I don’t know where to begin with Tim Conway. Maybe that’s because I feel like I grew up with him, whether it was watching reruns of McHale’s Navy in the afternoons after school or watching first-runs of The Carol Burnett Show in the evenings where my favorite thing was seeing Conway break up the cast, especially Harvey Corman who, to me when I was a kid, had a kind of sinister quality. Seeing Tim Conway make Corman laugh, now that I think about it, was an early lesson for me in how comedy could make something scary safe, could rob it of its power.
Tim Conway also seemed like a big kid fumbling around among the adults, making a mess of things but, like any kid, able to get away with it because of his naiveté. Even when he played adult characters, like Mr. Tudball, the overbearing boss, he seemed like an overgrown child, just barely able to hold up the pretense of being mature, and his old man character who provided another early lesson: we end life much the same way we begin it, helplessly shuffling along, just trying to get by.
There was also something about that face of his. Tim Conway was a natural born clown, someone who seemed almost like he wasn’t born but produced in a laboratory for comedy. It made everything he did funny. I had an aunt who took me to see his films with Don Knotts: The Apple Dumpling Gang, The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, and Private Eyes. None of them were that great, but everything Tim Conway said and did made me laugh. Some comedians take on dramatic roles and earn high praise for being able to play it straight. Tim Conway never did, possibly because he never wanted to, but also because I’m pretty sure he could do Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech and it would be hilarious.
It’s even funnier, though, that in one of his last roles, reuniting with Ernest Borgnine who played the aged superhero Mermaid Man on Spongebob Squarepants, Conway was the voice of Barnacle Boy, Mermaid Man’s sidekick, and in a great reversal, the straight man. Mermaid Man was always the joke, bumbling around, in need of help, and Barnacle Boy was the competent one, occasionally calling Mermaid Man “you old coot!” And yet, true to most of the roles he played, Conway was still a child, or at least younger than his companion. In one episode Barnacle Boy even becomes a villain simply because he’s tired of always getting the child’s meal at the Krusty Krab.
Even in old age he was young, kept that way by the innocence of laughter.
Hail and farewell Tim Conway.