Rediscovering Tim and Tom

Sometimes you just have to throw out the playbook and do what moves you. I had planned a variety of other posts for today but could not get off the starting block. Among possible ones I was contemplating for Black History Month, was something on Tim Reid’s critically-acclaimed sitcom Franks Place. But I want to spend a bit more time with that show before I sing its praises. Meantime I discovered something else about his past that excites me more anyway. I had no idea that for the first leg of his career, Reid was partners with Tom Dreesen in what has been called the first interracial comedy team, Tim and Tom. (When I first read that fact, I thought to myself, that can’t be possible. But I haven’t been able to think of any. The closest I can think of is the interplay between Jack Benny and Rochester, but they weren’t a team, just two key players in an ensemble. Or Robert Culp and Cosby on I Spy, but that was a tongue in cheek dramatic series, though it comes awfully close.  I DO think it’s probable that there’s some obscure team out there, probably in burlesque or the chitlin’ circuit, who bridged the racial gap, but under the radar. But Tim and Tom actually moved the needle, if only a little.

Believe it or not, the two met as salesmen at a JCC meeting near Chicago in 1968. Reid (b. 1944) was the first African American representative of DuPont; Dreesen (b. 1939) was an insurance salesman. The pair hit it off and cooked up comical anti-drug presentations they brought to area schools. This led to adapting the act for comedy clubs and television. There are clips of them on Youtube, and like much of the stuff at the time, it’s an intriguing mix of the corny and the dangerous. The men really played up the black/white dichotomy, with Reid being sort of “ghetto” in a way that was very glamorous at the time, and Dreesen being painfully, cluelessly white (as he was and is). A lot of what they did was straight-up vaudeville, like puns and goofs growing out of cultural misunderstanding, mostly Dreesen’s inability to be hip. But, like a lot of what was going on at the time, the act included a much franker dialogue on race than we have nowadays. Whites have grown both more guarded and dishonest (or self-delusional) in the ensuing decades. If I were a person of color, I imagine I’d rather deal with a mildly racist white person clumsily trying to work his way to a play of better understanding, than someone, be they liberal or conservative, who pretends their heart, mind, and history are pure as the driven snow, and speaks from a place of disingenuousness and deception. Just a thought.

At any rate, by the mid ’70s, the team split up amicably and both went off to much bigger fame in other contexts Reid was on the short-lived Richard Pryor Show (1977), then of course WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-82), Simon and Simon (1983-87), Frank’s Place (1987-88), Stephen King’s It (1990), Sister, Sister (1994-99) and That ’70s Show (2004-06). He also directed the all-star Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored (1996). And…you may think you don’t know Dreesen, but if you’re my age you sure saw him a zillion times as a solo stand-up act or celebrity guest in the ’70s and ’80s on The Tonight Show, Hollywood Squares, Match Game, The $10,000 Pyramid, Mike Douglas, David Letterman etc etc etc. For a decade and a half he was best-known as Frank Sinatra’s opening act. (He also played himself in that terrible 1998 Rat Pack movie).

In 2008 both men made the talk-show rounds again, reunited for the 40th anniversary of their team and the release of their book Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White. 

To learn more about the variety arts (including vaudeville and tv variety shows), please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.