Tim Conway was always funny, always likable

This is a review I wrote in 2013 about Tim Conway’s autobiography in 2013. The comedian passed away today at age 85 after nearly a lifetime of making people laugh. Rest in peace, Mr. Conway and signature characters like Dorf, Mr. Tudball and the world’s oldest man.

“What’s so Funny? My Hilarious Life,” by Tim Conway with Jane Scovell. Copyright 2013, Howard Books, 247 pages.

Tim Conway always seems such a likable sort. Perhaps it’s good to know that he really is.

This, ultimately, is what can be gained most by reading Conway’s autobiography, “What’s so Funny? My Hilarious Life.” It’s the light and breezy story of the longtime comedian’s upbringing in Ohio, his tour in the military (“ours,” Conway writes in his direct but endlessly jokey style) and an exceptional career in show business that garnered seven Emmy awards, a place in the Comedy Hall of Fame and millions of dollars portraying the lovable Dorf in a series of videos about the hapless sportsman.

By any standard it’s a tremendous run of success for this everyman whose goal growing up was to be a jockey but instead found a gift for making people laugh. He parlayed this ability into more than a half century of playing a gleeful second banana to show business luminaries such as Steve Allen and Carol Burnett. He was downright delighted to do it, too.

In fact, nearly everything in “What’s so Funny” is seen through the rosiest lens imaginable. Conway reflects upon his remarkable good fortune as most any regular guy would in his place. He does so without ego or acrimony and with what seems a genuine love and respect for those who helped him along the way. It’s as if he never encountered anyone who attempted to block his path, offered a discouraging word or made his life uncomfortable. Some would conclude that no one ever had a smoother road to follow. That, or Conway simply chooses to ignore those nasty potholes that might crash others.
He doesn’t get mad or get even. In the world of celebrity dish-the-dirt autobiographies, that by itself is refreshing.

Conway, with co-author Jane Scovell, moves the narrative along at a rapid pace. Short chapters encompass his upbringing in Chagrin Falls, Ohio — a little town near Cleveland where his Irish immigrant dad worked with horses and his Romanian mom made slipcovers while keeping house. His given name at birth was Toma but he was called Tom until Allen convinced him to change it. Conway’s childhood was an often zany existence.

Both parents were characters who unwittingly encouraged their son toward comedy.
He was shoved in that direction, though, by dyslexia, a condition that led to inadvertent mishaps while reading at school, which in turn nudged laughter from Conway’s classmates. He found he enjoyed making people laugh and took this potential weakness and turned it into a strength.

In fact, the ability to do nearly anything to get a laugh is a recurring theme throughout Conway’s life. He lives to make others crack up, particularly when it’s not supposed to happen. It’s a trademark he started while working with Allen, the forerunner of late-night talk show hosts. He continued it when working with dramatic actor Ernest Borgnine, his co-star on the TV show “McHale’s Navy.” And Conway reached his zenith in his longtime work with Harvey Korman on “The Carol Burnett Show” and later when the two took their comedy act on the road.

Conway offers sweet memories here and there about working with Burnett, Gary Moore, Korman, Don Knotts and a host of others. But he doesn’t analyze it too much. There are few insights into how comedy is produced or what separated his work from others — beyond, of course, doing anything to get a laugh.

It can’t be that simple. Then again, in the hands of a likable guy like Tim Conway, maybe it is.

Conway book

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