When comic actor Tim Conway passed away in May 2019 at the age of 85, his obituaries often invoked his time on The Carol Burnett Show, a stint for which he won four Emmy Awards. His role on McHale’s Navy (1962-1966) was also featured.
Conway’s other most-cited credit: Dorf.
In a series of straight-to-video releases in the 1980s and 1990s, Conway appeared as a short-statured Scandinavian athlete who sampled a variety of sports, from golf to auto racing. Fitted with a toupée, bristly mustache, and athletic apparel, Conway performed entirely on his knees to inhabit the character. It was bizarre, surreal, and—for a generation weaned on browsing the special interest sections of their local video rental stores—considered extremely funny.
In Conway’s view, Dorf’s success was due to being the antithesis of 1990s gross-out comedy. “There is still an audience out there that's being cheated a bit by what's considered humor,” Conway told The Seattle Times in 1996. “Take Ace Ventura, where you end up with a lot of bowel humor. I don’t do that.”
Short Form Comedy
Conway was a fixture on the small screen for decades, moving into the burgeoning world of television after serving in the Army. In addition to McHale’s Navy, Conway headlined Rango and Disney features like The World’s Greatest Athlete before becoming a household name as a result of his work with Carol Burnett on her eponymous sketch variety series. (His most famous bit, “The Dentist,” was apparently based on a real interaction he had with a military dentist who accidentally injected himself with anesthetic. Conway’s co-star, Harvey Korman, reportedly wet his pants from laughing so hard during the performance.)
For the most part, Conway was a supporting character rather than the lead—a role he seemed to embrace. “I would much rather stand in the background and make small funny things than be up at the head of the class,” he said during a 2004 interview with the Archive of American Television.
Derk Dorf was one of the exceptions. According to Conway—and it should be noted the actor was known to deliver insincere answers to earnest questions—he once fell into a hole in his living room and took note of how ridiculous it was. “It looked very unusual, so we took it from there,” he said in 1987. “It’s awfully silly, but it gets laughs.”
Conway offered a slightly different origin story when speaking with The Olympian in 1990. “We had done a takeoff of Fantasy Island on one of my variety shows,” he said. “I was Hervé [Villechaize] and on my knees in a little outfit. And I said, ‘Gee, you’d really have a lot of mobility if you could just put your legs through the floor and just stand on your knees,’ which we did.”
Conway debuted the character during a sketch on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in 1986, where he portrayed him as a horse jockey; he later depicted him as a weightlifter and NBA hopeful. Based on the positive audience reaction to the appearances, he entered into a distribution deal with J2 Communications to peddle a 30-minute straight-to-video special, Dorf on Golf, in 1987. It was partially a parody of a golf instructional video hosted by Jack Nicklaus that was popular at the time.
To portray Dorf, Conway stood on a raised set that hid his legs from the knees down. With shoes placed in front of him, he appeared to be about 3 feet, 7 inches tall.
In a nod to Conway’s tenure as a sketch comic, the tapes often came with a laugh track. “That’s what people are used to,” Conway said. “If you took the laugh track out, some people might turn it off in three minutes. They need something else to supplement their laughter.”
Dorf on Video
Dorf on Golf sold 100,000 cassettes at a time sell-through videos were few and far between and consumers preferred to rent rather than buy expensive VHS tapes. Titles that were made expressly for that market were hit-or-miss. Jane Fonda’s workout library performed well; a Shelley Duvall instructional on how to survive an earthquake did not.
Part of the reason was that Conway treated the cassette like a movie or television show, making guest appearances and doing plenty of publicity for it. Due to their focus on sports, the Dorf tapes also doubled as gag gifts. If someone enjoyed golf, a Dorf spoof made a decent Father’s Day offering.
A second tape, Dorf and the First Games of Mount Olympus, followed in 1988; Dorf appeared in a toga while sampling some of the first Olympic competitions. There was Dorf Goes Fishing in 1993 and 1996’s Dorf on the Diamond, in which Dorf tries baseball. Dorf’s Golf Bible, also from 1988, added a Mrs. Dorf. (Plans for a video in which Dorf encounters Bigfoot fell by the wayside.)
By 1996, Conway had moved 330,000 tapes at $19.95 each and up, becoming a mild sensation in the process. Once, at Ronald Reagan’s 85th birthday party, Colin Powell approached Conway and insisted he had to “get that tape.”
Though it would likely be received differently today, Conway’s short-statured character didn’t seem to provoke much in the way of controversy at the time. “I guess it’s a gentle approach to comedy,” Conway said. “I try not to target anybody. The pitfalls are all piled on the character I play.”
In Conway’s mind, Dorf was never intended to be a little person to begin with. “This is not a guy who is a midget or a dwarf or anything,” he said in 1988. “He’s just a guy who has an unusual height and an unusual way of walking. There’s just this funny physical look.”
Dorf was not totally without scandal. In 1989, Conway was sued by J2 Communications, which alleged Conway was distributing Dorf Goes Auto Racing through another company instead of J2 as per an earlier agreement. (J2 had released the first three Dorf titles.) A judge ruled that because Dorf Goes Auto Racing was produced by a different company than the others, J2 was not entitled to distribution rights.
At 70 minutes, Dorf Goes Auto Racing was billed as a movie and came with a heftier price tag: $59.95. It may be the pinnacle of Dorf’s production values, if not his comedy. The tape was followed by a 1991 CBS special, Dorf’s Family Stump, which guest-starred Joe Namath. The character largely faded from view by the late 1990s, though Conway still made appearances as Dorf through the 2010s for iSpotSanta.com, a Santa tracking website.
With Dorf, Conway’s motive was to be funny. But in taking his comic persona and making a direct appeal to consumers, he foreshadowed the kind of self-generated content that would soon grow popular online and via portals like YouTube. Short or not, Conway cast a long and precedent-setting shadow.