Laughing Matters — The Carol Burnett Show, “The Oldest Man: The Doctor”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

I feel like I grew up in a true golden age of syndicated comedy reruns, when the handful of channels had a stomach-rumbling need to fill the hours of the day, and the booming industries of daytime talk shows and phony courtrooms presided over by eye-rolling judges was still pending. By the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, there simply wasn’t that much material available, and just enough discernment among programmers and the viewership that the best generally locked into regular rotation while subpar shows drifted to the deeper recesses of the vault. There was no need to dig, dig, dig through a miles-long menu of options. A recent classic such as The Carol Burnett Show just arrived every day, which the clock struck a certain hour.

Even as a whippersnapper, I had some level of recognition that I was watching an icon when the star who lent her name to the program was on the screen. Even so, I watched reruns of The Carol Burnett Show with devotion because I wanted to see Tim Conway’s inspired, playful comedy stylings. (I was even one of the very few people who eagerly tuned in for the short-lived 1980 sketch comedy effort The Tim Conway Show.) His characterizations, especially on recurring characters such as the Oldest Man, were feats of detailed silliness, physical precision, and remarkable patience in drawing out jokes.

Conway often had me in hysterics, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. Most notably, his fellow performers were often helpless, especially when Conway clearly targeted them with gags. In the Oldest Man skit in which the character is a doctor paying a house call, there’s a joyful glint in Conway’s eyes as he leads up to the curvaceous line reading of the word “koala,” obviously certain it will cause Harvey Korman to break. Korman did, as he was often the case in the many instances he shared the stage with Conway. Really, who could blame him?


2 thoughts on “Laughing Matters — The Carol Burnett Show, “The Oldest Man: The Doctor”

  1. Excellent tribute, Dan. I feel like our experiences with the golden age of television syndication in general, and Conway’s work, specifically, were very similar. For a while in the early ’80s my parents subscribed to HBO (until they feared it might be rotting my brain!) and Private Eyes, with Conway and Don Knotts, seemed to be on regular rotation for a while. I adored it, especially because it starred two comedic masters playing beautifully off each other.

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