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April 20, 2014

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Lovable loons Tim Conway and Harvey Korman revive classic skits

"That's Hedley! HEDLEY!"

-- Harvey Korman as the frontier villain to the good citizens of Rock Ridge who keep calling him Hedy Lamarr in "Blazing Saddles."

Who: Tim Conway and Harvey Korman, with Louise DuArt.

When: 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Las Vegas Hilton Theater.

Cost: $55 and $65.

Information: Call 732-5755 or (800) 222-5361.

They were funny when they did it right.

They were funnier when they did it wrong.

And before contemporary comedy went the way of "edgy," "relevant," "topical" and "dangerous," they were just plain ... fun.

They were about laughter when laughter was enough: laughter without embarrassment, laughter without guilt, laughter without offensiveness, laughter without a political agenda.

Laughter to just, well, laugh at.

And they still are.

"The kind of comedy we did was, in a sense, very kind," Tim Conway says. "Carol never was vindictive and never pointed out people's mistakes on a national scale. It was only about ... funny."

"We still get mail from the people who just loved that show on Saturday nights on CBS," Harvey Korman says. "They get nostalgic. They love that kind of comedy. A lot of the older people don't find that kind of comedy to laugh at anymore. We know they love the byplay Tim and I do."

The byplay is back: Conway and Korman bring their legendary looniness to the Las Vegas Hilton Friday through Sunday as part of their national "Together Again" tour. The daffy duo will re-create five sketches from the classic Burnett variety show -- assisted by comedian/impressionist Louise DuArt -- and perform individual stand-up routines.

The secret to their successful silliness? Simple: More than the punch lines and the pratfalls, we enjoyed these guys because they enjoyed each other. Immensely.

And all these years later their relationship remains one of genuine mutual -- albeit oddly expressed -- affection, even when referring to their current collaboration.

Korman: "Tim really put the whole thing together."

Conway: "I am the brighter of the two. There is no doubt who could have put this together."

Korman: "He's the genius behind it all."

Conway: "He's an insult to the business."

And Conway's gift for causing Korman to collapse in a spasm of giggles during a sketch?

Korman: "It was his goal to destroy me. He took great pleasure in destroying me. He's kind of sadistic. But I'm his biggest fan. You know, I was always very nervous when we did the show. But when I knew I was going to be out there with Tim I was never nervous. I always knew everything would be fine."

Conway: "Harvey is such a poor performer."

Together and apart, they've doubled over audiences for decades, and the memories are magic:

Belly laughs roll over the studio audience in waves -- and threaten to wash over a barely composed Burnett -- as Korman enters a sketch, his outlandishly-sized bosoms bobbing furiously enough to cause viewer whiplash. Dressed as a powder-blue fairy godmother -- a lumpy linebacker in drag -- and brandishing a frilly wand, rouge and lipstick, Korman affects a Jewish grandmother's accent that would make any Jewish grandmother convert.

"You vere expecting, maybe, Tinkerbell?"

"It's easy to re-create (the sketches) because there is such an expectancy from the audience, such an excitement to relive those old days. They miss the old-fashioned kind of laugh, where the laughs just build and build, with nothing disturbing attached to it," Korman says.

"On the other hand, it's a little more difficult for us doing the show on stage rather than on TV. If on TV something (spontaneous) happened, that was the end of it. Now if we find something spontaneous that may work, we work it into the script and formalize it -- which is kind of cheating, I guess."

Ah, heck, guys, we don't mind. We might even get a mite excited over this.

"It's like a rock concert, this show," Conway says. "People just go nuts that this kind of humor is still around. I walk out as the old man and you'd think Springsteen is on stage. We keep thinking that Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Chicago and New York are the center of show business, but in reality there is the Midwest. Folks love that down-home humor. Parents feel they can bring their kids to a show like this without worrying about being offended."

Except, perhaps, if you're a Nazi ...

Conway, in full Nazi interrogator regalia and sporting a silly-sinister mustache -- the Third Reich as Keystone Cops? -- bears down on a downed American flyer played by Lyle Waggoner, who looks tortured only by the giggles he barely contains. Suddenly Conway pulls out a hand puppet -- of Adolf Hitler -- and begins singing. His tiny, tinny puppet voice launches into every single verse of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad" ("Dina won't you blow, Dina won't you blow, Dina won't you blow your ho-oo-oorn!"), his little rat-like Fuehrer face wriggling maniacally in Waggoner's puss.

"Everybody sing!" Conway commands in a hilarious Hitler squeak. A laughing-till-he-cries Waggoner dissolves.

"That was one of my favorite sketches -- nobody knew I was going to go with the Hitler puppet," Conway says. "On that show we did it as close to live as we possibly could. All the laughs and the break-ups were in it. We were doing a weekly Broadway revue. I remember playing the old man when Harvey was playing an actor who needed a quick (wardrobe) change and I was his dresser. I got hung up on the rack that kept going around. It actually got stuck and I couldn't get off. Every time I came around they tried, but they couldn't get me off."

We remember: Eleven glorious seasons -- 1967 to 1979 -- producing 280 episodes. The Baby Boomer version of "Your Show of Shows."

"We never re-shot anything," Korman says. "If there was a mistake, it stayed in. A lot of times I see it (in reruns) -- I cringe, I know a boo-boo is coming, but it's part of what the audience enjoyed. We didn't do it over 25 times like shows do now."

Korman couldn't have survived 25 takes when ...

As his famous Old Man character clad in a yellow firefighters slicker -- a shock-of-white wig pushing a fireman's hat almost off his head, and mumbling in a dull, gibberishy moan -- Conway leans over Korman's prone, supposedly stricken victim, who is desperately gasping for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Conway, in excruciatingly slow motion, squirts a breath freshener into his mouth. Then he spritzes it into Korman's mouth. He slowly combs his wig, primps, starts to croon a romantic ballad and asks, "Where ya from?" Korman loses it.

"He doesn't make me break up anymore in the same places in the sketch -- but there are other places where he gets me unexpectedly," Korman says. "The more I try to fight back, the more it backfires on me. I try to break him up and I get it back two-fold. He's just so fast."

Well, ya gotta give Korman points for trying, right?

"Harvey tried to break me up and he couldn't," Conway says. "He spent so much time on his ideas, and they were so silly and stupid."

Any more stupid than? ...

Plopped into a bubble bath, Korman's Hedley furiously tries to figure out how to undermine the black sheriff of Rock Ridge. "My mind is a raging torrent flooding with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives!" Then he can't find his bath toy. "Where's my froggie! Where's my froggie!" Whew ... he found it. "Daddy loves Froggie! Froggie love Daddy?" Squeak, squeak.

" 'Blazing Saddles' remains the only picture I've done -- and I've done a lot of them -- that will really remain in the pantheon," Korman says. "Just like my work on the Burnett show. But listen, we all grow older: Time takes its toll, people change, times change, older people step aside."

Didn't the other guy also have a big hit beyond Burnett?

"With 'McHale's Navy,' doing Ensign Parker, I was doing Don Knotts," Conway admits. "Don is why I'm in the business. I loved what he did on 'The Andy Griffith Show.' I should have been arrested for impersonating him."

Or for improvising without a license ...

In a classic blooper from the Mama-and-Eunice sketch -- later to spawn "Mama's Family" -- Conway's rube character goes off on an unscripted riff about witnessing Siamese elephants at the circus: "They were joined at the trunk. Then this monkey would come out and dance the merengue." Fellow troupers Burnett, Vicki Lawrence and Dick Van Dyke struggle valiantly to stay in character, until Conway mutters: "One would sneeze, and the other's eyes would get REAL BIG!"

Giggles multiply, the sketch is in tatters ... But Burnett, ever the pro, tries to cue Lawrence's Mama into her next line.

Lawrence: "You sure that little a**hole is finished yet?"

Conway tumbles backward over the couch in convulsive laughter.

"Instead of saying what's written, I would say something else, and they never knew. And they laughed just as hard because they didn't know," Conway says. "Today, if you do a sitcom, you're taping at 8 a.m. and at 2 a.m. they're still discussing whether it's funny. Nothing's still funny at 2 a.m."

Some things are funny at any hour ...

Hedley's got it! He's going to ruin Rock Ridge by leading an army of bad guys to destroy the town. "I want rustlers, cutthroats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggers, bushwhackers, hornswagglers, horse thieves, train robbers, bank robbers, a**-kickers, s***-kickers ... and Methodists!"

"I get a lot of 'Hedley! Hedley!' from people on the street," Korman says.

But probably not from Methodists. His partner, however, might be a safety hazard on the street. ...

Conway elevates physical comedy to new heights of hysteria: In Old Man mode, he executes the slowest fall down the stairs in comedy history, tumbling about an inch every 10 seconds; as a butler he wrestles an oversized door knob, climbing atop it, straddling it like a tuxedoed cowboy on a rocking horse, finally hanging upside-down from it, his legs wrapped around for dear life; as a seriously incompetent soldier, Conway tries to shoot off a cannon, only to find the misfired cannonball lodged in his pants.

"It was physical humor, but I'm not sure a network would have faith in that kind of comedy now," Conway says. "Now you have to come out nude in front of a brick wall, and that's just the introduction."

Although there was no nudity involved -- thank fate for small favors -- one of the funniest bits ever to grace the Burnett show was ...

The dentist sketch. ... Need we say more?

OK, we'll say more:

Conway is the neophyte dentist who accidentally shoots himself -- instead of his patient -- full of Novacain. Korman is the patient who can't keep a straight face as Conway's limbs go numb, hand drooping against Korman's nose, leg dragging on the floor, dental instruments dangling from his lifeless fingers and clattering against Korman's teeth.

It's a classic.

"They show that at every dental convention. They also show it to first-year dental students," Korman says. "What Tim does with his body there, the man is a comedy genius."

So the show should be a riot, right? Right.

They're so sure of it that they offer this impossible-to-refuse guarantee:

"If you don't laugh," Conway says, "we'll come over to your house and clean your refrigerator."

You think throwing out moldy fruit and sour milk can't be funny?

Think again.

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