TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is News & Notes. Here's a listener favorite. In the late '60s, when assassinations and race riots shook this country to the core, a couple of guys named Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen, one black, one white, decided that America was ready for an interracial comedy duo. They eventually had very successful careers separately. But while together, audiences didn't quite know what to make of them. Tim Reid and Tom Dreeson called themselves the first and the last black-white comedy team. And they've got a new book out chronicling their partnership called "Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White." Tim and Tom joined me here at NPR News. Good to see you, guys.

Mr. TIM REID (Comedian): Good to see you, Tony.

Mr. TOM DREESEN (Comedian): Nice to meet you, Tony.

COX: Listen, you know what? Let's start with this. Let's play a clip of you guys together back when you were doing your routine on the road. And let's talk about that. Because I think that really sort of says who you are, what you were doing, and why you're here, and we're talking about it today. Here it is.

Mr. DREESEN: 1969.

(Soundbite of comedy routine)

Mr. REID: Check me out now. Remember we're brothers.

Mr. DREESEN: We're brothers.

Mr. REID: In the ghetto.

Mr. DREESEN: In the ghetto.

Mr. REID: All right. Hey, what's happening, John? My main man. Say, look here, baby, this is where I catch big mac, I got to ease up town and get me some new rags. You know a couple of fronts, back gators, to check them traps, do a little night crawling through the hood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: That is out of sight, man. I didn't know you spoke a foreign language.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REID: That's ghetto talk, man. That's the way you talk in the hood.

Mr. DREESEN: In the hood?

Mr. REID: The neighborhood. Just walk up here and repeat what I just said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Come on, I'm waiting for the bus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REID: (Beatboxing) Do do do doo, ch. Do do do.

Mr. DREESEN: Hey, baby. Look here, man, this is where I catch big rag. I got to slide uptown and buy a bus.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. DREESEN: There's some alligator stuck in my traps.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: I'm going to go crawl through the night with a hood on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REID: No, Tom. Don't you ever crawl through a black neighborhood with a hood on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: 1969, a black comedian and a white comedian telling that joke on stage. I guess it would depend, Tim, where you told that joke in terms of how it was received.

Mr. REID: Well, how hard they would laugh or whatever. But actually the material worked in both black and white audiences, because you got to remember, there was so much polarization at that time. Black audiences just loved to see him screw up their lifestyle, their style. And white folks just loved to see him take the dare and say things that they all, you know, would like to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: How difficult, if at all, Tom, was it for you to find - because this is race comedy, you know, to find a place of comfort for you in the material that you did with something like this?

Mr. DREESEN: I had no discomfort whatsoever, mainly because I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood. I lived on the south side of Chicago. But Tim and I were very comfortable, as Tim points out, all the time in our skin. We were buddies. We were pals. We were friends. And so what the audience is witnessing, they were looking in on a black guy and a white guy who were friends. We were having a discourse regardless of what we are talking about, whatever - a lot of our material wasn't racial. But we were having a discourse and they weren't.

COX: Really.

Mr. DREESEN: They weren't - not - you know, and so they saw Tim and I having a lot of fun, you know, on stage.

COX: What was it that made you and Tim decide to put this act together at that time?

Mr. DREESEN: Well, we were in the Jaycees at the time, in a civic group and we have written a drug education program teaching grade school children the ills of drug abuse with humor. We never thought we'd be in showbiz. It was the furthest thing from our minds. And the program became very successful in 50 states and in 22 foreign countries. Jaycees used that program as a model program through their publications. And one day, a little eighth-grade girl said, you guys are funny. You ought to become a comedy team. And the thought of a black-white comedy team intrigued us because there never had been one in the history of America. So we went out and became the first, and as history shows, the last.

COX: It's not often, Tim, that the Junior Chamber of Commerce is a place where entertainers get their start.

Mr. REID: Yeah. Yeah. Whenever people ask me, how do you get into show business, I say join the Jaycees. They'll all go, ha ha. Well, no, I'm serious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REID: Yeah, that's the wonderful thing about life, if you're just open for it and you're not adverse to change or taking chances of - it could take you on a strange journey. And that young girl, she's now a grown woman, and we actually saw her on our book tour in Chicago. She came up and introduced herself and Tom remembered the family name.

COX: Really?

Mr. REID: She was a young lady. And, you know, I was just thinking about as we think back from this point back, when she said that, the irony of it is she didn't say you ought to be a black and white comedy team. She just said you guys are funny, you ought to be a comedy team.

COX: Wow.

Mr. REID: You know, today, she'd say, you ought to be a black and white comedy team.

COX: Comedy team. Now, when you - the book "Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White." You look back over what you did, you must be astounded: A, that you did it; B, that you - you know, you had some relative success with it; and C that, you know, nobody else was able to do that.

Mr. REID: Yeah, and that's the part that's really a bit surprising is that there was after that, not one successful team and - or two men who or man, women, or however that would have enough courage to go against the media vision of what black and white America is, to go against that and dare. Outside the sketches of Richard Pryor, or "Saturday Night Live," or whatever it is, it was never done. And it was almost like a built-in taboo, that - I find that interesting because we're, so-called, such a liberal nation after the civil rights era. You know, we're supposedly, all that's behind us. We run into that now with the book. We have been - I've been a little bit frustrated that we have not gotten some of the interest of, like, the newspapers...

COX: The morning talk shows?

Mr. REID: Not so much that, but the newspaper critical reviews and book. Where they say good things and bad things, that The New York Times book review or the LA Times book review actually turned down the option to review the book because ah, nobody is interested in that. You know, is that sort of so-called liberalism that actually worked against them just reviewing the book. I'm not saying giving us a positive one.

COX: Yes, I understand.

Mr. REID: Just review the book.

COX: Why do you think they did that, Tom?

Mr. DREESEN: Well, I'm very frustrated. You know, when Tim and I were together, you know, we ran against this resistance all the time, a black guy and a white guy together. We ran against this resistance. We did two national television shows in those days. The "David Frost Show," a black man got us that show. And "The Merv Griffin Show," a black woman got us that show. Today, when we came back together, when we joined together again just on this book tour, we did "David Letterman." I called David personally. We did "Jay Leno" because Tim and I knew Jay Leno. We did that - we went through him personally. We did "Tavis Smiley" because Tim knew Tavis Smiley. We did "Bonnie Hunt" because of my relationship with Bonnie Hunt, and "Craig Ferguson" because of "The David Letterman Show."

The white liberal newspaper, as he pointed out, the LA Times would not review us, and neither with the white liberal newspaper, The New York Times, review us. So white liberals who claim to be liberal, aren't really that liberal at all. "Larry King Show" turned us down, even though Barbara Sinatra called him personally. "The View" turned us down.

COX: "The View?" Oh, man.

Mr. DREESEN: Even though we contacted them personally, we knew people on it, "The View." Regis and Kathie, David Letterman called them personally...

Mr. REID: Actually I turned "Regis and Kathie" down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: So you know, what I say? I say, well if Tim would have written the book alone, it would have a been success or if Tom Dreesen had written the book alone. But Tim and Tom together, I say this to you, if Barack Obama would have been married to a white woman, he would have never gotten the nomination of his party, never.

Mr. REID: I'd have voted him for him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: If you read the book, you'll find out why.

COX: Let me tell our listeners, if you're just tuning in, this is NPR's News & Notes, I'm Tony Cox. With me, are Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen talking about their new book "Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White." Where you really smacked in the face with a snowball in Minnesota on stage?

Mr. DREESEN: No, University of Illinois. A guy hit me right in the face with an ice ball. A guy put a lit cigarette on it. As you know, you can probably get that, and put a lit cigarette out on Tim's face at a club in Chicago Heights, Illinois and then tried to beat me half to death. But at University of Illinois, we were in the middle of our act and a guy hit me right in the face with an ice ball. In the darkness, I couldn't see who it was and it hit me so fast and so crisp, Tim didn't even realize that my face was stinging, and I grabbed the mic, and I started calling him every name I could think of that I learned from the white and the black community.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: And I was calling him out, come on turn the lights on, you coward. And Tim thought, I have - well, half the audience thought it was part of a...

Mr. REID: I thought he was having a seizure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: Half the audience thought it was part of our routine and Tim thought that - and the other half thought I was nuts, and Tim thought I went insane on the stage, too.

COX: And Tim, you had an even worse situation than that.

Mr. REID: Yeah, I mean, we were attacked, we were chased out of town. I was poisoned in the city. I mean, it was part of life that we understood was always possible back then, in a sense that it was part of being black in America and was part of being a black and white comedy team in America. You know, I was raised in the segregated South in Colored Town. And so, I knew going into it that there would be some resistance. But you forget that, and you just go do what you have to do. I mean, he was attacked on stage in New Orleans by a white bigot just because he said the guy's city was named after Calhoun, Amos 'n' Andy's lawyer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: You guys are not from Calhoun, Alabama. You know that says it, yeah, that's Amos 'n' Andy's lawyer - Calhoun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REID: Yeah, the guy went berserk.

COX: Well, you know, I would think and I want to ask you, Tom, because since you were associated with Tim who is black, just by extension you became sort of honorary black person for the time that you guys were together, and were treated as one sometimes.

Mr. DREESEN: You want to know the interesting thing about racism in those days and I can't speak for now, but that's probably the same now. In those days, if we were working in an all-black club, and we worked many all-black clubs, there were no comedy clubs in those days. So we worked the chitlin' circuit, you know, black-owned, black-operated night clubs.

If a black guy was in the audience and he hated white people, hated them with a passion, he wasn't mad at me. He was mad at Tim for being with me. If we worked a white club, where that redneck who hated black people with a passion, he wasn't mad at Tim, he was mad at me for being with Tim, you know.

So we always had that kind of - that's what racism was in those days. And we received it from both sides, but it - but on the other hand, 95 percent or more loved what we did. Again, you know, all these things, all this - in the last election talking we need more discourse among the races, you know, and Tim and I were the discourse in those days.

COX: Everybody who has - who was around, not everyone, but many people who were around when you guys were doing your thing back in the '60s and '70s and so on, and further. At some point, they get together again, just to see, you know, what that - what that would be like. You guys thinking about doing that again, even if that's just for a concert or, you know, putting the routine together one more time for old time's there.

Mr. REID: Too old for that but (laughing). No, I think we are in a way, this book tour has done that where we have talked and lectured and been doing shows. And it's sort of been interesting to not relive, but to be together and talk about that era in today's world. As Tom said, he has some frustrations about how some people in the business, so called open liberalism in the business, has rejected us.

It's not a surprise to me. I mean, it's part of life. It was a surprise to him. They didn't care then, they don't care now. But it is sort of interesting to see race today, compared to what it was like then as we now enter a new era of race, where literally Dr. King's prophecy has come to be that it's about the content of one's character.

COX: This has been great. Let me bring it to close with a couple of questions. Back in those days, there were what I would call four food groups of black comedy. OK? First, one was Richard Pryor, the second one was Bill Cosby, the third one was Dick Gregory, and the fourth one was Redd Foxx. OK, that's my four food groups of comedy - black comedy.

Mr. REID: Food groups, yeah...

COX: Where did your comedy fit in to that?

Mr. REID: We were sort of a blend of Dick Gregory and perhaps Bill Cosby. Now, you got to remember Richard Pryor was not Richard Pryor back in the day.

COX: That's true.

Mr. REID: He was the late - the urban view of Richard didn't come till the '80s. Back then he was an imitation, as we all were, of the great Bill Cosby, who to this day, is probably the primo comedy genius. I know Richard gets the credit, but if Richard were also alive today would tell you it was Bill Cosby.

Redd was by himself, but there were only one other - two other comics doing race humor back there other than Tom and I. And that was Dick Gregory and Godfrey Cambridge. Who they got...

COX: Godfrey Cambridge, yeah, yeah.

Mr. REID: Those days, we were the only ones, no one else touched race. It's true.

COX: Here's my question for you. It seems as if Johnny Carson really was a kingmaker for you, that story that you tell about your first appearance on "Carson" and how nervous you were when you finally, you know, went back and the stagehand was like you know, you've arrived. Was it really that powerful?

Mr. DREESEN: Absolutely. In those days, wherever you went in America, people would say, what do you do for a living? You say I'm a stand-up comedian, and then the next question out of their mouth was oh, yeah, you ever been on "Johnny Carson?" If you haven't been on "Johnny Carson" in the eyes of America, you just weren't a comedian. You might want to be one, you might gonna to be one, but you weren't one then because he established it. And so the pressure was enormous, absolutely enormous. You do one "Tonight Show," Freddie Prinze did one "Tonight Show," he got a sitcom the next day. I did one "Tonight Show," the following day CBS signed me to a development deal. I went from the unemployment line to having all my bills paid for a year. It was a very, very powerful show.

COX: That's a great story that - on Johnny Carson and then being recognized in the unemployment line the next day.

Mr. DREESEN: And Tim, as you - when you read the book, you'll find it was pivotal point in my career, certainly, but a pivotal point - my first "Tonight Show" was a pivotal point in Tim's career too, as he was laying up in bed watching me that night.

Mr. REID: Broke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Is that when you were on the floor in the apartment with no furniture...

Mr. REID: That was in right - yeah, yeah. That was right after that. That was...

COX: And look where you are now. Life...

Mr. DREESEN: Well, the book is about motivation. It's about friendship. It's about bonding. It's about hardship. It's about all those things at a time 1969 to 1975, when America was in turmoil. And Tim and I went across the land trying to just make people laugh. That's really all we wanted to do. And we accomplished that and we're still here today. You know, and we're still making people laugh. In answer to his question, would we ever get back together? Maybe for one venture, maybe one time for a charity or something, but also, certainly I'd do something on television with Tim or, you know...

COX: You should that, man. You should do that.

Mr. DREESEN: We'd do a movie together or something.

Mr. REID: Well, this is our 40th year in show business, this year celebrates. So we're thinking about - we ought to do something, 40 years, my God, survived that long in this business.

COX: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: You've done a lot of things, but I would bet, Tim, that people still associate you mostly with Venus Flytrap.

Mr. REID: Yeah, yeah. I knew that when I went to audition for the job. I said, I don't think I want this job. I don't want to be 60 years old and have somebody say hey, Venus, and boy, it happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DREESEN: The same thing happened to me in retrospect. I did over 500 appearances on national television as a stand-up comedian, sixty-one appearances on "The Tonight Show." I've hosted David Letterman's show, but everybody always says, didn't you travel with Frank Sinatra? Weren't you Frank Sinatra's opening act? I know, I told Frank one day that one day, no matter what I do in life, I could find the cure to cancer, my obituary is going to say, the comedian who toured with Frank Sinatra. Because he was larger than life, you know.

COX: Amazing. Guys, thank you for coming in and sharing your stories. Great, I really appreciate it. Good luck with this.

Mr. DREESEN: Thank you so much.

COX: I'll call some of my friends for you.

Mr. REID: Oh, please do, please do.

Mr. DREESEN: By the way, Tony, you owe us the 24.95 that you have in your hand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: That was Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen. They've got a new book out about their years as a stand-up comedy duo called "Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White." They joined us here at the studios of NPR West. If you like to see video of our interview, go to our blog at nprnewsandviews.org.

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