SCOTT SIMON, Host:

Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen were a duo when most of America was divided. They became a comedy team in Chicago in the late 1960s, a black man and a white man making jokes at a time of riots, bloodletting, and bruised feelings in America. Here's a routine in which Tom asks Tim for lessons in how to act black.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM REID & TOM DREESEN COMEDY ROUTINE)

TIM REID: Let me see you walk like a brother. Yeah, let's walk.

TOM DREESEN: Walk like a brother?

REID: Walk like a black man.

DREESEN: That's me.

REID: My man.

DREESEN: (Singing) Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Tim and Tom toured the country, staying popular in Chicago, drawing laughs in New York, New Orleans, and many other places. But their failure to burst through to the top rungs of comedy often frustrated their working relationship. Each had to go on to very successful solo careers. Tom Dreesen became one of America's premier standup comics, a long-time opening act for Frank Sinatra. And Tim Reid became an actor and producer who created the honored series "Frank's Place," who's probably still recognized almost everywhere in the world today as Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati.

SIMON: An American Comedy in Black and White." Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen join us from Chicago. Gentlemen, thanks so much for being with us.

REID: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure.

DREESEN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You know, we usually ask newlyweds this question, but let's try it on you. How did you meet?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DREESEN: Well, it was on eHarmony.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DREESEN: We actually met in Harvey, Illinois. Tim had graduated from Norfolk State College. E. I. DuPont recruited him into Chicago as a marketing rep. He joined the Jaycees. We worked together on a drug education program. It became very successful, teaching elementary school children the ills of drug abuse through humor. And one day a little girl said, you guys are funny. You ought to become a comedy team.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM REID & TOM DREESEN COMEDY ROUTINE)

DREESEN: We're going to change.

REID: We're going to change now. You got a French Riviera apartment.

DREESEN: Oh, yeah?

REID: In Harlem overlooking the Apollo Theater, one of them high-rise units. Two floors.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DREESEN: I'm way up there.

REID: One day you come outside your high rise, you open the door, you see the whole neighborhood's been integrated by the National Guard. It's a riot.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DREESEN: A riot?

REID: That's right.

DREESEN: I can't go down there.

REID: What do you mean?

DREESEN: I've got a heart murmur.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Tell me about playing a poker club, because that's not a place that you would often turn up, Mr. Reid, is it?

REID: No, not on the northwest side of Chicago at that time. When Tom told me where we were appearing that night, I looked at him like he was crazy.

DREESEN: So, on the way down there, I said, Tim, here's what we do. We'll just tell them we're sorry we were a little bit late, but we stopped on the South Side for soul food. And then I wrote these words down, and Tim memorized them. Tim went up onstage, and he said, I'm sorry we're late. We stopped on the South Side for soul food. And all of those Polish people looked at him, and he said chenina guamke kebasa perogi(ph). And then they broke into huge laughter, and then we had them in the palm of our hands.

REID: Yes, indeed.

SIMON: Were you aware of doing something important, or were you just trying to make people laugh?

REID: You had to be aware that when you're a black and white man, and you walk out on stage, that it's certainly dangerous and it's certainly a bit unusual. The country was going through tremendous chaos. In addition to race problems, the Vietnam demonstrations and protests. So when we walked out there, there was always that 20 or 30 seconds of people sitting there going, oh, my God, what's going to happen? And we always - no matter what we were doing, racial or nonracial material - we always had to be in context to the audience. And it was always racial because of the times. Today, the funniest black and white comedy team is, of course, Obama and McCain, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

REID: Back then, we were the only ones.

SIMON: It's funny where's an illustrative set piece of that. You've got an anecdote in your book where you demonstrate that funny lines are not interchangeable. Context depends on who says them and the color of someone.

REID: Yes. We were working a club in Detroit, tough neighborhood, black club. And Tom said, why don't we walk out there next time, and if somebody heckles us - because we got heckled a lot - said, I'll step up and say, hey, hey, don't bother him, he's mine? You know how hard they are to train. And I said, no, Tom. You can't do that. That's going to be offensive. And we governed each other that way. So that night, we went before this crowd, all-black audience, and some black guy in the back stood up and started heckling Tom. And I said, hold up, brother. Get your own. He's mine. You know how hard they are to train. And the audience went crazy.

SIMON: Every comic gets hecklers, but the heckling that you two gentlemen faced down was sometimes more serious.

REID: Life threatening. Back then, comedy was a blood sport, and we shared a lot of blood in certain places. One night, one of the first times we had a performance, I guess, in a paying gig...

DREESEN: In Chicago Heights, Illinois. It was our fourth time ever onstage, and a guy put a lit cigarette out on Tim's face and then proceeded to try to beat me half to death.

SIMON: Something that just really pierced my heart, a remark that you make in the book, Mr. Reid, is that Tom Dreesen wasn't just your first white friend, he was really your only close friend.

REID: You know, I came from an all-segregated community, all-segregated education, from elementary school all the way up to college. I didn't have any social contact with white America. And it's hard to explain to people the context of race then and now. There was no dialogue. We were the dialogue at that time for race relations.

DREESEN: When Tim and I went on stage in those days, we were the discourse they either wished they had or should have been having. And we didn't always talk about race. We had routines about - if we were just talking about hamburgers, but we were a black guy and white guy talking about hamburgers, and we were on stage having a lot of fun together.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM REID & TOM DREESEN COMEDY ROUTINE)

DREESEN: You always get to play the black guy.

REID: Run that by me again.

DREESEN: Just once, I'd like to play the black guy.

REID: I told you, you don't have the rib sauce, man.

DREESEN: I really think I could be a black guy. I mean, I've been traveling with you for a long time. I got to tell you the truth, I like the way that brothers walk.

REID: Yeah?

DREESEN: I mean, I like the way that brothers talk.

REID: Yeah?

DREESEN: I like the way they dress. The smooth style they have. You know, the way they're always referring to their mom. You know, mother this and...

DREESEN: I forgot those routines, you know that?

REID: Yes! When we were on, and when it worked, it was not only incredible fun, but the people really enjoyed it. I guess it was a freedom to be able to laugh at race at that time and not feel not only threatened, but not feel embarrassed by it.

SIMON: Why after a few years couldn't you work together anymore?

REID: From my point of view, it was primarily financial. I mean, we were not making any money. We were struggling. And I just did not have the faith that Tom had that something was going to change. And I just said, you know, I'm starving. I've got a family. I've quit my job. I've got to survive. You know, I come from poverty, and I'm allergic to poverty. So I decided that it would be best for me and my family if I went on my own.

DREESEN: And I never wanted the act to break up. To be honest with you, I thought Tim and Tom were going to become the most significant comedy team the nation had ever known. And that was my dream, my hope. I had never been onstage before in my life until I meet Tim Reid. So everything I envisioned for our future success was Tim and I. So when the team broke up - like Tim, I had a wife and three kids, he had a wife and two kids - I mean, I was out on my rear end. And it broke my heart.

REID: And the irony of it is Tom not only made it first, but he went from living in a car to working with Sammy Davis in like about - I think about two hours. I mean, it was just amazing.

SIMON: And got on the "Tonight Show."

REID: And got on the "Tonight Show." And I watched him that night. I was in bed and hadn't worked in a long time, broke. Things were not looking very good for me. And I'm watching him, and he - as they say in our business - killed. And I sat there, and I had the strangest emotions I've ever had in the same instance. I was very happy for him, and I was extremely sad for myself. It was a feeling I hope to never have again.

SIMON: And Mr. Reid, of course, as we mentioned, there's probably not an hour of the day that doesn't go by that you're not Venus Flytrap in one rerun or another of WKRP. And you've produced and directed a lot. You were responsible for a show that is really spoken of with such reverence in television history, "Frank's Place," about a man who owned a nightclub - a bar in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "FRANK'S PLACE")

REID: (As Frank Parish) Have you ever owned a restaurant?

Unidentified Actor: What, do you think I'm nuts? I'm a consultant, Frank. You could take my advice or leave it. You pay me to consult, I'm consulting.

REID: OK.

Actor: The first thing you got to do, get some night business in here fast.

REID: How am I going to do that? My regulars are working people. They don't come out very much during the week. And the white folks don't come down here during the night.

Actor: You can fix that.

REID: I can?

Actor: Advertising flyers in all the hotels produces new customers. Cab drivers, five bucks for every carload they deliver. Valet parking, Whitey walks from his car to your door safe enough.

SIMON: I was almost shocked to read in the book, for all the reputation that show has, it just ran a season.

REID: Yeah. It did only run a season. One of the major regrets I have is that that show did not go for at least three to four years. I think, had it gone for three or four years, we probably would have had a lot to do with changing the attitudes within the business about race and how it's portrayed on television.

SIMON: Looking back on it, what do you think you learned from each other?

REID: Trusting in someone else. I mean, no one really makes it alone. I certainly would not be in this business were it not for Tom, and vice versa. And in the end, what's missing today, not only in show business, but I think in politics and everything, is passion. Most people really don't like what they're doing. We really had passion for what we were about.

DREESEN: Yeah. That's what I think I learned from Tim, what I learned also in the service too, that when two people go through hardships, they bond. Tim watched my back many nights in a lot of ways, and I watched his back. It never had anything to do about race with us, never. We were just two buddies. Boy, and I'll tell you, when the crisis hits, if you've got a pal there with you, it sure helps.

SIMON: Gentlemen, great pleasure. Thanks very much.

REID: Thank you very much.

DREESEN: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Tim Reid, Tom Dreesen. Their new book with our friend Ron Rapoport, "Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White."

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.