Tim Conway, who passed away yesterday at the age of 85, used to feel ubiquitous. Between his long tenure on The Carol Burnett Show, his series of films with Don Knotts, and regular guest appearances all over the TV dial, he was one of the most recognizable comedians of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. He was also one of the most consistent, a consummate pro who could reliably wring laughs out of any audience with his deadpan charm and thorough commitment to silliness. He was a comic kids and adults could love and laugh at, and it’s sad to see him go.
His most beloved work was on The Carol Burnett Show, which he appeared on for 11 years, and which remained in syndication into the ‘90s. Before Saturday Night Live injected sketch comedy with underground energy, Carol Burnett hosted the most popular sketch show on TV, and Conway was a crucial cast member, alongside Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence. Fortunately many of the show’s best sketches are streaming at the official Carol Burnett Show YouTube page. Here are some of Conway’s best sketches from the show, starting with a fairly famous sketch featuring some of his best work with Korman.
Conway plays a nervous dentist on his first day who tries to talk his patient (Korman) out of the appointment and then lets loose a stream of increasingly incompetent (and hilarious) behavior. This is a perfect Conway role: he’s incredibly polite and well-meaning, but also clearly over his head. Still, he tries his best, to disastrous results.
Conway was an all-around performer, gifted at character work, verbal dexterity, and slapstick. Here’s a showcase for his physical skills, as he tries to quietly prepare breakfast and fails about as massively as possible.
Here’s another great example of Conway’s skills as both a physical comedian and actor, as he plays a seemingly hapless door-to-door salesman who tricks Vicki Lawrence into doing his job for him—and keeps the change, to boot.
Conway and Korman once again show why they were a comedy duo for the ages, both seamlessly switching between sexist macho bluster and abject misery as a couple of divorced yahoos trying to act tough and manly.
Airports weren’t perfect before the TSA, no matter how wistful old-timers get about the good old days of flying. In this sketch Conway plays an incredibly slow and confused airline security guard opposite an increasingly angry Korman. It’s another showcase for Conway’s brilliant deadpan and understated delivery, with some great gags, like having to stamp the ticket with every individual letter in “Los Angeles.”
This recurring sketch might be named after Burnett’s secretary character, but Conway reliably stole the show as her Romanian boss Mr. Tudball. In this installment he tries to teach Wiggins how to play blackjack before her upcoming trip to Vegas. You can probably guess that it doesn’t go well for Mr. Tudball.
In this long sketch Conway plays a not particularly threatening—or competent—Nazi interrogator who does more damage to the room he’s in than the prisoner. His co-star Lyle Waggoner cracks about halfway through; if you thought Jimmy Fallon was bad about losing it on SNL, you might not be able to handle The Carol Burnett Show, where cracking was pretty much a constant.
Probably Conway’s most popular character, the Oldest Man shows off Conway’s unique ability to enliven broad concepts, ridiculous situations and physical stunts while still being understated and somewhat nuanced in his performance. The Oldest Man is a buffoon and a clown, and Conway goes big with his physical antics, but the actor disappears more into the role than you’d expect with something so absurd. That might have been Conway’s greatest strength of all—making the ridiculous feel real and normal.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.