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Tim Conway brings his act back to northwest Ohio

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Comedian and BGSU grad, Tim Conway grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio with hopes of someday becoming a jockey.

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Tim Conway might be the only person who has been directly involved in what he calls the “alpha and omega” of modern comedy.

After all, who else has been part of both the Steve Allen Show and SpongeBob SquarePants?

It’s a testament to Conway’s resilience, adaptability, and — most important — comedic talent that he was a member of the cast of Allen’s groundbreaking 1961 television show and decades later provides the voice for “Barnacle Boy” on the absurdist Nickelodeon show featuring a talking sponge.

Of course Conway is best known for his 11-year stint on the Carol Burnett Show in the 1960s and ’70s, a variety show that remains a favorite for an entire generation thanks to its loosey-goosey improvisational bent and the overwhelming talent of the cast.

Want to kill a few hours and walk away with your face sore from smiling? Just go on Youtube.com and queue up some of the classic skits where Conway played the “Old Man,” “Mr. Tudball,” or the clumsy dentist. The humor is all about pratfalls, improvisation, and unrestrained goofiness, which is timeless.

“We just did funny for fun and that was silly stuff we did but it’s funny,” Conway said in a phone interview from his California home. “It was a great playground and I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to get into things that complemented what I wanted to do in the business.”

He will perform Wednesday at the Stranahan Theater for a concert that he described as “kind of a traveling Burnett show.”

‘I knew nothing’

Conway grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, outside Cleveland with hopes of someday becoming a jockey. His dad was a horse trainer and Tim would ride the animals around the track to work them out. One day he got on a horse in the starting gate for a practice run. The horse took off and Conway watched from the ground where he’d been knocked off as soon as the animal barged out.

That was the end of his jockey career. He went to college at Bowling Green State University and graduated after majoring in speech and dramatics. Conway said he loved the school, noting that one of his sons went there about 20 years ago.

“It was perfect for me because it was a small town college and I spent a lot of time working through college,” he said. “When I first went there, my folks gave me 50 dollars when they dropped me off and said, ‘This is for the year if you want to buy something,’ so I kind of worked as much as I went to class.”

After graduating he joined the Army for what he described as an extremely successful time “defending Seattle, and as you know we were never attacked there.”

Conway knocked around in Cleveland radio for awhile before making his way to New York and hooking up with Allen. He described his entry into comedy as a series of lucky breaks as he refined his highly physical, slightly silly sense of humor.

“I guess it’s not knowing a lot about the business, just knowing that sometimes when you did things people laughed and so you kind of put that in your trunk and kind of figure a way to get that in front of an audience. I never really wanted to be in this business so I had a certain amount of freedom because I knew nothing. When I came to do Mchale’s Navy I had no idea what the hell film was about or any of that business.”

Ernest Borgnine mentored him on the ’60s-era sitcom, which gave Conway entry into the burgeoning market for TV humor. He was on Rango and had his own one-hour comedy show that flopped.

Classic comedy

The Burnett show, which ran from 1967 to 1978, featured Carol Burnett, Conway, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and Lyle Waggoner, a murderer’s row of comedians who could rescue any sketch with a well-timed improvisation that often cracked up the other performers as much as the audience.

“You could always rely on somebody to come up with something in the sketch that would start a trend toward going somewhere. Whenever you had a gun in the sketch and you had to put it in a holster or somewhere, you always stuck it in the front of your pants and the sound guy always would fire a bullet, so you had something to work with,” Conway said. “Everybody on the show was available for their contribution.”

One of the show’s classic episodes featured Conway as a dentist who is working on Harvey Korman before he accidentally injects novocaine in his own hand. Conway, who also was a writer on the show, kept the novocaine part of the script secret from Korman, which pushed the skit into the comic stratosphere.

“He kept saying all week, ‘This sketch really stinks, it’s just dull,’ because we never did the ending of it until we taped it. So all of that up-front stuff, that three or four minutes of garbage we were doing, supposedly jokes that I had written, was really not all that thrilling,” Conway said.

“But when I got to the novocaine, the minute Harvey saw the needle and me ... stick it in my hand and becoming immobilized he said, ‘Now I get it.’ He ended up laughing more than the audience and actually wetting his pants during the sketch.”

Keeping it clean

Conway said the variety show he brings to the Stranahan will feature six or seven sketches and standup comedy from himself, impressionist Louise DuArt, and Chuck McCann. “We offer very little and deliver, that’s the important thing,” he said, chuckling.

The show is 90 minutes long with no intermissions and a little — or a lot — of improv always is included. “Whatever happens, happens. Never has it gone all the way through without something happening or falling apart,” he said.

And the show is clean, he said, with no off-color humor or raunchy language. Conway said he decided long ago to make his comedy as universal as possible.

“Don Knotts was a very good friend of mine and we used to sit and talk about what we were doing and the things that we had turned down along the way in our careers. We were known for certain things and, you know, if you have an audience there and you start swearing at them or doing whatever off-color stuff, it kind of offends them and it just isn’t worth it.”

Tim Conway & Friends will have performances at the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd., Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $32 to $78 and are available at the Stranahan box office, by calling TicketMaster at 1-800-982-2787, at all Ticketmaster outlets, at ticketmaster.com and by calling the Stranahan box office at 419-381-8851.

Contact Rod Lockwood at rlockwood@theblade.com or 419-724-6159.

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