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Jeff Simon: Tim Conway, the last of TV's supremely gifted skit demolitionists

Jeff Simon

"Quite possibly the funniest man who ever lived and he was as much fun to work with as he was to watch."

That was my daughter Emily on Facebook on learning of the death of Tim Conway at the age of 85. She was coming from the standpoint of one who had worked with Conway and observed him five times during her labors for the teams that created Time-Life's DVD boxed collections of TV history (notably, in this case, the big, acclaimed and popular boxed set of the Carol Burnett Show).

I have to say something else about the importance of Conway's death: it officially marks the end of one of my favorite TV traditions -- sketch comedy actors doing everything possible to crack up fellow performers and make them "break character" in a blubber of yowls, titters, howls, guffaws and collapses to the floor.

No one since TV was created was ever better at making his colleagues break character and laugh at his animadversions during a written sketch. Conway was king at that.

Red Skelton did it all the time -- deliberately. He was a supremely gifted clown. He knew one of the most delightful things he could offer his weekly audience was the sight of a truly great clown reducing fellow professional performers to helpless hilarity.

Robin Williams' spontaneous genius was so chaotic that an entire sitcom -- "Mork and Mindy" -- was created for him to improvise to actors who were prepared for any comic grenade he could throw.

Make no mistake: cracking up coevals is an aggressive thing to do. There's a good reason why comics brag about "killing" audiences. It's especially great if those audiences include fellow professionals. And came from an age where fellow professionals hungered for it to happen to them on the air.

That's no longer ours.

As much credit as you have to give Conway for his annihilating comic brilliance, you probably have to give Carol Burnett even more for not only letting him get away with it, but making his skit-crushers into the whole point of sketch after sketch. She was, herself, one of TV's greatest performers. As a member of the audience, though, she was a genius.

Go to YouTube and take a look at Conway's little masterpieces for Burnett: the "Dentist" sketch with his greatest partner in crime, Harvey Korman (who practically pleaded with Conway to kill him every week); even better with Conway's full "Elephant Story" with Burnett and Vicki Lawrence. The latter is one of the funniest moments in TV history. And it ends with a tagline that isn't from Conway saying some gloriously idiotic topper to destroy everyone, but from Lawrence topping his sadistic comic embroidery with the ultimate tag line for the whole bit.

It ends with Conway himself -- literally -- prostrate on the floor in helpless laughter at Lawrence's capper-to-end-all cappers. No writer could have invented those few magnificent minutes.

The first official chance Conway had to practice his socially irresponsible gifts was on a very brief ABC Steve Allen Show from 1961 when Allen had left NBC for 14 episodes to entertain ABC's audience with some of his old gang intact. Coming aboard were newbies Conway -- brought over by Rose Marie of the Dick Dan Dyke show who'd seen Conway's work locally in Cleveland (his first name then was "Tom") -- Buck Henry, the Smothers Brothers and Joey Forman.

No one knew better than Allen how funny laughter itself was. His own high-pitched shrieks were among his favorite bits. They were as extreme and infectious as any anarchic explosion from the Marx Brothers.

Allen made collapsing into it a kind of late-night TV staple, while prime time was stuck, most often, with canned laughter.

Late night hosts looked for the spontaneous anarchists who could supply it. Jack Paar exploited Jonathan Winters, whose emotional imbalance was by no means entirely rhetorical. It was Allen who told Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner that the 2,000 Year-Old Man bits they'd do at parties to entertain showbiz friends needed to become a TV act and comedy record. And, said Allen, if they didn't do a comedy record for themselves, he'd do it for them.

Thus began another way for comics to be seen annihilating their fellow professionals on the air.

We've seen some of it on TV as Michael Richards improvised on "Seinfeld" and Larry David did on HBO.

But there's a villain in this piece, too -- a power-monger who successfully outlawed it from his shows in lieu of sticking with tightly scripted bits filling rigid time slots: Lorne Michaels of "Saturday Night Live."

The Michaels rule on SNL was "no improv." Especially for guest hosts. When one of them --  legendary clown from vaudeville Milton Berle -- insisted on adding shtick on the spot, Michaels had a cow and barred him from the show for the rest of his life. Michaels' writers always came first, not some ancient vaudevillian, even if what he was doing was funnier than anything in the script.

It was an ancient, garden-variety power struggle. Berle and freedom lost, Michaels and tight scripting won. You'll see, on SNL, some performers who might scale the comic heavens if they could do it unfettered (Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones). But Michaels' upward climb has been at comic TV's expense. Something wonderful was lost.

Burnett had a brilliant solution. She knew that Conway wasn't making her life easier, but she also knew that no matter how prodigiously talented were the people working behind the scenes for her (designer Bob Mackie, for one), the sight of Conway getting away with comic murder could always reduce home audiences into hilarious puddles of applesauce.

She had loosed something amazing on the American TV audience. Her co-conspirator -- Conway's senior maniac Harvey Korman -- egged them both on. Just as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks invigorated each other, so did Conway and Korman. Burnett was the boss who watched them work together and got it. Really got it. Let the comedy police swing their billyclubs, she was going after classic comedy status. She let brilliance come in the front door and gave it what resources she could.

That's why the Conway story is so fascinating. As my daughter Emily pointed out to me, Conway, in both his autobiography and his appearance on "The Today Show" plugging it, told the world that he grew up in an America that thought of dyslexia as a lack of intelligence.

Conway was dyslexic. He was mocked in school. He was, in his career, part, no do doubt, of a TV minority of performers who had reading difficulties when it came time to read off teleprompters (a deceptively tough TV skill. For years, local TV news people confided to me the names of colleagues otherwise proficient, intelligent and articulate who just couldn't "do prompter.").

Did Conway's fiendishly funny gifts save him from his troubles reading scripts off a teleprompter? It's a brilliant theory I think and I'm prepared to believe it's the origin of the amazing hilarity the world came to love.

It makes everything Tim Conway achieved in his life that much more notable and wonderful.

And now that he's gone, it makes the lessened chances of finding his like again that much sadder for us all.

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