Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen traveled the unlikeliest of paths to form the unlikeliest of acts—the first and only black and white comedy team in the history of show business.
As a child Reid was shuttled from the home of his heroin-addicted stepfather in Baltimore to his grandmother's boardinghouse in Norfolk, Virginia, his aunt's whorehouse, and finally his birth father's home.
Dreesen was one of eight children who lived with their alcoholic parents in a cold-water flat near the railroad tracks south of Chicago in Harvey. "We were raggedy-ass poor," Dreesen says. "To this day, some of my brothers and sisters can't talk about it."
They met in Harvey in 1968 in their early 20s—at a Junior Chamber of Commerce meeting—where they developed an antidrug campaign for Harvey's schools. "You guys are so funny," a teenage student in their audience told them one day. "You ought to be a comedy team."
They agreed it wasn't a bad idea, and it wasn't long before the duo was performing around Chicago, then all over the country. In Playboy clubs and prisons, in restaurants and nightclubs, in jazz clubs and on the chitlin' circuit. With their fresh take on race relations, they thought—no, they knew—they were going to make it big. They never had a chance.
"Do you remember what was going on in America then?" Dreesen says. "Vietnam. Race riots. Cities burning. Protests in the streets. About the time we were getting our first gigs in Chicago, for instance, Fred Hampton was killed in an FBI raid and police were using tear gas to break up a race riot at my own high school. And here we were thinking we could make a difference by telling jokes. We must have been crazy."
After five years of trying—of struggle and danger and fun and excitement—they still hadn't made it. They broke up bitterly and went their separate ways. In the end they achieved the success as individuals that had eluded them as a team. Reid's role as the overnight disc jockey Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati led to a groundbreaking career as an actor, producer, and director. Dreesen became one of the country's busiest stand-up comedians and Frank Sinatra's opening act.
But though they didn't make it as Tim and Tom, they wouldn't have made it without Tim and Tom, either.
"Remember Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones?" Dreesen says. "Remember how even when they broke the chain that was holding them together, it was still there? That's us. Everything I am, everything I have, is because I met Tim."
"Same here," Reid says.
A few years into their partnership, Dreesen and Reid managed to get booked, in 1973, at Club Harlem in Atlantic City, one of the premier clubs on the chitlin' circuit. This passage, excerpted from their new book, is based on their recollections of that night, when they performed their signature routine for a challenging audience. —Ron Rapoport
Most of Atlantic City was still asleep when the party started. It was six o'clock Sunday morning and Club Harlem held a sunrise service for the customers of nearby clubs that had closed at three or four AM. The owners of those clubs were there too, and the bartenders, waiters and waitresses, and entertainers who worked in them. There was another client base, too, one that had come to town from brothels and backseats up and down the eastern seaboard.
The arrival of the pimps and their prostitutes, from as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Newark, was as carefully choreographed as any of the dance acts on the bill, and for the same reason. They were there to be observed. Everyone knew the pimps brought only their best performers. Those who measured up were invited to put on their most elegant gowns for a very late night on the town.
The pimps would drive up in Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs, and Lincoln Town Cars and emerge wearing colorful three-piece suits with matching hats, gold chains and watches, and large jeweled rings. Stylin' at the Harlem, it was called, and the most important moment was the entrance. What was the point of putting on a show, after all, if it wasn't to the widest possible audience? They would arrive late, after most of the crowd had been seated, and walk the length of the room, the women trailing behind. Since the Sunday breakfast show was invariably sold out, a lavish tip, as much as $500, would have been delivered to the maitre d' hours earlier to reserve a table near the stage.
"Hey, you sure look good," friends and acquaintances would holler.
Backstage, on a June morning in 1973, Tom Dreesen looked at Tim Reid and saw that he was composed and calm. There had been little conversation since Reid had returned that afternoon from his sad journey to Virginia for his father's funeral. The trip had Dreesen concerned for his friend and—he had to admit it—for their act on this big night they'd waited so long for.
"Did you bury him?" Dreesen asked.
"Yes," Reid replied, offering no further details.
"OK," Dreesen said. "Let's have fun out there."
They stood and watched the other acts on the bill. First, a dance act revved up the crowd. This morning it was Mama Lu Parks, a large, energetic woman who danced by herself on the stage while half a dozen couples danced around her accompanied by a full orchestra. Then a male singing group, the Sons of Robin Stone, was followed by three women, Quiet Elegance. When they finished, the audience knew there was one more act before the headliner, the young singing star Ronnie Dyson.
"And now," Reid and Dreesen heard the emcee say, "are you ready for some comedy?"
There were a few cries of "Yeah!" accompanied by more clapping, but the emcee wasn't satisfied.
"I said, are you ready for some comedy?"
A larger cheer went up this time.
"Well, we got us a comedy act. They came all the way from Chicago and..."
A voice in the audience interrupted. "They better be good."
"They're good, brother," the emcee said.
"They better be good."
"Now, man, don't hold me to it. To tell you the truth, I ain't seen these turkeys myself. Don't blame me if they ain't good. And now here they are, the comedy team of Tim and Tom."
A polite round of applause greeted Reid as he walked out on stage alone. A few women whooped in appreciation as he approached the microphone.
"Thank you very much," Reid said. "We are so happy to be here. We just came in from Chicago and we've never been here before."
The audience rose to the bait.
"We?" a voice called out. "Who this motherfucker calling we? I don't see no we. I see he."
Reid held up his hand, as if he were about to continue, when a spotlight fell on a lone figure standing at stage left. The audience began to react, slowly at first, and then with gales of laughter, at the sight of the only white man in the club, on stage or in the audience. Shading his eyes with his palm and peering out into the crowd pretending to be searching for someone, Dreesen took a few tentative steps onto the stage and a female voice rang out.
"Look out! What we got here?"
Reid, seemingly oblivious, went on. "We drove here from Chicago and we had a hard time finding a room," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd while Dreesen tiptoed toward the microphone.
Finally, Reid appeared to notice Dreesen, stopped in midsentence, and waited impatiently for his partner, still shading his eyes with his hand, to take the last few steps to the center of the stage.
"Where the hell have you been, man?" Reid said. "And what are you looking for?"
"I don't see any of my people out there," Dreesen said nervously, still looking around.
Reid walked to the edge of the stage, ducked his head under the stage lights, and peered around the room.
"No, I don't think any of your people are here," he said.
"Well, then we better be funny."
Still bigger laugh.
"What do you mean we, white man?"
Biggest laugh yet.
They felt confident they had the room on their side and swung into a routine.
"Let's get on with the show," Reid said. "These people came here to see something funny."
"Wait a minute," Dreesen interrupted. "Every time we perform somewhere, you get to be the black guy."
"Just once, I want to be the black guy."
Big laugh interspersed with calls of, "Ain't gonna happen tonight, brother." And, "You got a long way to go." And, simply, "Sheeee- it."
"Tom, black isn't just a skin color," Reid said. "It's an attitude. It's spirit. It's soul. You understand what I'm talking about. Soul, Tom, soul."
"Well, I think I can do it. I want to try."
"All right, man, I'm going to give you a test. I'm standing here waiting for a bus. You're a brother and you're going to come up and start a conversation with me."
Dreesen walked a few steps away, then abruptly turned around and returned.
"What corner are we on waiting for this bus?" he asked.
"What difference does it make?"
"It's important. I've got to get into the spirit of the thing, right? What neighborhood are we in?"
"Oh, all right. We're in Harlem, 125th and Amsterdam."
"125th and Amsterdam? Come onnnn, bus."
"Stop that now," Reid said. "Just come up and start a conversation with me, all right?"
Dreesen walked off, then returned and said, "Look here, man, do the bus stop here?"
Boos and catcalls came up from the audience as Reid buried his head in his hands.
"Look," he said. "You wait for the bus and I'll be the black guy—wait a minute, of course I'm the black guy, now you're getting me confused—and I'll come up and start a conversation with you."
Reid walked off, muttering "Do the bus stop here?" then turned and returned to center stage with a confident strut.
"Look here, brother," he said rapidly. "Is this where I catch Big Mac? I've got to ease uptown, get me some new rags, a couple of fronts and a pair of gators so I can check out them traps, do a little night crawling through the hood."
Reid smiled as the crowd reacted with approving laughs and shouts of "Talk that talk, brother," and "Tell him about it now."
"Damn," Dreesen said. "I didn't know you spoke a foreign language, Tim."
"That's not a foreign language, Tom. That's soul talk. Now, you come up and repeat what I just said."
Dreesen walked away frowning, mumbling to himself as if trying to remember what Reid had said. When he reached the edge of the stage, he turned around and, in an uncoordinated version of Reid's walk, approached.
"Look here, man," Dreesen said, "is this where I catch big rag? I want to ease uptown and buy me a bus, get in front of a couple of gators and trap them so I can go through the neighborhood at night with a hood on."
Big laugh and catcalls. "Look out now!"
"I don't think you better be crawling through any black neighborhoods with a hood on," Reid said as the audience, applauding and cheering, shouted, "I hope you heard that, white boy!"
They paused for a moment, smiling at the audience and at each other. Things could hardly be going any better, and now it was time to address the audience directly.
"I'm Tim Reid..."
"And I'm Tom Dreesen..."
"And in case you can't remember who's who, just remember," Reid said, "I'm the taller of the two."
"And I'm the Italian," Dreesen said.
"Oh yeah, and one more thing," Reid said. "You never call a black man Tom."
People were laughing hard, but then, as the comedians prepared to move on, a man stood up in the back of the room and began shouting.
"Hey, white boy!" the man yelled. "Hey, white boy! I'm talking to you, goddammit! Listen to me now! I'm talking to you, honky!"
Reid and Dreesen were used to hecklers, but this one was different. "Are you listening to me, white boy?" the man called. "Why don't you call him a nigger? That's what you'd call him in Mississippi."
For the first time since the crowd had started to fill Club Harlem the room fell silent—Reid and Dreesen could hear them breathing—until with no hesitation, without so much as a thought, Dreesen said, "Hell, I've called him a nigga in Chicago."
To Dreesen, it seemed as if all the air had been sucked out of the room, and he could feel his heart beating in his chest. He'd screwed up, he thought. His past had betrayed him. All the hanging out with black guys back home in Harvey, all the scuffling around they'd done together, the trouble they'd gotten into, the sports they'd played, it had all come back to haunt him.
"Nigga" was a sign of affection—of respect, of a friendship so tight it could be symbolized by the most loaded of epithets. And it was true. He had called Tim nigga in Chicago. He'd said it to every one of his black friends at one time or another, just as they'd said it to each other. He wouldn't think of saying it to anyone except a friend, in fact. But now he had gone too far. He was sure of it.
Suddenly, the room was rocked by an explosion of laughter. The sound started out loud and grew louder, then louder still. In a moment, it was echoing off the walls and people were pounding the tables, a few even standing and applauding, including the man who'd asked the question. Nodding, he pointed a finger at the stage, and Dreesen could see him mouthing the words, "That's real, brother."
Thinking about it later, Reid and Dreesen realized the line had worked because it was honest. Nothing else would have been acceptable—no fumbling, no apologizing, no "Oh, I don't use words like that." For this audience on this night, Dreesen's instinctive reaction was the right one. It brought the biggest laugh of the night—one of the biggest he would receive in his life—and it allowed them to regain their rhythm and take back control of the stage.
They finished the act with their Dating Game routine, in which Reid played all three men. Bachelor number three was more interested in bachelor number one than in the woman trying to choose among them, played by Dreesen wearing a wig. The audience was howling when they were through and they walked off the stage to a standing ovation while the emcee called out their names in tribute.
Outside on Kentucky Avenue, Reid and Dreesen blinked in the sunshine, exhausted but on an adrenaline high they didn't want to end. "This must be what it feels like to be on heroin or cocaine," said Reid.
"Or what women mean when they say they don't remember the pain of childbirth once that beautiful baby is in their arms," Dreesen replied.
They had finally made it. After four years and so many ups and downs, they had an act that was not only funny but relevant, too, that spoke to the times. They were on their way now—they were sure of it—on their way to becoming the biggest comedy team ever. They felt bonded, believing they had stood up to a test no other comedy team had ever faced. They were not only friends and partners, they also felt a strong sense of brotherhood. No matter what happened now, personally or professionally, they would always be there for each other.
Nothing would ever drive them apart.
Excerpted from Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2008 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
The authors will be making the rounds locally beginning Monday 9/18 with a luncheon at the Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson, at 11:30 AM ($30) and a song at the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field Wednesday 9/17. They'll sign copies of the book Thursday 9/18 at noon at Borders, 150 N. State Street, and at 7:30 PM at Borders, 2210 W. 95th St. And they'll be in Naperville at Barnes & Noble, 47 E. Chicago, at 1 PM Saturday 9/20. For more info on these events see the Lit & Lectures listings or timandtomcomedy.com.