Mesa Musings: Conway's comedy not so funny anymore

April 02, 2012|By Jim Carnett

I inherited an appreciation for slapstick humor from my father.

Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, he and I enjoyed watching "The Carol Burnett Show" on TV.

We roared at comedy sketches featuring Carol, Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, but our favorite cast member was Tim Conway. We particularly loved Conway's character The Old Man.

Remember him? Possessor of a disheveled gray mane, he had an expressionless facial mask, spoke with a mumble and walked with a shuffling gate. He was hilarious. It took him an eternity to walk across a room, and in one sidesplitting episode he was unable to extricate himself from a runaway electric wheelchair.


What irony!

Dad and I did not anticipate that within a few decades we'd both exhibit some of The Old Man's distinctive physical characteristics.

Though never explicitly divulged on the TV program, it's obvious to me Conway's character had Parkinson's disease.

Parkinson's is a degenerative brain disorder with no known cure. It causes nerve cells to die or become impaired, and patients exhibit such symptoms as tremors or shaking, slowness of movement, rigidity or stiffness, and balance difficulties. Other signs include a shuffling gate, cognitive problems or muffled speech.

Those are qualities that made Conway's character so endearing.

My dad began exhibiting Parkinson's symptoms in his early 70s, during the mid-1990s.

We weren't certain what was happening at first, but we knew he was slowing down. Rigidity set in, and he developed an expressionless facial mask. In hindsight, it was so obvious.

He talked with his doctor about the condition, but nothing was determined. Mom finally took him to a neurologist.

"Dad has Parkinson's," she told me one memorable evening. I'd heard of the disease but knew nothing about it.

"Is he alright?" I asked. "Is he going to die?"

My father lived another decade. He died in 2006 at the age of 84.

A few years into the disease, Dad began exhibiting Conway's shuffling gate. He seemed not to be aware of it, but, sadly, he reminded me of The Old Man. I watched, but didn't laugh. It wasn't funny.

One day, during a regular check-up with my doctor, I mentioned my father's diagnosis and asked if I should be alert to the possibility of developing the disease.

"I don't think so," he assured. "It doesn't seem to have genetic links."

Au contraire.

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