A Little Variety

Here are a five things you might not know about Tim Conway, who performs this weekend at the Las Vegas Hilton.


Decades ago, Conway used to hang out with his friend Ernie Anderson. Conway starred in "McHale's Navy" and "The Carol Burnett Show." Ernie was the voice of ABC.

And Ernie's kid was Pauly. What's so special about Pauly?

"Little Pauly used to hang around with this camera his dad gave him, and we'd go, 'Geez, get that thing out of here, will ya?' " Conway, 76, tells me.

"He'd hang around parties and take pictures of people. That's something he always wanted to do, to be a producer.

"He would film dogs and cats and us. He really didn't get into it until he was in his teens, when he could really put together a story and try to make something of it."

It paid off for Pauly.

"It sure did," Conway says. "And now here he is, a big movie producer."

Pauly was Paul Thomas Anderson, director of "Magnolia," "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood."


Back when I was a TV critic, other critics were always asking legends like Conway why there aren't variety shows anymore.

The answer: The problem isn't just because times have changed, or that the tone of variety shows doesn't fit in with nasty schedules full of reality shows.

Variety shows were also very, very expensive. Networks could afford to produce them in the 1960s and 1970s, because there were only three commercial networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) and no real cable competition. So, networks had bigger audiences, big ad dollars, and they paid out less money to TV stars then.

"I don't think you could afford to do it now," Conway says.

On "Burnett," he says: "We had a 26-piece orchestra, and costumes that (Bob) Mackie made every week -- 50 or so costumes! And all those sets. And a lot of sketches."


Conway is bringing a variety show of sorts to Vegas this weekend.

"It's kind of a traveling Burnett show. We do about seven or eight sketches, some stand-ups, a little chit-chat with the audience.

"Nothing's longer than about three or four minutes, so you don't get tired of anything," he says.

"It just keeps people occupied for about an hour and a half. And it's a family thing. We don't try to offend anybody."

But don't expect to see the expense of a broadcast TV set piece.

"When you're dealing with a smaller show, obviously, you can't spend the entire evening moving sets around."

But as I told Conway, he and his friends' skills are more important than the sets.

"I would hope so," he says.


He started coming here with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme about 40 years ago.

"They talked me into going to Vegas. Then I worked around with Carol for a while. We did Vegas and Tahoe," Conway says.

"I go back to the old days, when Jonathan Winters was in the lounge, and the Newharts and that crowd were around -- and Frank and the boys.

"The lounge act used to be something you really looked forward to seeing, after the big show, and now it's kind of hard to find."

Conway did what other entertainers did back then: After performances, he went to the coffee shop in the middle of the night.

"You'd find everybody hanging around there. I've spent time with Don Rickles after a show. You just sit there for an hour and laugh. You don't even have to say anything. Don just starts talking about the old days and showbiz and what he's doing. Those are cherished times."

Since Conway started in radio and TV, he originally wasn't looking forward to live entertainment.

"But once you get into it, it's fantastic. It's much better than television or movies, because it's immediate. That audience is your orchestra. You just get out there and lead them for however long."


There was quite a bit of improvisational comedy in "Carol Burnett," as anyone who watched will remember from the dentist sketch.

"You just said something in a different direction and somebody would jump on it. And next thing you know, you have another added minute and a half of ad-libs, and laughing at each other."

Burnett believed in making the show seem as "live" as possible.

Now, Conway enjoys the more expansive improv-comedy nature of "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

"I think it's very, very funny. I'm surprised they do as well as they do, because that's pretty much totally ad-lib. They just give them the idea, and they just start throwing stuff around."

Contact Doug Elfman at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.