2008, Good News
Tim Conway has been making people laugh for over four decades on stage, television, and film. He’s an American comedic icon known for his improvised humor, razor-sharp timing, and hilarious character portrayals. His 11-year stint on The Carol Burnett Show garnered him five Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe and three generations of fans.
As host of the comedy DVD Thou Shalt Laugh 2: The Deuce, Conway told Good News, “The audience consisted of parents, grandparents, and kids. It reminded me of the old Burnett show. The audience absolutely roared. When you have the freedom of knowing you’re not going to be offended, you can relax.”
The Deuce is the second installment of a night of stand-up comedy. Like the highly-successful first Thou Shalt Laugh, this evening was filmed in front of a live audience in a sanctuary. The Deuce features returning performers and audience-favorites Taylor Mason and Thor Ramsey, as well as newcomers such as Saturday Night Live alum Victoria Jackson, Bone, and Dan Nainan.
I spoke with Tim Conway and Victoria Jackson about comedy and faith.
Tim, you’ve been doing comedy for a long time now. Do you have a philosophy behind it?
Tim Conway: There’s a place for laughter. It takes a lot of energy to be angry. You can’t be angry and laugh at the same time. So I’ve always kept comedy in the forefront. I’ve also turned down a lot of stuff where I’d subject myself to off-color humor, movies and things like that, even if I’m not the one doing it…if I’m involved in a picture where that takes place, I don’t do it, because some of that audience is coming there to see me, and if they find that I’m surrounded by this, then it’s disappointing to them, so I don’t even get involved in it.
Victoria Jackson: When I got reunited with my high school sweetheart, I had to choose between my career, my house in Los Angeles, and my true love. I chose my true love and gave up my career. I was a perfect Christian wife and mother for 14 years, but I was really missing performing so much and there are no opportunities in Miami. When the opportunity came up to do stand-up comedy with [fellow SNL alum] Kevin Nealon, I took it. So about once a month for three days I go on the road and do my little stand-up thing. That way I was only away from the kids three days a month. I’ve just been doing it to keep my toe in show business. When I went on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, everyone found out I was a Christian when I was defending Jesus against four screaming atheists. Then the Christian market started asking me to do my act at churches.
Tim, stand-up comedy has become a very lucrative business and there have been several famous comedians whose lives have ended tragically. What has kept you grounded?
I think my upbringing. Your parents, your town — the people surrounding you. I didn’t know what drugs were until I came out here. I wasn’t interested in i t— I had too many things going on for me. In my home town you went to church on Sunday, you owed something to Somebody for getting you through the week. You didn’t want to become the jerk in town.
What do you think of the celebrity lifestyle in Hollywood these days?
I think they have the sense they’re doing okay on their own, they don’t need religion, they don’t need God, they don’t need any spiritual guidance at all because they’re doing pretty darn good on their own. Well, I wasn’t brought up that way, I was praying every night that somebody was going to help me, you want to keep communication, and you want to have, in a sense, the fear of religion in a sense, that, you know, if you keep going this way, you’re gonna end up in hell. They don’t have that fear. The only fear they have is that they’re not going to get to the club on time. And it’s a runaway situation. There’s no way to talk to these kids, they’re doing so well. They go from a talk show to a limo to a club to home to go get some new clothes and that’s it, that’s their life.
What was it like working on the Carol Burnett Show and performing with Harvey Korman?
It was done like a live show. We were doing an hour review really, every week. Sketches and everything. Jam packed show. I was a writer on the show, so I’d write, for one thing. I’d write a sketch for Harvey and then I’d do it entirely differently because he didn’t know what I was going to say, I would know what he was going to say but he didn’t know what I was going to say, so he would rehearse with me one sketch, and then when we’d go to do it I’d do a totally different one, and that’s what would confuse him, and the minute I said a line that we hadn’t rehearsed, he’d know I was going somewhere else, so he was stuck. He’d try to figure out what was coming next. We had the George Burns/Jack Benny relationship, he’d look at me and fall down. You’ll notice in sketches that a lot of time I won’t look at him for a long time and then I’ll just kinda glance up at him.
Victoria, what was it like on the set of Saturday Night Live?
The environment was very competitive. It was very stressful but it was exciting. Everyone thinks that there were drugs everywhere but I never saw drugs. I smelled marijuana two times in six years. I never hung out with anyone after the show because I had my first baby and I didn’t want to miss her first step, so I didn’t really think of it as a party atmosphere. To me, all of the cast wanted to use this as a stepping stone to movie stardom and they were very nice to me and my Christianity. I would leave out the bad words or taking God’s name in vain. I would just not say it if it was in the script and no one ever said anything. There were three times I thought I shouldn’t be in a sketch. One time I was supposed to pray on my knees in the middle of the sketch. I went to [producer] Lorne Michael’s office and said, “Lorne, I don’t think I can do this praying thing because I think its really talking to God and I would feel like it’s blasphemous and I’d start crying in the middle of it.” He said, “I understand” and he gave the role to Julia Sweeney. She did it at dress rehearsal and no one laughed so it didn’t get in the show. Basically we were in control of what we did because we were writing it.
Do you have a philosophy of humor?
I think comedy is serious business. The comedians I know take it as seriously as brain surgery and the good ones are very smart, they kind of analyze it as someone would a mathematical problem or something, basically when I grew up, I heard about hell since I was one year old, and that’s pretty serious when you’re like six years old, thinking about hell, and I think you need something to balance that out, you know? I think humor is a gift from God and laughter is the best medicine, and I think if somebody wasn’t happy and laughing all the time that they’re probably not born again. You can’t not have joy, it’s a fruit of the spirit.
This interview appeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Good News.