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LOS ANGELES—Most people remember Tim Conway as a comic whose running gag was his cluelessness, whether as the earnest but befuddled guy in the comic sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show” or an inept naval officer seemingly bent on single-handedly losing World War II to the Japanese in “McHale’s Navy.” Conway, though, recalls a time when his blundering was entirely unplanned.


It was his first job in television, back in the early 1950s when everything aired live and there was no videotape safety net to spare viewers from mistakes. Conway was directing a morning movie show on a Cleveland station hosted by an equally untested rookie named Ernie Anderson.


“We had an hour and a half in the morning but I couldn’t back-time a movie to get it to go off at 10 o’clock,” Conway remembers. “So for the first week we had no ends to the movies. People would call up and say, `Hey!’ and I kept saying, `It’s “Citizen Kane.” It’s a sled. Rosebud. Come on.’”


Conway’s hilarious if somewhat painful reminisences came Tuesday evening during a press conference for “Pioneers Of Television,” a new PBS documentary series, at a gathering of North American TV critics.


Four other early stars—talkmeister host Dick Cavett, comedian Betty White, perennial sidekick Ed McMahon and variety show host Tony Orlando—all agreed that all those live shows at the dawn of TV may not necessarily have been better, but they sure were more exciting.


“Fighting for our lives,” White called it, remembering the 5 ½-hour talk show she hosted on a Los Angeles station in 1950 where she had to not only chat up guests but perform in skits, sing three songs and do all the commercials—during one program she counted 54—live. All for the munificent sum of $50 a week.


For all that, White said, it was a plush gig compared to television today. “In those days, the audience hadn’t heard every joke or seen every plot,” she said. “It was just this magic new box in the corner of the room, and the audience was willing to be amused. It’s not that easy now.”


If the audience hadn’t been willing to be amused, it might have been appalled. Conway remembered a Cleveland newscast that was supposed to feature a live one-minute ad for a city council candidate with a broken leg. As the candidate made his grand entrance, he slipped, fell—and fell again every time he tried to get back up. While everyone else on the newscast collapsed in laughter, the horrified Conway ordered the cameras to cut away to the weather girl, only to be told that was impossible: “She wet her pants.”


Stuff like that happened not just on local stations but the networks, too. Cavett said every moment he spent writing for Jack Paar, the volcanic “Tonight Show” host who invented the talk show as we know it today, was an adventure.


“Jack was the most neurotic, dangerous, brilliant, weird, unsorted-out, fascinating personality of my lifetime on television,” said Cavett. “The great British critic Kenneth Tynan said about Jack once, `Even if he’s sitting there with Cary Grant, you watch Jack, afraid that if you look away you might miss a live nervous breakdown on the screen.’”


Cavett nearly saw it happen: Paar, certain it was an off-color reference to feminine body parts, went bonkers when a comic used the word uvula on his show. Actually, it’s that fleshy thing hanging down the back of your throat that makes a funny noise when you gargle.


“That danger quality,” Cavett mused, “nobody’s ever had anything like it.”


Not every recollection was fond. Orlando’s eyes were flinty as he described comedian Jackie Gleason’s appearance on the very first episode of his 1974-76 variety show. Gleason, angry that he’d been dressed down during rehearsal for referring to Orlando’s black backup singers with a racial epithet, delivered a real punch to the host instead of a fake one during a skit.


Orlando, seeing stars, barely made his way off the set. But another guest who was about to join the skit, diminutive comedian Nancy Walker, told Orlando she would avenge him. “I’ve had it in for him since 1949,” Walker said of Gleason. “I’m going to get him.”


“And she gets up on her toes,” remembered Orlando, “and she does one of these wind-ups, and comes—bam!—and she hits Gleason. I could see Gleason was shook.” Enough that he came to his senses, apparently; after the show, Gleason apologized to Orlando and they became friends.

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