Pioneering comedian actor, producer, and philanthropist Tim Reid can now claim “author” on his astonishing resume. His book Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White (University of Chicago Press), which he wrote with friend and former comedy partner Tom Dreesen, was released this fall, and has received strong reviews from leading comics and intellectuals.
Tim and Tom is an achievement of humor, and is often side-splitting funny. It is also the honest biography of two American youths who had poverty in common; one who is black and from Norfolk, and another who is white from Southside Chicago. Finally, Tim and Tom is a revealing look at race and culture clarified not by academics or lawmakers, but by a courageous comedy team who dared to deliver their observations with hilarious and blunt humor. Although the pair confronted racism in a time when riots and demonstrations dominated the landscape, Tim feels that there are fewer, if any, opportunities to honestly address issues of race today, and that they come at greater personal cost to those who seize them.
Tim will appear on “The Tonight Show,” Dec. 5. He will sign copies of his book Friday, Dec. 12, 8 to 10:30 p.m. at Minerva Books, 233 Bartow Alley, Petersburg, to coincide with the city’s monthly Friday for the Arts festival.
How are you and Daphne doing?
I’m splendid and very blessed, and my wife is doing well. I do the Tonight Show in a couple weeks, so we’ll be spending some time on the West Coast. I’ve been on the road promoting [Tim and Tom] all across the country and having a good time. The book has been a [surprising] labor of love because I didn’t really intend to do the book. My partner wanted to do the book. After about twenty years of him pestering me, I finally gave in. It took us about a year and a half to get it all down, finish, and find a publisher. It seems to be a bit apropos with what’s going on; to have a discussion of race, the factor of race in American life. I think the book is a nice overview of where we were and where we are now.
It couldn’t have come out at a better time.
We got caught with the stars.
How far has this nation come from when you and Tom were performing?
We’ve come all the way. We’ve come a tremendous distance racially. And yet, it’s like the Charles Dickens novel; the best of times and worst of times. The best of times that we now have a measuring point in history that says, in spite of it all, this is what Americans can accomplish when they deal with race on an individual level, how they feel innately about their lives and where they want to go. That’s what is so wonderful about this. I never thought I’d see it in our lifetime. The irony of it is, even at that, in this day and time, the issue of race will be something that we all have to deal with for another generation because it’s in our DNA. It’s part of who we are as Americans. It’s unique in America more than any other place on this earth. Because we are this melting pot of views and frustration, and frustrated views about race, based on the fact that slavery had such a tremendous impact on so many billions of people and generations of people for so long. It’s both exciting and thoughtful.
Did you and Tom address race in your comedy, or were you political simply by virtue of your being a biracial act?
We dealt with race in our act, but even if we were not dealing with the subject of race, because a black and white man were standing onstage in 1969, five years removed from the Civil Rights act, in clubs that less than two years before I couldn’t even go in unless I was waiting tables or a busboy, [it was inherently political.] I was onstage in those clubs. That said an awful lot, the fact that we were there in a time when there were race riots, anti-war demonstrations to Vietnam, the drug revolution, the sex revolution, George Wallace was running for president. All these things were going on, and we were working clubs, talking about race. It was an exciting and interesting time to be dealing with race. Since we stood up, thirty something years ago, there has not been a successful black and white comedy team in the history of America. I find that to be the irony of it all. In all the success of movies that have black and white teams, like Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, all these wonderful movies [costing] hundreds of millions of dollars, in an area where we seem to have an abundance of talent – I mean, we have more comics in America than they have engineers in China [laughs] – and yet we don’t have a black and white comedy team. I find that to be amazing. Being that Tom and I were the only successful black and white team in the history of comedy for six years is one of the reasons that Tom wanted to do the book.
Is it easier to broach tough topics when it’s couched in humor, when there’s laughter behind it?
It was, but not now. It was before the Internet. We now have as many political pundits as we do comics. Comics now have been more restricted. No, I don’t think race is something that comics really are allowed to deal with the way that we were able to deal with, openly. If you say the wrong thing now, you’ll be on YouTube and you’ll be out of business and you won’t be able to work in any club. You’ll be shown on YouTube as saying something out of context so your career is over. I think that everybody is guarded more, so it makes the racial humor, I think, stiff and artificial because the punchline is usually about race. We didn’t do punchlines about race. Race was the vehicle. The punchline was the irony of race, how people respond to race. It was more the discourse about race as opposed to now. People are so afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, they say the wrong thing, because it’s out of context. You say something that you think is funny, and then you look around and see some pundit on a TV talk show tear you apart if you say the wrong thing.
Do you see comics like Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock addressing race?
I don’t particularly think that they do racial humor. I think they make jokes about being black or about blacks. I don’t see any balance in that kind of humor because they very rarely talk about white America. A comic, in order to be balanced, you would think that he could make as much fun about white America as he could about black America without [calling names.] Can you make me laugh about being black in America or make someone laugh about being white in America or the two of them coming together in a way that’s not insulting, and yet funny? Do you need to call a name in order to get the joke? I have a lot of respect for, especially for Dave Chappelle. I’m trying to look at a show now, “Chocolate News” with David Alan Grier. When I look at that show, I get confused, because they’re telling me that this is a show that is about stretching the barrier of comedy, about being provocative, laying it out there, as being honest about race. But when I see it, it reminds me of a very stereotypical view of black America. All of the characters are prisoners, everything is the old barbecue. I saw that stuff back in the 50s and 60s! What has changed? I see no healthy humor or exploration of being black in today’s America. Are we still dealing with that kind of view of each other, black and white today? And apparently we are.
That’s going to have to change, by the way, because there’s a new sheriff in town. This sheriff doesn’t look like all the other sheriffs, even all the other black sheriffs. I think therefore, we have to change our view of how we talk. I don’t think young black men in particular can degrade black women, the way they’ve been doing in their music and in their comedy, because guess what? Not only do we have an intelligent, attractive black woman, we have two young black children who are in the White House. When you say something now, you’ve got to think about that as a creative. You just can’t use the same stereotypes, because we’ve gone from 19 blacks arriving in Jamestown as indentured servants and slaves, to now head of the country in the White House. That’s an incredible journey. That is unbelievable. Now we have to do a transition in our thinking, not only about race, but about how we want to discuss and see race dealt with in America. We all have to rethink, and that’s the challenge. Are we going to stay in those old dead devices and views of each other? Many of them will, probably half of America will stay there. The other half – hundreds of millions of people – will change, and that will change the world. And that’s what’s exciting about it.
After the book tour, what’s next?
I’m going to go back to what I do, which is produce and direct documentaries. I’m going to try to get more time with my sculpture. I’m at the point in my life now, I am personally making the decision to walk off the playing field and coach. Baby boomers want to stay on the playing field. They want to still be the quarterback and the running back. Well, somebody’s got to coach. You reach a certain point in your career when you’ve got to make a decision; do I still want to run with the young players or am I ready now to coach, to see if I can make them a better player? I’m ready to coach. I’m ready to go off on the sidelines and coach. That doesn’t mean I’m quitting the game. I look at Obama. Jessie needs to go be a coach now. Obama is quarterback. Everybody had a good run. Now let’s coach. Let’s go and do what elders do. Let’s stand on the sidelines and coach and give the best of ourselves to the people who are going to do the hard work of changing the world. I’m ready to step into that position, and I do it proudly, because somebody did it for me. We need to get back into that kind of generational progress especially in terms of professional exchange. [I want to hear], ‘You’ve been a very successful comic and you’ve dealt with race. We’re going into a new era. I’ve got to change my act. You got any suggestions? Let’s talk about race, as a comic.’ That’s what I want to hear and be a part of. And I think if that’s done, the quality of comedy would be better. But nobody talks to anybody.
What would you advise that comic?
I had a conversation with some young comics recently about the need to take the F-word out of their act. We got into a big argument about it. I said, I’m sorry, you need to take it out of your act because we’ve forgotten the power of it. You don’t know how to use it anymore. It’s general dialogue. It’s a verb, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, it’s an adverb. What is the purpose of that word? What are you trying to say with that word? What do you want that word to mean? Because right now, it means nothing. It’s just vulgar. I’m not saying we need to ban that word. I’m against censorship. But I think we need to teach people the power of words. People have forgotten how powerful words are. Words mean different things in different contexts. So talk about it.
How long have you been a sculptor?
I’ve been sculpting now seriously for about five years. I studied in Florence, Italy as an apprentice. I’ll be doing that for the rest of my life. I’m not confident enough in my work as a sculptor to think about showing. I’m still trying to find my voice in my work. Right now, I’m a decent sculptor but, I mean, that’s about it. When I started doing comedy, I started hanging out with old comics, some of the great old comics who are no longer with us. I studied the masters. With sculpting, when I started, I wanted to study the style of the masters. That’s why I chose to go to Florence and study there. I wanted to learn the essence; things that haven’t changed in 500 years. I love it. Next to directing, it is probably one of the only two things in my life creatively that I feel the most complete in. Everything that I’ve ever been exposed to in my life in the learning process comes together in directing, and in sculpting.
by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Nearly 20 years ago, Tim and Daphne Reid established the Virginia Scholarship and Youth Development Foundation, a non-profit organization that raises money and grants scholarships to deserving at-risk students. “We’re in our 19th year,” Tim says. “It sort of has a life of its own. This year we have some incredible students in every area of academics; people who are excited about education.” Learn more at www.TimReid.org