Part of MPI's Comic Legends series (the Phyllis Diller: Not Just Another Pretty Face collection will also be released), Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy is a collection of short skits from the 1960s ABC TV big-budget variety series, The Hollywood Palace, featuring the antics of Conway, along with several other stars, including Bing Crosby, Phil Harris, and David Janssen. Showcasing Conway right at the peak of his McHale's Navy fame, the 60 minute Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy collection is good viewing for anyone interested in the beginnings of the veteran comedian's career.
You have to hand it to Tim Conway; he's hung in there for decades, long after his contemporaries have faded from view. Today, as the voice of Barnacle Boy in the animated adventures of SpongeBob SquarePants, Conway continues to be active in leading popular comedy vehicles. Making regular appearances throughout the last two decades on TV and in popular sitcoms (Yes, Dear, Married. . . With Children), Conway is still out there, plugging away, and getting hard-earned laughs. Of course, Conway is perhaps best remembered for his four year stint on the legendary The Carol Burnett Show, a variety series that allowed Conway considerable improvisational leeway for his genuinely funny physical humor. Not just a pratfall comedian, though, Conway also has a fairly quick verbal wit, and this is showcased nicely in the Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy collection.
The Hollywood Palace, from 1964 to 1970, was a spectacular attempt by perennial third-place ABC to compete with the other networks by having their own big-budget, big-name variety show (obviously, the show was targeting the Ed Sullivan crowd). Quickly conceived and executed within weeks of the spectacular failure of the variety series, The Jerry Lewis Show (a legendary disaster that cost ABC millions), The Hollywood Palace was slotted on the schedule within weeks to take advantage of the staggering pre-production costs that went into mounting the Lewis show. The El Capitan Theatre, which Lewis had extensively (and lavishly) refurbished, was renamed the ABC Palace Theater, and a one hour, weekly variety show was pre-recorded there, to be broadcast later on Saturday nights, at 9:30p.m.. Each week, a new host would preside over the same kind of mixture of vaudeville, Broadway, film and television talents that Ed Sullivan emceed on his famous Sunday night show. Never a Top Thirty hit (people couldn't get a handle on the show, probably because it had a new host each week), The Hollywood Palace still enjoyed a solid viewership, and lasted six years on the ABC schedule (perhaps because so few of ABC's shows managed to get any viewers at that time). And on The Hollywood Palace, Tim Conway made numerous appearances, getting a chance to perform some of his bright, funny material.
Almost totally devoid of the slapstick pantomime that would characterize his later appearances on the Burnett show (as well as the successful Dorf videos Conway made in the 1980s), these Hollywood Palace skits show Conway working in a Bob Newhart/Mike Nichols vein, usually engaging in absurdist verbal repartee with a celebrity straight man. For instance, the opening bit features Bing Crosby (resplendent in a white tuxedo jacket) incongruously interviewing Conway, who portrays a hapless jockey. Later, Conway will take on the guise of obstetrician, prison warden, race car driver, and Olympic coach, among others, as he's interviewed by a different celebrity guest. As with any comedy team, the success of the "funny" one, the one who gets the big laughs, can be affected by the skill of the straight man (certainly Abbott and Costello is the best example here). Conway is funny, no matter who's interviewing him, but he gets bigger laughs when he's allowed to "play" with the celebrities who are more game, more open to the experience. Thus, when Conway does a bit with a stiff Dale Robertson or a too-professional, too-serious Joan Crawford, he visibly has less fun with his lines (with almost no ad-libbing, either), than he does when interacting with someone like David Janssen. Janssen, in the disc's funniest sketch, is obviously fighting a losing battle staying in character, and as Conway starts to hit him with one ad-lib after another, Janssen completely loses it. It's a great moment, and you can see Conway's confidence build as the scene goes on - he's got Janssen breaking up, and the audience is right with him, wanting it to continue and intensify (Conway was a master at breaking up his fellow actors against their will, as TV audiences fondly remember from The Carol Burnett Show). Other celebrity guests who interact with Conway on the Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy disc include Gene Barry, Phil Harris, Steve Lawrence, Kate Smith, and Ernie Anderson (a colleague from Conway's earlier career in radio).
The Hollywood Palace was originally broadcast in color, so most of the skits contained on the Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy disc are presented as such. There are a few, though, that show up as black and white kinescopes, which may be the only remaining records of these performances. Which brings us to MPI's treatment of these skits. Looking at the DVD box for the Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy, there's no mention anywhere of the original source material: The Hollywood Palace TV show. Likewise, nowhere on the actual footage are there any leftover indications as to where from these segments were culled and edited. I'm not sure why that is. Whether it's for contractual reasons, or because the footage may now be in the public domain (or perhaps the DVD producers just felt no one would remember the old ABC variety series), the absence of any context for the segments somewhat hampers the enjoyment of these skits. As a fan of vintage TV, I want to see these shows given the proper respect they deserve. While I would prefer to see entire episodes of The Hollywood Palace, the purpose of the disc is to highlight Conway. Fine, but at least give credit where it's due. Don't just slap on a new chroma-keyed title, "Timeless Comedy," and let it go at that. For older viewers, they'll have no trouble identifying these performers, but newer viewers might need a little prompting to remember who Dale Robertson or Gene Barry were.
The footage taken from the old The Hollywood Palace series is fairly rough, seen next to similar contemporary shows that have been nicely preserved and showcased on DVD. Don't expect a high bit rate and a razor-sharp image. There's shimmer and edge enhancement, as well as blurry color from the original source material. But to be honest with you, I sometimes like that rough, cheap look. Watching the Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy, you really get the feeling you're watching a piece of history. I don't need a flawless picture to see Tim Conway do a bit from forty years ago; if anything, it enhances the vintage experience.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono accurately reflects the original audio broadcast presentation.
There is a "bonus feature" listed, which is just another sketch featuring Joan Crawford. The fact that it's actually a repeat of "The Warden" sketch that featured David Janssen, hardly makes this a true bonus. Calling it such is just a marketing ploy, and a pretty lame one at that.
The Tim Conway: Timeless Comedy is a must for big fans of the comedian. It showcases Conway at the very beginning of his most prolific career period, in more verbal (and less slapstick) settings than we're used to seeing him in, while offering the viewer some solid laughs. If you're not familiar with Conway, I would suggest renting this first. Recommended.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.