LOS ANGELES — Carol Burnett met Tim Conway nearly five decades ago when she was a regular on the CBS musical-variety series “The Garry Moore Show” and he was an up-and-coming comedic talent doing a guest stint on the popular Sunday evening show.
“I had seen Carol and thought she was a scream,” recalls Conway, 76.
Burnett, 77, was similarly impressed with Conway, so when she and her then-producer-husband Joe Hamilton began the classic “The Carol Burnett Show” on CBS in 1967, Conway would be a frequent guest star.
“All of a sudden in the ninth season of the show, we said why don’t we have Tim on every week?” Burnett says. “He was already on about every other week. It was like ‘duh.’”
“This lady is responsible for my career,” says Conway.
Conway and Burnett were a hilarious pair in any number of sketches — for example, the exasperated Mr. Tudball and his clueless secretary, Mrs. Wiggins. Viewers also tuned in every week to watch Conway crack up regular Harvey Korman.
“He was such a poor performer,” deadpans Conway of his good friend, whom he toured with until Korman’s death four years ago.
Burnett and Conway are making their first appearance together on an L.A. stage Tuesday night at a Writers Bloc program at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. They will talk about Burnett’s sweet, sad and delightful new book of memories, “This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection,” and take questions from the audience.
A few weeks before the event, the two sat down in a conference room at Burnett’s apartment complex to talk about their friendship, comedy and life.
Q. So Tim actually created Tudball and Wiggins?
Carol Burnett: If I’m not mistaken, Tim, didn’t you write Mrs. Wiggins to be an elderly lady at first? Then when I went into Bob Mackie for a fitting, he had this idea about her being a bimbo who the IQ fairy never visited. So he put me in this push-up bra and blouse and blond wig. Then he put on this tight black skirt that had been on the rack and it bagged in the behind. I said, “I’m flat back here. Bob, you are going to have to take this in.” He said, “No, stick your butt out in there.”
Q. Was there a script to these sketches or did you just ad lib?
CB: The only thing we rehearsed were the moves because you never knew what Tim was going to do. David Powers, the director, would say, “Carol, you’ll get up and walk into his office and you’ll sit in the chair opposite him,” not knowing what he would say or do. We would have the premise of the sketch, but as far as the jokes and things and the insults he would hurl, I never knew what was going to happen before the audience.
Nobody ever tried to break up. It was like I dare you when Conway gets on a roll to hold it together. One time I just left the set. It was “As the Stomach Turns” and you were laughing at something on the phone and I was waiting for him to finish. Do the laugh.
Tim Conway: Ha, haaaaa. Ha. Haaaaa. Ha….
Q. One of my favorite sketches from “Carol Burnett” is when Tim plays a dentist who keeps shooting himself with Novocain while Harvey is sitting in the chair.
TC: Harvey had never seen the end of the dentist sketch because I didn’t want to show him anything about the Novocain. We rehearsed the front part of the sketch all week. Harvey said, “This sketch really stinks.” Even Joe Hamilton had a question about it. Harvey didn’t really get the bit until I got my first handful of Novocain and he said, “I get it. This guy is going to paralyze himself.”
CB: I was in my dressing room and looking at the monitor and then stood behind one of the cameras. The audience knew that nobody on the show had seen it before because of the crew and poor Harvey. It was so delicious. It is the best kind of therapy in the world when you just get sick to your stomach because you are laughing so hard.
TC: Every other show I worked on when you do something funny, the star will say, “I’ll be doing that.” Carol never said, “That’s funny, I’ll do that.” We all knew who the star was, but we never heard about it. Carol loved fun and the spirit of the show and the audience — you couldn’t find enough seats for them.
Q. Why don’t they do musical variety shows anymore? Is it a lack of talent?
CB: I think there’s talent, but I think there is no money. We could not do today what we did then. We used to have a 28-piece orchestra. We used to do medleys of songs, and now the estates won’t let you do more than 10 seconds of a song or you have to pay. Then we had singers and dancers and costumes and all of that scenery. It was a mini-Broadway show every week. So now when they just do these reality shows ... what (is the budget)? $1.98 and car fare? It is not show business.
I am not a prude about edgy comedy at all ... but there are no belly laughs anymore. There were belly laughs with Conway and Harvey.