When I have a tool in my hand, like a screwdriver, let’s say, or a power drill, I become riddled with anxiety and begin to sweat profusely. A tool offers less in the way of helping me fix things than it does a brand new opportunity to fail at something. My brothers built trucks when they were teenagers, and my Dad used to hang around with them, offering instruction and insight into the inner working of the combustible engine. Where was I? Probably in my room, nose firmly planted in a book. Or masturbating. Yeah, probably masturbating. So, a trip to a hardware store for me generally tends to go a bit like this:
Like Marc Maron in this terrific episode from his new show Maron, I carry around a certain amount of shame for my total ineptitude when it comes to doing anything even remotely manly. However, I do believe I have it in me to still walk into a hardware store and gaze at the endless rows of tools and think, “Yeah, with these, I could solve everything.” It is a particular delusion that men seem to live with, and no man captures that delusion quite as well as Tim Allen.
The clip above is from an early standup appearance from the time Allen was just surfacing in the public consciousness. One of Allen’s brilliant conceits in his standup act is his ability to both lampoon man’s fascination with tools and also celebrate it. (“I got a gear puller…I have no idea what it does…looks good on the peg board, though!”) Those inclined to dismiss Allen’s standup as simple gender stereotyping are ignoring the subtle groundwork that he has laid. For anyone who has performed standup comedy and received any kind of notes from someone in power, whether it be a talent management or a club booker, one of the most baffling pieces of advice to receive is that you should “have a point of view.”
This is the kind of advice that tends to be so generic that it’s worthless; however, it’s not always — an act like Tim Allen’s is what they’re talking about. We know exactly who Tim Allen is one minute into his set. Even his throwaway opener about avocadoes reveals that he is the type of guy who isn’t impressed by your newfangled produce. He is the type of guy who thinks of himself as a macho man, but reveals himself to be quite inept with these expensive tools he buys for himself. His character is in some ways a Midwestern, red-blooded American riff on Woody Allen’s standup character, who often positioned himself as ladies man during the setup of a joke, only to deflate that character during the punchline. And say what you will about the Tim Allen grunts, but it is a terrific hook for his character and allows him to be both boorish onstage while also admitting that his behavior is not the most enlightened.
It was the duality of his standup persona that would allow Allen to make one of the easiest transitions to sitcom stardom ever. During the hey-day of standup comedy during the late 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed like just about every standup comedic worth his salt received a sitcom. Most of these shows turned out to be duds — generally comics would be thrown into roles as a teacher or something if they got a show, then have their acts watered down by executives; making the choice to center the show around a well known comic superfluous. However, when the sitcoms were centered on comedians who had a definite point of view, like Tim Allen with Home Improvement or Roseanne Barr on Roseanne, the shows tended to snap into place pretty quickly (of course outliers like Seinfeld simply rewrote the rule book on what a sitcom could be).
On Home Improvement, much of Allen’s act served as the basis for the early episodes (which is par for the course for most of these sitcoms) and unlike Larry David’s rule on Seinfeld of “no learning, no hugging,” Home Improvement was all learning and hugging. A general episode of Home Improvement would center around Tim Taylor doing something insensitive to his wife or kids and then growing confused as to why people were mad at him. After a heart to heart with faceless next-door neighbor, Wilson, Tim would realize what he had done to upset someone.
It’s no accident that Home Improvement surrounded Tim Taylor with characters who were generally smarter and more open to change than him. Granted while his wife, Jill Taylor, served as a catalyst for many of Tim’s epiphanies, he generally found guidance from the super-intelligent Wilson. Even Tim’s sidekick, Al, on the show within a show, Tool Time, was often portrayed as an overly sensitive new-age type of man but the jokes made on the show at his expense were often undercut by the fact that Al was always shown to be the more competent craftsman at the tool bench. An inversion of the expected stereotypes and a sly comment on the fact that much of the macho chest pounding of Tim Taylor was nothing more than a facade put on to live up to the gender expectations of modern man.
The show also served as great training ground for Tim Allen as an actor, a career he would ultimately end up pursuing rather than sticking to standup. And really, Tim Allen has had a breathtaking career as an actor. The transition from TV to the big screen is one that few comedians and actors are able to navigate successfully; however Tim Allen hit the ball out of the park in his first starring role in The Santa Clause. While his role in the film was not exactly a stretch for the Allen, his cynical wisecracking take on the man who would become Santa helped cut through the treacle mush that often mires this type of fare down. However, the other two installments would never quite get the formula right again.
While The Santa Clause may have shown Hollywood that he was able to carry a film, it would be voicing Buzz Lightyear in the classic Toy Story that would secure his place at the top of the A list. Tim Allen’s characterization of Buzz Lightyear as an earnest yet misguided new toy in competition with Tom Hanks’ Woody for the affections of their child owner proved that Allen had considerably more acting chops to play characters other than thinly veiled versions of himself on TV shows. Two films later as well a series of shorts and the character still remains super popular among youngsters.
However, while the Toy Story films are indisputably great and Allen’s voice characterization certainly contributed to that, I would argue that Tim Allen’s best work in a movie was and continues to be in the fantastic Galaxy Quest. Allen stars as the leader of a rag-tag cast from the fictional sci-fi show Galaxy Quest who are unwittingly brought into actions by an alien race who have mistaken the TV show as a historical accounting of life on Earth. The film works as a pitch-perfect spoof of Star Trek, as well as being a solid movie on its own terms. Tim Allen shines as Jason Nesmith, a stand-in for the egomaniacal yet effusively charming William Shatner. Allen does a great job in the role, leading a cast of top-notch character actors (notably Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, and Alan Rickman) and gives the character a depth and feeling that transcends the goofy premise. Surprisingly, out of such a pedigreed cast, Allen does most of the emotional heavy lifting, while the rest of the cast get the funniest lines. However, in this clip, Allen gets his Kirk on while tussling with a rock monster.
Since the end of his sitcom and his run of hit films during the 1990s, Tim Allen has appeared in several different movies, of varying degrees of quality. In 2002, he starred in Barry Sonnefeld’s Big Trouble, which was unceremoniously dropped into theaters a year after it was supposed to be, due to a plot point that involves getting a bomb onto an airplane — studio executives didn’t feel that would play well post-9/11. While few of the movies he has appeared in have lit up the box office quite the way Toy Story or even Galaxy Quest did, Allen has deftly switched back and forth between indie fare and big-budget comedies like Christmas with the Kranks. In 2011, Tim Allen made his return to network television on Last Man Standing. The premise of the show is that Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, is a macho man (heck, he even owns an outdoor sporting goods store!) who finds himself surrounded by a wife and three daughters. In its initial season, the show hit all of the notes you thought it would with that premise. However, when the show returned for the second season, after quite a bit of re-tooling, the program took a more political bent, positioning Baxter as a kind of modern day Archie Bunker. It was a big risk, but numbers for the show have slowly increased throughout the season (take some time to read AV Club writer Todd VanDerWerff’s write up of the show for some great insight).
Tim Allen has had a surprisingly varied career. He’s been a standup sensation, had a hit sitcom, been the voice of one of the most iconic animated characters of the past twenty years, and has proven himself a reliable leading man in several different kinds of films. He continues to explore and expand his voice on television and for this he gets our begrudging respect.