I first saw Tim Allen in 1981, at Mark Ridley‘s Comedy Castle in Michigan. He did 40 minutes on boners.
Does that sound like the same guy who played Santa Claus, Buzz Lightyear and Tim “Toolman” Taylor? It shouldn’t—he wasn’t even close to those family-friendly characters yet. In fact, the young man born Timothy Allen Dick was just a few months out of federal prison, having sold cocaine to an undercover cop three years earlier.
But he killed at the Comedy Castle, which is comedian-speak for he was great. I got in free, thanks to my writing partner at SMZ Advertising, Eric Head. Tim and Eric were friends who once wrote jokes in Tim’s basement. They formed a company: Dick Head Productions. Eric dared Tim to try standup, and there you have it.
Despite his choice of subject matter, there was something about Tim on stage, the “it” quality that I truly believe is given to you before you’ve taken your first breath, or timed your first punchline.
I will say, however, that his choice of wardrobe helped. The comics who preceded him on the bill all looked the same in their wrinkled sport coats with pulled-up sleeves over colored t-shirts. Tim came out in a crisp Armani suit and tie. He was a flashing billboard that said “success.”
During the next year, Tim was a fixture on the comedy club circuit, gathering momentum, honing his routine, but still searching for a “persona” that would get him noticed by more than bar-hopping yuppies.
At the ad agency, Eric and I had collaborated on a funny and unusual sixty-second TV spot called “Interrogation” for our client, Big Boy Restaurants. Tim was brought in by Eric to play the “Produce Guy,” one of three Big Boy suppliers kidnapped by evil managers from “Bingo Burger” in order to discover the secret of Big Boy’s success.
Tim had one line in the commercial: “Freshest salad bar around, bub.”
And now, fresh from my tape vault, here’s a real piece of TV history: “Interrogation” (PUSH PLAY BUTTON).
Tim became our go-to husband type, appearing in many commercials for Big Boy’s specialty dinners, such as Scallops and Liver ‘n Onions. He was paid scale, and was thrilled to get it.
In 1990, I directed Tim in a TV spot for a local company called Action Auto. I also doubled as Tim’s stand-in (see first photo).
When the shoot was over, he told me that he was moving to California. His comedy special for Showtime, Men Are Pigs, was a sensation. It was here that he introduced the snorting DIY-er that caught the eye of Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Soon after, the bit became the basis of Home Improvement.
The show was wildly and deservedly popular. Tim won the People’s Choice Award every year the series was on, and not even the sky seemed the limit. One week in 1994, he had the nation’s number one TV show, the number one motion picture (The Santa Clause) and the number one book (Don’t Stand too Close to a Naked Man). Statistically speaking, he was the biggest star in America.
Tim and I collaborated on one more project. It was the result of a good decision on my part and a bad one on his.
By the latter half of the decade, I was now a freelance writer/producer/director, doing business as Katz Creative. At the same time, Tim was earning $1 million per episode—slightly above the scale we paid him.
On hiatus in late May 1997, he was back in Michigan’s upscale Oakland County visiting family and friends. Following a round of golf with a local disc jockey, the twosome spent too much time at a nearby 19th hole. After filling himself up, Tim filled up his 1988 Ferrari, then burned rubber out of the gas station doing 70 in a 40 MPH zone.
Pulled over and taken in, he failed several sobriety tests and blew a 0.15 blood alcohol level, well over the 0.10 state limit.
The judge sentenced Tim to one year probation, adding two conditions to avoid a second stay in prison: go into rehab, and use his star status to make a video educating Michiganders on the effects of drinking and driving.
The Traffic Improvement Association of Oakland County called Burke Video Productions, which called Katz Creative. I’d done several video projects for Burke, and they knew I was good, fast and cheap. Normally you get just two of the three.
They explained that nearly 40 percent of Michigan’s traffic deaths involved alcohol. Workers with alcohol and drug problems were costing employers billions of dollars in lost productivity and higher health care costs, and were sadly ignorant of the risks of having even a few drinks after work.
That was the message. And Tim Allen—whose father had been killed by a drunk driver when he was just 11—would be the messenger.
My first draft, I thought, was a winner, with Tim on camera in his “Tool Time” set. The client thought so, too. And then, Tim’s “people” got into the act. They gave us some lame reasons why Tim couldn’t do it, like it would take away from his lunch break. Yeah, right—tell that to the judge.
I’m sure that they were just protecting Tim from the big bad outsiders, and he probably had no idea what was going on. I’d always found Tim to be most cooperative.
Then his people came back with additional facts of L.A. life that totally killed the script and any thoughts of Tim’s being on camera. They told us that we’d have to hire their crew and equipment, and pay for studio time and lights, something we hadn’t figured on and certainly hadn’t the budget for.
I went back to the drawing board and came up with a Monteil Williams-type TV talk show concept that we could produce locally.
Called Choose to Have a Drink? Choose to Get a Ride!, Tim would “call in” and do a mea culpa on what a jerk he was to drink and drive. All his lines could be recorded separately out there (presumably not on his lunch break), and inserted in the edit.
The concept met with everyone’s approval, and the taping went smoothly.
Tim was happy, his “people” were happy, and apparently the judge was happy, too.
Choose to Have a Drink? Choose to Get a Ride! was so successful in Michigan that dozens of other organizations around the country requested copies (with the local references removed).
I received the 1999 Golden Cassette Award for Writing from the International Television Association, one of four I took home that year.
As for Tim, he completed rehab and has stayed out of trouble. In 1998, Western Michigan University awarded him an honorary Fine Arts degree and the Distinguished Alumni Award.
Bravo!!!!!!! As always, your writing style is amazing!
Awwww, thanks! These were so much fun to write, and now it’s even more fun that you’re enjoying them.
Another good one. I’m enjoying these Jon.
You probably don’t know this but I gave Jay Leno his first TV spot. Jay was living in Boston in 1974 and driving Mercedes back and forth between Boston and NYC to make a living – while he was doing standup at night in the local comedy clubs. He was dating one of my then-girlfriend (now 42 yr wife) Debbie’s roommates which is how I met him.
His dream was to be on The Tonight Show just once. Who would ever have bet that he would one day take it over from Carson?
At this time I was the Ed Sullivan of Malden, MA. I produced a weekly 30 min variety show on Malden Cablevision, which probably had at least a dozen subscribers at that time. Cable TV was very new.
Anyway, I needed an act each week for my show, and I asked Jay if he would do it. He was thrilled, as he had never done a TV show and Carson was still a dream.
So one day Jay comes to the station to do his bit on TV. Only we miscommunicated. He thought I was supplying the audience and I thought he was. So we were faced with the prospect of 30 min of standup with no audience. Luckily, though, his girlfriend came along with him, and a local high school kid was there cleaning the station.
So I snapped into action. We set up a table in front of the “stage”, placed the kid and the girlfriend at the table, and Jay proceeded to do 30 min of killer standup for them. Each time he told a joke we would do a reaction shot – first him, then her, then him from one side, then her from one side, then the two of them together – you get the picture. It wasn’t exactly the Copa.
When Jay was done we had a great 30 minutes of comedy with just one small problem. When only two people hear jokes they tend to smile not laugh. So we had a laugh-free, virtually silent, 30 minutes of standup. What to do?
My solution was brilliant I thought. We all went into a tiny conference room at the station, hung a mike from the ceiling light, replayed the tape and dubbed in a laugh track. Jay too. So in his first ever TV appearance Jay did his own laugh track. Not quite the Tonight Show.
Years later when Jay was a star and appearing at Westbury Music Fair I called him and left a message saying kiddingly that he stunk on Malden Cablevision. He called me back and said he killed it. We had a good laugh.
Obviously, I wish I had saved a copy of the tape. As Mel Brooks said of Jesus on the 2013 Year Old Man album, “If I knew he was going to be such a hit I would have made him a partner in the store!”
Robert Miller +1 917 656 1401
Sent from my iPhone
What a tremendous story! I remember Jay’s early Carson appearances with all that hair. As I said about Tim, there was that certain quality that you knew would take him far. Thanks for all your kind words.
A great save and another great story old friend.