'Carol Burnett' alums bring sketch comedy to the Schnitzer stage

He's a veteran of 40-plus years of film, stage and television, but Tim Conway is best known for his 11 years on 'The Carol Burnett Show,' for which he won four Emmy awards.

Conway and Harvey Korman, his silver-haired sidekick on the popular variety show, will be appearing in Portland for two shows Nov. 17. They'll be joined by impressionist Louise DuArt.

Conway spoke to the Tribune from Las Vegas, where he and Korman were performing.

Trib: So much of the humor in the Carol Burnett sketches was simply Harvey Korman cracking up at something you said or did. How much of those bits was improvisation?

Conway: I was a writer on the show, so when I'd write a sketch for Harvey and myself, I would write one thing and then say another during the sketch. That was the first time that Harvey or anybody would hear it, which explains why he seemed to go south on me a lot. We still improvise; I've left plenty of room for it in this show.

Trib: Didn't 'The Carol Burnett Show' producers initially try to nip the improvisation in the bud?

Conway: Yes, at first they thought it wasn't very professional, but it happened so often that there was no way they could cut around it. And Carol liked it and encouraged it.

Trib: 'The Carol Burnett Show' is considered the best variety show ever made. Why did it appeal to so many people?

Conway: I think it's because we were less offensive than everyone else. It was also a kind show, which really helped widen our audience. We never really picked on anybody. If we made fun of anything it was ourselves or a situation. It's an approach I've always had to comedy. I've turned down a lot of roles that went out of the realm of what I do. I didn't want to offend an audience. The same is true of this act with Harvey Ñ it's really variety. There are five or six sketches, and both Harvey and I do standup.

Trib: Everyone has a favorite sketch from the show: Mr. Tudball and Mrs. Wiggins, the Old Man, the bumbling dentist. What was your personal favorite?

Conway: I used to love to do the Old Man. The character was fun; I could take my time with it, and it usually put Harvey away.

Tribune: Who do you think is funny now?

Conway: I think that the entire cast of 'Everybody Loves Raymond' is funny because they find the humor in everyday life. People think that life is like what they see on TV, and it's really not. You really have to find the humor in life to make it funny. Now, everybody on TV's funny: The dog's funny, the kids are funny, the door's funny Ñ everything's hysterical. Well I've got six kids and they haven't said anything funny in 40 years, so I don't understand how that happens.

Trib: In addition to television and film, you've done a lot of work on stage. Which medium do you prefer?

Conway: Both Harvey and I prefer being on stage, where we're not accountable to any executive or writer who thinks it's funnier if we do it this way. We're doing exactly what we do well, and it brings me a lot of pleasure to know that an audience still appreciates this kind of humor.

Trib: You still do some television work. How has the business changed?

Conway: The fun's gone out of television, because the writers have become producers. Now there are as many as 20 writers on a show, so everybody who writes one line thinks that that's the funniest line in the show and wants it delivered that way. When you do a show, you start taping at 7 at night, and at 3 in the morning the writers are still trying to decide which way to do it to make it funny Ñ and it wasn't funny to begin with. I think we had five writers on 'The Carol Burnett Show,' and you just went with what you thought was funny. Nobody wants to take that kind of responsibility anymore.

Trib: You're considered 'the comedian's comedian.' What exactly does that mean?

Conway: I have no idea Ñ it's kind of like 'the grocer's grocer.' Somebody writes these things, and they just never go away. And now Harvey has taken to calling himself 'the comedian's comedian's comedian.' Yeah, right.

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