Early in John Waters' 1994 movie Serial Mom, a hip teenage couple is shown digging through merchandise at a flea market. After a moment of intense searching, another character triumphantly presents them with a vintage acrylic painting. It's a portrait of a man, bags hanging under the slightly bugged-out eyes, his skin rendered in luminous translucent colors. His green shirt is united at the collar with a black bow tie. A fedora rests comfortably above his face. The smile on the man's broad lips is one recognized by generations of Americans. "I can't believe it," the teen exclaims, triumphant. "Don Knotts!" His girlfriend waits a beat, and then says with reverence, "He's the coolest." They walk off, arms around each other, delighted.
Like most things in a John Waters' film, the moment is less a joke than it sounds. It's a throwaway reference to popular culture that only someone steeped in the lore of American television can fully appreciate. Don Knotts is one of those names that you just know, even if you are uncertain about who he really is. However, look at that face for just awhile, and the moment of recognition will happen. Deputy Barney Fife. The Incredible Mr. Limpet. Theodore from The Apple Dumpling Gang. That crazy landlord Mr. Furley. A guest on Scooby-Doo, The Muppet Show and Newhart. You probably grew up with him; television certainly did. And next Thursday night, he will be onstage at the Spokane Opera House.
Joining Don Knotts for an evening of comedy entitled "Looking Back" will be another comedy and popular-culture figurehead, Tim Conway. The two have appeared with each other in more than half a dozen films and television programs, like The Steve Allen Show, The Apple Dumpling Gang and Cannonball Run II. But Conway is perhaps best known for two things: being a regular performer on The Carol Burnett Show, (remember, the guy that walks verrrrrrry slowwwly?) and his diminutive character Dorf, who is featured in six video specials, including the platinum-selling Dorf on Golf and Dorf Goes Fishing.
Of the two, Conway is the classic comedian. From the television sketches to his regular stand-up performances, his work is considered by many of his peers to be some of the best in the business. He has a particular gift for physical comedy. Far from the over-the-top, mugging contortions of performers like Jim Carrey and Jerry Lewis, Conway infuses his sketches with nuanced expressions and subtle timing. His slowly creeping old man is still one of television's funniest (albeit most frustrating) physical characters. And Conway can reduce an audience to helpless laughter simply by having Dorf spring back to his feet after being knocked down. It's comedy from an era when jokes actually had to be funny, not merely outrageous, and comedians used their bodies and facial expressions rather than exploited them.
Knotts, on the other hand, is primarily an actor -- a very funny actor. His most widely known character, and one that he has drawn on to some degree for many of his roles, is that of the nervous little man. Long before Woody Allen kvetched his way across the silver screen and Deputy Andy shed tears on Twin Peaks, there was Barney Fife. Knotts received five Emmy Awards for his flawless portrayal of the small town deputy on The Andy Griffith Show, and part of his subsequent humor has drawn on seeing his nervous, wide-eyed character in different guises.
Mr. Furley was a swinging '70s landlord who was still able to be shocked enough at least once during each episode of Three's Company, to fall backward, just out of view, with the soles of his feet sticking out past the door frame. Moreover, who else could voice a nervously stoic animated turtle reading a fortune cookie that states, "Give it up, you loser," in the feature Cats Don't Dance?
What the two have come together to create is an evening of comedy that draws on their respective pasts. Knotts, for the most part, plays the straight man to Conway's comedian, as the duo winds their way through some of the wonderful skits from The Carol Burnett Show and some of Knotts' early work from The Steve Allen Show. Audiences may also be treated to seeing Dorf on stage, and while the joke may be familiar to everyone in the audience, there's no denying that Conway knows the full comic potential of the material and how to use it like a pro.
There is a sense of nostalgia in their performance as well. The evening is called "Looking Back," not only to note that many of the sketches are past favorites, but also to remind audiences that the style of comedy on display is becoming increasingly rare. Risqu & eacute; jokes have always drawn a laugh, but it does not necessarily take talent to make them work. Anyone can succeed as long as they remember the punch line. But what does it take to reveal the comedy behind a simple event, such as listening to an after-dinner speaker drone on about corn production? Conway can remind an entire audience without uttering a word.
Conway and Knotts will be joined onstage by impressionist Louise DuArt, who, while less known than someone like Rich Little, can bring dozens of characters to life on stage. And it's particularly interesting to encounter a female impressionist who can do women's voices as well as men's. Her repertoire includes contemporaries of Conway's and Knotts' material, like Edith Bunker, George Burns and Katherine Hepburn, and current voices like Barbra Streisand and Judge Judy.
Aside from the opportunity to see some of America's classic comedy routines performed live on stage by the people who created them, audiences will be able to witness a style of comic performance that is quickly disappearing. Both Knotts and Conway have built their long-standing reputations around their trademark comic personas, and the accessibility of what they do. There is no shortage of humor, but don't expect to simply see a pair of stand-ups energetically rattling-off punchlines. "Looking Back" promises to be a reminder of an era when comedy meant talent, and humor was practiced as an art. The kids in Serial Mom knew that. F