Whats So Funny (Thorndike Biography)

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9781410464309: Whats So Funny (Thorndike Biography)

The funnyman best known for his characters on "The Carol Burnett Show" offers a memoir about his life on stage and off as an actor and comedian.

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About the Author:

Tim Conway was born and then did The Carol Burnett Show for eleven years. He has six Emmys and is in the Comedy Hall of Fame. He went to Bowling Green State University for eleven years (he was a very slow learner). Tim was in the army (ours) for two years, protecting Seattle from “the Red Menace” and was in McHale’s Navy for three years. His ambition was to be a jockey, but at his weight, even the horses asked him to get off. He has seven children, two grandchildren, and a puppy. Tim has been married to his lovely wife Charlene since 1984 and does not have a serious thought in his head.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

What’s So Funny? Introduction


People have often asked me, “If you weren’t in show business, what would you be doing?” The truth is, I don’t think there’s anything else I could be doing, so the answer would have to be, nothing. Then again, there’s nothing I love more than making people laugh, so I guess you could say I’m in the only business I could be in. I was born to enjoy life and I’ve always wanted everyone to enjoy it along with me. That’s why I can’t see myself any place other than standing in front of an audience with one purpose in mind—to make people feel a little bit happier than when they came in.

I didn’t start out to be a comedian. I didn’t want to grow up to be a policeman, or a soldier, or a fireman, either. I wanted to be a jockey and, believe it or not, I actually gave it a try. It didn’t work. The truth is, I was terrified of riding real, live horses. And when I did, I had a habit of falling off them. This sort of thing wouldn’t work for a jockey. You’d be amazed how angry a bettor can get when the horse he’s put money on crosses the finish line without a rider.

Fifty years ago I slid head first, without a helmet, into the entertainment industry. I came of age during one of the most exciting, innovative, and influential eras in the history of television. My first big show was McHale’s Navy, which was followed by The Carol Burnett Show, where I remained until it ended. That was four decades ago, and I’m still performing. Maybe not on a weekly basis, but you can catch me on shows from SpongeBob SquarePants to 30 Rock, and from Hot In Cleveland to Mike and Molly. While Carol, Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, and the rest of my Burnett buddies have a special place in my heart, working with people like Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Wendie Malick, and Valerie Bertinelli is not chopped liver. I also perform, live, in theatres, and in dinner clubs from Martha’s Vineyard to Los Angeles, with plenty of stops in between. In other words, I continue to ply my trade, whatever that means. And, considering that I’m approaching the big 8–0, and am still going strong. Not only do I have a classic American rags-to-riches story to tell, I’m living proof that life keeps getting better and better, if you let it. Kind of motivational, don’t you agree? That’s one of the reasons why I decided to write a book.

So come along and let me entertain you, this time on the printed page. And if I give you a laugh or two, great, and if I don’t, keep it to yourself.|What’s So Funny? My Beginnings


At the age of eighteen, my father, Daniel Conway, left Ireland and came to this country accompanied by his seventeen-year-old sister, Madge. They were orphans when they left the old sod, and they were still orphans when they arrived in the United States. The Irish are stubborn. According to my father, he and Madge were in the elite section of steerage—there was a toilet. Odd definition of elite, but it sounds a lot like my dad. He wasn’t a big talker. Wait, he wasn’t a talker, period, but whatever little he said, he had the Irish gift of wit.

Back in the Emerald Isle, Daniel Conway had a profession; he was a whip. In case you don’t recognize the term, whips are an essential part of the grand old sport of foxhunting. And if you’re not up on that tradition, it involves a bunch of people on horseback chasing after a poor little creature that’s been sniffed out by a pack of hounds. A friend of mine told me that Oscar Wilde referred to foxhunting as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Whips were in charge of keeping the hounds in order. You can spot them in all those hunt paintings; they’re the guys carrying whips. Apparently, my father came to this country because he thought there was a crying need for a man with his skill. As you may have noticed if you’ve looked out of the window on any given Saturday, not many fox hunts are taking place in America. I have no idea how long it took my dad to figure out that he might not make it big in the New World as a whip, but it must have been shortly after the boat landed.

I can picture him standing on Ellis Island holding a paper bag stuffed with clothes in one hand and an old whip in the other, wondering not only how to earn a living, but where. For some unknown reason, he chose Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland? It’s a city you make jokes about. Here’s an example: What’s the difference between the Titanic and Cleveland? They’re both disasters, but Cleveland has a better orchestra. Want more? Back in 1969, a fire broke out on the Cuyahoga River. The flames, fueled by all the oil and sludge in the harbor, went as high as five stories. It was headline news all over the country and inspired Randy Newman to write “Burn On (Big River).” Can’t you hear the Cleveland fire chief yelling, “All right, men, let’s get some water on the river and put this thing out!” A river on fire, that’s Cleveland—the perfect location for my dad. He went there; sister Madge stayed put. She had no desire for further travel, found work as a housekeeper, and never left New York.

Dan—if you don’t mind, I’m going to call my parents by their first names—arrived in Cleveland and ultimately found his way to Hunting Valley, an exclusive suburb twenty-five miles out of Cleveland. When I say “exclusive,” I mean exclusive. Hunting Valley is located on eight square miles containing grassy fields, rolling hills, a bona fide forest, river gorges, and elegant estates that are linked by hiking trails, polo fields, and bridle paths. A lot of prominent Cleveland families were residents of Hunting Valley as well as members of the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club. Polo was the big draw but members also participated in Saturday fox hunts. Each hunt had a chosen route, and a tried-and-true method ensured that the horses took it. Before the start of the chase, a fox was placed in a burlap bag; the minute the bag closed, the terrified critter peed. A horse dragged the bag and its contents through the woods, thereby laying the trail. The hunt began. The dogs instantly picked up the scent which they followed to the finish where, rather than a fox, a catering truck awaited. Luncheon was served. Meanwhile, the little fox had been taken back to the barn, washed off, and kept in relative comfort—until the next Saturday’s hunt. Look, nothing’s perfect but six days out of seven, the fox did lead a good life. Although, if you ask me, since no one gave two hoots about catching the little critter, it probably would have been just as effective to drag along a pastrami sandwich.

·  ·  ·

Dan got a job as a groom at the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club. While he did assist in the hunts, his main job was tending to the polo ponies. Basically, that meant scooping up horse manure in the stalls. I could go on describing my father’s profession, but for now let’s leave the pioneer pooper-scooper, rake in hand, and move on to my mother.

Bet you think she was a fair, Irish lass, or something like that. Think again. Sophia Murgoi was born to Romanian parents, in either Warren or Columbus, Ohio. When she was four, her parents whisked Sophia, her three brothers, and two sisters back to Romania, the Cleveland of Europe. Brilliant move. It meant that, in a dozen or so years, they’d have front row seats to World War II. Fortunately, Sophia was shipped back to America before the Nazis marched in. She went to Cleveland because she knew some Romanians who lived there. As far as I know, the rest of the family remained in occupied territory. Sophia never talked about them, at least not to me. Come to think of it, except for a rare mention of his sister, Dan didn’t talk about his family, either. Then again, he was an orphan. Neither Dan nor Sophia seemed to give a rap about looking up relatives, consequently I never had the luxury of aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was just the three of us, but it was enough. I do recall one time in the early ’40s when Dan decided we should drive to New York City and visit Aunt Madge. We got into our trusty, rusty, second-hand, four-door Ford, headed east, slept in motels, went through the Holland Tunnel, and arrived in Manhattan. Dan drove around and around but he couldn’t find a parking space. Finally, he sucked in his breath, cried out, “That does it!,” and then, so help me, turned the car around and went back through the tunnel. We spent the night in New Jersey.

It wasn’t until several decades later, after I moved to California, that I even came close to meeting my aunt. It happened when Charlene Beatty, the woman who would become my second wife, and I planned a visit to New York City. I called my parents to tell them of the upcoming trip.

“Look up your Aunt Madge,” ordered Dan.

“Aunt Madge?”

“My sister,” said Dan.

“I know she’s your sister.”

“She lives on East Fifty-ninth Street across from some big store,” continued Dan. “She’s a housekeeper for a church, and they sent me her address. She doesn’t have a phone, so you’ll have to go there.”

He didn’t say what church or why they sent him her address. I could only assume he’d asked for it, but why? I remember thinking there’s no use looking for rhyme or reason at this stage of the game. Dan said to do it, so I’d do it.

Charlene and I arrived in Manhattan and after we finished doing what we’d gone there to do, we went in search of Aunt Madge. She lived in a run-down, brownstone apartment building across the street from Bloomingdale’s department store. We walked up the front stoop and scanned the names listed on the directory at the side of the front door. I pressed the buzzer next to the name “Madge Conway” and waited.

“Yes?” answered a voice over the intercom.

“Aunt Madge, this is your nephew, Tim. You know, the one on television.”

“I don’t have a television.”

“Really? Oh, I’m sorry. I’m Dan’s son, and he said for me to say hello.”

“Yes?”

“I’d love to see you.”

“I don’t go out.”

“I could come up,” I suggested.

“That’s not necessary,” she answered after a long pause. “Thanks for stopping by.”

The intercom clicked off. I looked at Charlene, she looked at me, and without saying a word, we walked down the steps and ambled across the street into Bloomingdale’s.

Despite her abrupt dismissal, I felt a little bad that I hadn’t seen my aunt. I wanted to do something for her, but what? Maybe a gift would be appropriate. She said she didn’t have a TV, so that seemed to be a good bet. We went to the electronics department, bought a small portable set, and arranged to have it delivered. When I got back to California, I received a notice from Bloomingdale’s telling me that the television had been returned and that the refund had been credited to my account. I thought maybe Aunt Madge didn’t want to have anything of value around. Charlene suggested that she didn’t want to know me. Whatever the reason, we didn’t see each other. Matter of fact, to this day, I’ve never met a Conway or a Murgoi.

Speaking of the latter, let’s get back to Mom.

When Sophia Murgoi arrived in America, she, like Aunt Madge, found employment as a housekeeper. Get this: Sophia, a United States citizen by birth, spoke almost no English, and what little she spoke was heavily accented. One of the few things Sophia could say was “chocolate sundae.” Consequently, she spent most of her spare time watching her face break out. The language barrier didn’t stop my father from courting her. How they communicated is beyond me. It had to have been some version of English since Dan never learned Romanian.

My mother, a stranger in the land of her birth, remained fiercely proud of her Eastern European heritage. I was well into my showbiz career when, out of the blue, Sophia asked, “How come when you’re on those TV talking shows, you are never mentioning you are part Romanian?”

Sophia watched everything I did so she would have known I hadn’t bragged about my ethnicity. Not long after her rebuke, I was on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and, to please my mother, I decided to reveal my heritage.

During my conversation with Johnny, I told him, “You know I’m part Romanian.”

Johnny drew his head back, lifted an eyebrow, sort of smiled, and then went right on talking. As for the audience reaction, normally people will applaud whatever you say—your favorite city, your favorite color, your favorite ice cream flavor, the name of your first grade teacher, just about any person, place, or thing will get them going. Not one pair of hands slapped together at my disclosure. Sophia never brought up the subject again. Neither did I.

Are you starting to get a picture of my parents? I have to confess, to this very day, they continue to dumbfound me. How is it that I know practically zilch about their backgrounds? They met in Cleveland, but where, how, or why, I couldn’t begin to guess. If I had to take a stab, I’d say that they probably met each other through friends. Anyway, it’s a good bet Irish Dan didn’t attend a Romanian Singles Evening. Dan was a tall, slim, good-looking dude, a dapper dresser with a great head of hair. Sophia was short, a bit on the dumpling side, but with a round, pretty face. Her vivacious nature would have appealed to my taciturn father. I inherited my height and my round face from my mother and the ability to speak English from my father. Although I never saw a marriage license and though they never actually mentioned a wedding date, I presume they were married sometime before I was born on December 15, 1933. It’s crazy that I know so little about my own parents, but it’s the truth. Neither one of them ever sat me down and said, “Son, this is who we are.” As I said, Orphan Dan probably didn’t know and Sophia didn’t seem to care—maybe because what was left of her family was thousands of miles away. (I gave up trying to discover their histories, but if there’s some eager genealogist reading this, be my guest.) I’ve come to the conclusion that, all things considered, the only word for Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Conway is zany. You don’t have to be a Sigmund Freud to figure out that if you put those two people together, you’d come up with me.

Dan and Sophia were living in Willoughby, a suburb of Cleveland, when I was introduced to the world on a second-hand sofa in their living room. I’m happy to report a doctor was present. My official birth certificate read: “Toma Conway.” Eventually it was altered to read: “Thomas Daniel Conway.” With Dan and Sophia in charge, I’m lucky it wasn’t changed to Betty Lou. (Later, you’ll find out how I became Tim.)

I was a colicky baby for the first few months of my life. During this time, Sophia kept busy looking after me; Dan found consolation by downing glass after glass of home-brewed beer, the classic Irish remedy for anything and everything. Besides upsetting my parents, my colicky state delayed my baptism. I was nearly four months old when I was hustled off to receive the baptismal sacraments in a Romanian church of Sophia’s choice. Would you believe it, in Cleveland she actually had a choice.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, around two thousand Romanian immigrants lived in Cleveland, making it one of the largest Romanian enclaves in the country. Most of them were members of the Orthodox Church but some of them, the “Greek Catholics,” belonged to the Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite. The difference is, the Greek Catholics recognize the Pope. Naturally, there had to be two different churches. The Greek Catholics built St. Helena’s in 1905 and the Romanian Orthodox built St. Mary’s in...

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Conway, Tim, Scovell, Jane
Published by Thorndike Press (2013)
ISBN 10: 141046430X ISBN 13: 9781410464309
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