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A Man's World

by Peter Proko
…From the pages of South Jersey Magazine…

With a career as accomplished as Tim Allen’s, few would think about venturing back into the world of TV sitcoms and stand-up comedy. But, hey, a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do.

It’s late on a beautiful Friday morning in Los Angeles and Tim Allen is enjoying the serenity provided by the tranquil surroundings of his California home. Four hours from now he’ll land in Las Vegas for his residency gig at The Venetian, but at this very moment he’s only concerned with soaking up the sun and a bit of peace and quiet before, as he puts it, his world goes upside down once he finds himself smack dab in the middle of Sin City.

Allen has earned these blissful moments thanks to his decades-long career as a successful television and film actor. After more than 10 years working the stand-up comedy circuit, he grunted his way to stardom as Tim “The Toolman” Taylor on Home Improvement, a mega-hit ’90s sitcom that lived in the top 10 rated programs for the duration of its eight-season run. His character was loosely based on the observational musings of his 1991 Showtime stand-up comedy special, Men are Pigs, hence the grunting. The show made Allen a household name and gave him the star power that ¬attracted Hollywood. In 1994, he simultaneously had the No. 1 TV show, movie (The Santa Clause) and book (Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man) in the country.

When Home Improvement ended in 1999, Allen went on to star in several more films, which ironically for this Midwestern native who spent time in prison for drug trafficking, all seemed to carry an overriding theme of family entertainment. “I’m not that guy,” he says.

“I appreciate the films and where I’ve been put in this world and I joke about it. But if you saw where I came from, if you saw my life, you’d never expect me to do this brand of comedy.”

Perhaps Allen’s most sustained success since Home Improvement has come by way of Disney’s animated cash cow Toy Story, in which Allen voices the character Buzz Lightyear. The original film was released in 1995 and currently work on the third sequel is underway.

But Allen is more than an actor and occasional scribe. He’s directed, produced, had his own line of power tools and is a father twice over. And now, with his 60th birthday approaching later this month, Allen is getting back to his roots: stand-up comedy and television. The second season of his new sitcom Last Man Standing just wrapped and he’s currently hitting the stages outside of Vegas for the first time in a while, including a gig at The Borgata on June 29. We sat down with Allen and asked him the key to his longevity, to which he had a simple five-word answer: “They have to be entertained.”

SOUTH JERSEY MAGAZINE: So you recently wrapped the second season of Last Man Standing where you play Mike Baxter, a marketing director for a chain of outdoor sporting goods stores. By all accounts, you seem to really be enjoying yourself being back on television. What’s the experience been like personally?
TIM ALLEN: The best way I can say it is if you’ve ever had a pet … I had a golden retriever with Home Improvement and, when we left, it was too sad. I said I’ll never do this again. And then somebody bought me this puppy and it’s slowly reminding me that you can have affection again. I just adore these girls [who play my daughters on the show]; they’re quickly becoming my surrogate daughters. Nancy Travis is great, Hector Elizondo is like Wilson [from Home Improvement]. There are so many elements; you can’t imagine how much talent is on that set. They all appreciate where they are, no bitching and moaning. The only thing I miss is tools and construction.

SJM: After the first season, the show went through some changes in casting and was moved to Friday nights; are you anxious to hear about a possible third season? Do you have any indication from the network yet?
TA: I don’t know this world anymore. It’s a combination of theater, movies and television … very methodical how you have to do television [these days]. We have done everything the network has asked us to do. They moved us to Friday and started a new comedy night. I would have liked a cushy spot near Modern Family for a couple seasons, but who cares what I think? I think it’s one of the best five-camera shows, and it’s funny.

SJM: Having played one of TV’s most iconic sitcom characters, were you leery at all of coming back to television? I’m sure you’ve had plenty of offers through the years.
TA: Hell yes! I didn’t want to come back, I told them several times. We did the big show, No. 1 show, all these awards. We burned every storyline … I looked at some dramas, cop shows, a couple I almost bit on. I really got close.

SJM: Mike Baxter is similar to Tim Taylor in certain ways, yet different in many others, including being a little edgier. Do you see any parallels between the two characters?
TA: You never knew how smart or dumb Tim Taylor was. You never really knew except for some flashes; he had no strong opinions. Mike Baxter comes across ignorant, but he’s not dumb; he’s educated and has traveled the world. The guy is smart enough to be ignorant; he’s very different in that degree.

SJM: I think another remarkable thing about your career is your film work. You’ve been fortunate to not only star in hit films, but hit films that produce hit sequels. Good timing, luck, what’s your secret?
TA: Mostly comes down to business. I wish it was different sometimes. Though I’m looking forward to Iron Man 3, I didn’t like Iron Man 2. With The Santa Clause, the first one was the prototype for the Chevy Camaro, it was perfect in all its flaws. They were pushing for three, but we should have waited a couple months, flushed out the script. Compare that to Toy Story; they just keep getting better. And it’s a freaking cartoon!

SJM: Can you believe that it’s been nearly 20 years since Toy Story was released? When you read the script, did you ever envision Buzz Lightyear becoming such a lasting part of your life?
TA: I don’t think like that; I’m kind of a stand-up still. I just want to make sure everyone gets their money’s worth. I told my agents, I’ve never done a comedy, I’m always the straight guy. I’ve never done a film in the sensibility I’m in. I did Jungle 2 Jungle, and I was a straight man for Marty Short. I’m funny, but I set up the other guy.

SJM: In 2010, you stepped into the director’s chair with Crazy on the Outside. Is that something you’ve thought more about doing?
TA: I was lucky to be able to do that. It’s one of these things the controlling side of me loved. We did a tour to get out to theaters, really grass roots. … This movie business is a business; I learned a crap load of what this business really is. You can make films reasonably priced, but to get everyone to see it [that will cost you]. I’m a little clumsy, but I got through it.

SJM: So you will be in Atlantic City next month doing stand-up. Is it important for you as a comedian to get back to your roots every now and again?
TA: It certainly was for me. I was doing a lot of charity stuff; I hadn’t done club work in five to six years and thought I’d get back to it. You can’t pay me for this; I feel like I’m getting more than I’m giving. I’m surprised. The young folks only know me as Buzz Lightyear and they come to see me doing current comedy with a point of view; it’s very gratifying.

SJM: Have you played the Borgata or elsewhere in A.C. before?
TA: I’ve only been to A.C. twice.

SJM: How do the casino crowds differ from the club crowds? Do you prefer a more intimate space?
TA: I like casinos, its serious [stuff]. People pay good money which is what I tell my team. We dress and act [professionally]. I’m old school like that, I like people dressed up for the show and treating them special. I spend a lot of time doing staging… I put on as a good a show you’re going to get from a stand-up.

SJM: Your bio says you didn’t get any laughs at your first stand-up gig. Any funny stories from your early days?
TA: I did a gig at [a bar] in between innings during the 1984 World Series in Detroit and Detroit was in the World Series. You almost needed a screen in front of you; people were throwing stuff. I looked like a guy just standing in front of the TV of the restaurant. I also did a Stroh’s Brewery comedy tour at some place in Alabama. It started on Thursday … after the second show on Thursday, [the owner] says, “You know you’re doing the same material; this is going to be the same crowd for all six shows.” There was nothing else to do [in that town]. I had people in the audience yelling “I already heard that one!”

SJM: What’s your creative process like when it comes to writing jokes? Has it differed from when you started?
TA: Age and confidence and how do you get to the point where you trust yourself. Right now I have the background to try new stuff up front. It’s risky; you don’t want people to say he isn’t funny at all.

SJM: Who are some of the comedians that inspired you?
TA: Top of my list is [Richard] Pryor because I saw him a couple times and it was the best experience of my life to laugh that hard. Pryor was the funniest human being I ever met in person. I was hurting from laughing so hard. [Bill] Cosby and Pryor were men to me. It never occurred to me, they did many things for me. You get into a spiritual place, life is comical and it makes it sweeter. [George] Carlin, his points of view, [Don] Rickles, so many guys… [Rodney] Dangerfield.

SJM: Is it weird to think that you have inspired a future generation in the same manner?
TA: I can’t imagine that I did, I never think of that. I couldn’t have done this without talented people ahead of me who were generous enough to accept me.

SJM: Do you think comedy is too watered down these days? In the ’80s and part of the ’90s, it was really at its peak of talent.
TA: We were in the high point, the networks and movies were looking for the new funny person. Roseanne [Barr], [Andrew] Dice [Clay], it was really red hot. You could make a good living as a middle act cruising the country; it’s not like that these days. Every pop star, etc. would pop into comedy clubs because that was where it was happening, but it’s cooled.

SJM: You’re also an author. Is there anything else you’d like to try your hand at that you haven’t done already?
TA: I don’t know, most of the stuff I want to do now is private stuff. Some of my personal stuff that I want to get done, between me and my church.

SJM: You’re turning 60 this month. Have you thought about what you want for your birthday yet?
TA: It will always be the coolest, most expensive gadget I can find. I’m looking at this as something that is memorable, but I just want to spend time with my family.

SJM: Maybe you should ask for a pair of Google Glasses?
TA: Google scares me. If the government did what Google does, taking pictures of everything, people would scream. But they let them get away with murder.

SJM: Since you’ve only been to A.C. twice before, how will you gauge the crowd?
TA: If I really enjoy it, people I appeal to will enjoy it.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 3 (June, 2013).
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