Cathy's World: Tim Conway 'On the Spot'

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  March 19, 2003 at 9:38 AM
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LOS ANGELES, March 19 (UPI) -- I wish "On the Spot," the WB's new half scripted/half improvised comedy that premieres Thursday night at 9:30, were funnier. But the problem with improv is it generally works better before a live audience than on TV.

Certainly you can see the viewers at tapings are having a genuinely good time. The WB's publicity department, in fact, recently alerted the press that "the show has become big on the Hollywood star to-do list ... and the tapings have turned into parties."

Scheduled guest stars include Andy Richter, Brian Doyle Murray (on Thursday's pilot), "Saturday Night Live"'s Cheri Oteri and the ultra hip Jack Black and Tenacious D.

But the show has promise and deserves a chance, not least because it dared to cast veteran comic Tim Conway, late of "The Carol Burnett Show" and "McHale's Navy," as the star of this 10-member and otherwise uniformly young improv group.

And I'm happy to report that at the WB news conference, at least, the 69-year-old Conway was quicker on his feet than any of his colleagues. There are few things more pleasurable than seeing an old pro who hasn't lost it.

In any case, at this point in his career, it's all gravy.

"I've met some of the greatest people in this business, and it just has been a real ride for me," said Conway. "I know it sounds like I'm dying, but I'm not. Although that's a possibility. I did take out my own prostate this summer. I sent away for a tape, $19.95, and they send you a Swiss Army knife and a mirror."

"I'm very surprised to be here," noted Conway drily, looking around at the posters of the WB's uniformly young stars decorating the room. "As you know, my career is over."

Actually, Conway's been working steadily on the road with his old "Carol Burnett" partner, Harvey Korman, who he famously used to crack up regularly during skits on that show while remaining deadpan himself. The pair will be at the Wayne Newton Theater in Las Vegas April 2-5.

Even though Korman wasn't present at the news conference, Conway didn't pass up the opportunity to give him a Friars' Club style roast in absentia.

"Harvey is 75, so I don't know how much longer he can tour," Conway pointed out. "Incidentally, just as a point of interest, he married a lady 25 years younger than him. And when he was 50, that was great, but now it's a little iffy."

"He is taking Viagra, but it's just to keep him from rolling out of bed," Conway continued, on a Korman-inspired roll. "Giving Harvey Viagra is like putting a brand-new flagpole on a condemned building."

Conway was born in Willoughby, Ohio, and raised in Cleveland, where his father worked as a horse trainer. "I was interested in being a jockey," he recalled. "Of course, at this weight they ask you to get off, but I was around horses all my life, so that was kind of what I was gunning for.

"I was galloping horses in Cleveland," Conway continued, "and if hadn't been for the fact that I was terrified of horses and fell off a lot, I think I still would be there."

Because his racetrack ambitions seemed unlikely, Conway enlisted in the Army in 1956.

"I defended Seattle for two years," he said. "As you know, we were not attacked there." Actually, his tour of duty lasted two years and 37 days. The extra time was tacked on for bad behavior.

"They had no sense of humor," Conway explained about the Army. "I'll give you one example. I was on guard duty one night, and they're very touchy about having your rifle with you on guard duty. Why, I don't know. It's very heavy and cumbersome, might I add.

"I was guarding a service club, which is pool balls and ping-pong balls and cards and things. During time of war, I'm sure that would have been a Number One target, but in peacetime, it didn't seem as though it needed to be guarded.

"A lieutenant would come around every two hours and check to see if you were there. I had fallen asleep in the back of a Buick and left my rifle there, and so I had nothing to really approach him with. So I took a long neon bulb out of the garbage, and as he came around the corner, I said, 'Halt, advance and be recognized.'

"He did, and he said, 'What is that?' I said, 'It's a light bulb. And if you come any closer, I'll turn it on.'

"I thought there was humor to that, I really did," Conway concluded. "I got to spend two weeks painting rocks."

After he was discharged, Conway began writing for a Cleveland radio station, and then directed and acted in a local live late night show there starring Ernie Anderson, an on-air personality at the time.

"I was at his 80th birthday, and he's the same Ernie that he ever was," Conway recalled. "He gave me some great advice in this business. One day I wanted to pretend that I knew what I was doing, and I said, 'Ernie, what is my motivation for this shot?' And he said, 'Either you get it by five o'clock, or I'm going to kick you in the ass."

Conway doesn't watch much TV these days. "I will sit there and watch a half-hour situation comedy, and although the television is laughing like crazy, I'm not," he said.

"And you know, there are funny children on television," he added, a scenario he finds unrealistic. "I have six children, they're approaching their 40s, and they haven't said anything amusing yet.

"Writers today think that the history of television is what is on now," Conway noted, "so you get a lot of duplication. In the old days, you had a family situation with three channels, everybody sat around, you watched the show and you talked about it. Nowadays I can't watch many television shows because if my children are in the room it's just embarassing. Not that my personal life has not been an embarassment to me.

"I watch a lot of animal shows," he added. "I love animal shows, and during the mating season, I can't tell you how late I've stayed up to see a couple of zebras go at it."

Putting an old trouper like Conway in a show targeted at the youth demographic may be a risky move on the WB's part, or it may be simply canny. The last Carol Burnett reunion special brought CBS its highest ratings in a decade.

Any plans for another?

"I would certainly enjoy it," Conway responded. "Incidentally, Harvey (Korman) and I are still doing the show. We go to CBS every Friday. They don't tape it, but we're ready. Harvey still has all of his costuming and wears it on a regular basis."

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