In the afterglow of euphoria (and, let's face it, some bitterness and disgust) over this month's election of our 44th president, we all have been reminded that race in America is still no laughing matter.
Few people anywhere can speak to that reality better than Tim Reid.
Yes, that Tim Reid. You may know Reid best as the TV actor, director and producer who created the classic character of overnight DJ Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati and starred in the short-lived but fondly remembered 1980s dramedy Frank's Place. What you almost certainly didn't know is that once upon a time, in the turbulent social cauldron of the 1960s, Reid tried to make race funny. Some people got the joke, but show business all but spit in his face.
Partnered with Tom Dreesen, now a veteran standup comic and humanitarian who was a frequent guest on the old Tonight Show (with Johnny Carson), Reid was half of what had to be America's first interracial comedy team, Tim & Tom. And now, somewhat reluctantly, he's having the last laugh with Dreesen, compiling the memories of that era into a fascinating new book, Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White (University of Chicago Press, $24).
"It was very cathartic, and it was not something I wanted to do," Reid says by phone from sunny southern California. "It really was Tom's idea. I gave in after about 10 years of him pounding me. He was so passionate about it that I finally said, 'What the hell, I'll do it. But let's make it compelling at least.' But I'm glad I did it. It's not the kind of thing I enjoy. I'm not a look-back kind of guy. But, once into it, I learned a lot about myself, about him and, more importantly, it gave me a chance to see what others thought of me. I realized I had not really opened up to a lot of people, and to find out how other people saw me was really an eye-opener."
As you might expect from any book chronicling the rise and fall of a comedy team, Tim & Tom, written with famed sportswriter and author Ron Rapoport, is a rollicking, funny read, populated with colorful characters with names like Goochie, Tutu Brackens and Champagne Sammy. But it's tempered by heartache and frustration, particularly in the early biographies of both men. Reid, born to a single woman in 1940s Virginia, had three different last names as his mother's relationships changed. Dreesen, who grew up on the factory streets of Harvey, Ill., was 15 before he learned a local bartender was his real father. If, as they say, true comedy is born of pain, these two had to be hilarious. High school audiences thought so, as the response they received delivering anti-drug messages together as members of the Jaycees encouraged them to take their act on the road.
That road included numerous references to Detroit, where they performed often, particularly on the "Chitlin' Circuit" at the fabled 20 Grand nightclub. "We opened for the Dells, O.C. Smith, Brook Benton," Reid says. "We were in Detroit a lot. We even opened for George Clinton and Funkadelic at Cobo Arena. Now that was an interesting experience."
Through all their highs, lows and near-misses, ultimately the two became aware that America simply wasn't ready for a salt-and-pepper team at that time. As Dreesen recalls in the book, "If we worked an all-white club where there was a redneck who hated black people, he wasn't mad at Tim; he was mad at me. And if we played a black club and there was somebody who hated white people, he wasn't mad at me. To him, Tim was an Uncle Tom."
Amazingly, Reid, who has spent his last two years researching a documentary on the Republic of Cape Verde (off the coast of Africa) between summers studying sculpture in Florence, Italy, doesn't think the path would be any easier for a racially mixed comedy team today.
"I think the political correctness and the pundits who control race in America have nullified any opportunities to explore that kind of humor openly, and to the depth we were able to do it," he says. "No, it would be almost impossible for comics today. Somebody would take something out of context, put it on YouTube, and it would be over for them."
However, Reid believes the experience "probably gave me a leg up in terms of my combativeness dealing with things in Hollywood. A lot of people come to Hollywood and take on a victim role. 'I can't get a break.' They get intimidated by the vastness of the business. But it's like the Wizard of Oz. It's the guy behind the curtain. It comes off as such an overpowering figure, but you strip the tent away and you see it's just a little scared white man."Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]