign Parker in “McHale’s Navy,” or one of the eclectic cast of characters he portrayed on “The Carol Burnett Show.” This include the prickly Romanian Mr. Tudball, the inept dentist injecting himself with Novocain, or my favorite – the slow-motion classic, The Oldest Man.
Tim Conway was fun to watch because he was funny, of course. In order for comedy to work, it needs to go down easy, like a cool drink on a hot day. He was all that and more. But I think we were drawn back to Conway’s humor again and again not just because he made us laugh – but how he pulled it off.
Turn on any late-night show these days or pull up your standard fare-comedy on Netflix, and you’ll quickly realize that too many comedians and movie characters reach for laughs by laughing at people – by mocking and maligning others.
In contrast, Conway’s humor was so endearing because it was so self-effacing. You were either laughing at his self-directed foibles or laughing with him. His humor was gentle. It lightly singed – it never burned.
You’ll often hear fans describe Conway as “lovable,” a moniker he warmly welcomed. But the reason we loved him was because it was clear he loved his fans and loved what he did. He was neither condescending nor sarcastic, an over-used calling card of today’s comics.
Like millions of others in the late 1960s and 1970s, I watched the “The Carol Burnett Show” with my family on Saturday nights. To be fair, as a child I don’t think I always got all the jokes, but when you’re in a room full of people who are laughing, you tend to laugh along.
With both my parents now gone and childhood a fleeting memory, those are happy times that I gladly hold in my heart.
As an aside, given the dearth of quality prime-time television these days, it’s almost hard to believe that one network had so many classic shows all airing on one night – one right after the other: “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”
To be sure, Tim Conway was part of a talented ensemble cast, and not the lone star of the show – and not even for every season of it. But the impact he made was so powerful that most people assume he was there from the beginning to the end of the 11-year run of the award-winning series.
After my mother died and my father moved in with me, my wife and our three boys, my aging dad struggled to fill his days with meaningful and enjoyable things to occupy his time. When volunteering became too difficult and in between watching his beloved Yankees baseball, Lawrence Welk and Turner Classic Movies he enjoyed reruns of “The Carol Burnett Show.”
Shortly before he died, I was sitting with him one evening when Conway’s The Oldest Man sketch came on. We laughed, just like old times. But then he paused, squinted and said: “You know, these days, I feel a lot like that old guy on the screen. And I think I look a lot like him too.”
And then we laughed together all over again.
Tim Conway’s humor was tender and timeless, like a gentle smile of an old friend.
May he rest in peace.