Two years ago, Roseanne Barr, a mildly popular nightclub act, soared to overnight stardom after the premiere season of ABC's "Roseanne." At the same time, series creator Matt Williams was essentially pushed out because Barr insisted on taking control of the series.
Tim Allen, another mildly popular nightclub act, will be introduced to America tonight at 8:30 in ABC's "Home Improvement," also co-created by Williams. Advertisers have singled out the comedy series, in which Allen plays the handyman host of a cable TV home improvement show, as the new season's highest hope for a hit, and TV critics have given rare nods of approval.
Already, newspapers, magazines and TV talk shows have been clamoring to know more about Allen. And if he wins over TV audiences, then what? Is there another "Roseanne" situation in the offing for executive producer Williams?
Allen says no. Relaxing in the Green Room of the Hermosa Beach Comedy and Magic Club earlier this month, where he was taking a break from a rigorous TV shooting schedule to keep his stand-up act in tune, the 38-year-old comedian blew off the suggestion that he might parlay success into power if "Home Improvement" catches on.
"I've known Roseanne for an awful long time. We're just so different," he said. "I don't know that she did comedy as long as I did. Taking nothing away from her genius now, because she's brilliant, but I was on the road for so damn long. Plus I did commercials for years. So this whole thing hasn't intimidated me. And I think it might have frightened her a bit."
Allen's life experience has prepared him for the worst. Fourteen years ago, not long after college, Allen was busted for selling cocaine to an undercover policeman.
"Basically, I pleaded guilty. I knew what I did was wrong," Allen said. "I did not drag it out in a trial. I knew I made a major mistake. I laid down. Punish me."
In the eight months prior to his sentencing, Allen set out to establish responsibility before the eyes of the court by doing stand-up comedy in a Detroit club, the Comedy Castle--and he was a smash. Because Allen was a seemingly good kid from a good family in Birmingham, Mich., his family hoped he would be let off easy.
Instead, he was made an example of and spent two years in a federal prison.
"When I got out, I was angry, because nothing had changed," said Allen, who wrote the comedy club owner while he was in prison so he would have a place to work after his release. His girlfriend, Laura, now his wife, also waited for him.
"I thought if I was to be made a lesson, if I had come out and somehow magically the (nation's) cocaine problem would have disappeared . . . but the problem was getting nothing but worse, and I felt guilty about being part of that problem. And then I wanted to preach . Stop it! I wanted to stop it. But nobody wanted to hear that from a comic."
Allen did pick up a point of view in prison, however, that became the bedrock of an act that has lifted him above a career of endless one-nighters and led to his ABC series. "After learning to adjust to bad food and severe bullies, bullies who will kill you, there are points of humanity in prison," Allen said. "There's points of wonderful love, and take this in the right way, love between two men. There's compassion. They take care of each other."
So Allen took to celebrating and satirizing manhood--without demeaning women. On stage, he pokes at the differences between the sexes and spouts "masculinist" philosophies like a testosterone geyser. He's coarse. He grunts and chortles in primitive Neanderthal-speak, describes men's most vaunted virtues as lawn care and vehicle maintenance and pines primordial over the importance of chromed wheels on cars, the tool department at Sears, Lava soap on a rope and blowing his nose one nostril at a time.
Last year, not long after Allen won an ACE award for a Showtime cable special, Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner and Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg made a special trip to the Improv in Los Angeles to see Allen's signature "Men Are Pigs" act.
"Eisner is a man short on words," Allen recalled. "After the performance, he said, 'Top to bottom, I liked it. You had a beginning, middle and end, and you were succinct. I laughed all the way through the act. I liked the character. Congratulations.' "
The next day, Allen met with executives at Disney. "They offered me two sitcoms: 'Turner & Hooch' or 'Dead Poets Society' in the Tom Hanks role or the Robin Williams role," Allen said. "And I thought they got the wrong guy. I told them, 'I'm the one you saw on stage doing the men thing, grunting like a pig. Without being disrespectful, wouldn't that seem like an odd idea?'
"They weren't vehement. They just said we could get you on the air now with that, and then maybe later. . . ." Allen paused and started over: "It seemed like they were preparing for failure the first time, and then we'd move on to something else.
"I think much to their surprise, as well as my own, I said, 'I don't think I want to do this.' I turned them down. And that didn't sit well with anybody."
Disney eventually conceded and began trying to find a producer for Allen to develop a series based on his stand-up character. The logical choice was Williams, who has a three-year production deal to develop TV and film projects for Disney. In addition to creating "Roseanne," Williams, a former playwright from Indiana, had written for "The Cosby Show" and "Carol & Company," two series that rely on the talents of established comedians.
But Williams balked at the proposition. "I wasn't interested in jumping back into a situation with a stand-up comedian," he recalled.
"There's a double-edged sword that comes with creating a series around a stand-up," Williams explained. "You're damned if you do, damned if you don't. If you take a stand-up and create a series around them, and perfectly capture their persona, then you're accused of ripping off the stand-up act. If you don't capture it perfectly, and change it at all, then people say, 'Well, those guys obviously can't write, because they missed the whole essence of the stand-up.'
"At the risk of sounding arrogant, when you think about all the people who tried it, the success rate really isn't that high."
But Allen and Williams got along well, so they agreed to work together. This time around, Williams believes he has safeguarded himself contractually against another "Roseanne" situation. "Tim and I made it clear. I am the executive producer on 'Home Improvement,' " Williams said.
On the surface, however, it appears that there is already a contention over writing credits. Although "Home Improvement" is loosely based on the character from Allen's club act, which he honed and polished for years, he is not getting writing credit on the series because he does not write actual scripts--even though his jokes are used.
"I think it's unfair because the Writers Guild doesn't consider that writing," Allen said.
Williams is billed as series creator, along with his writing partners, Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean. In tonight's episode, Allen is credited as star and executive consultant, neither of which is a writing credit. Williams, however, has put in a request for the Writers Guild to acknowledge Allen's input.
"Obviously we did not create Tim's stand-up act, the guy who grunts and loves power tools," Williams said. "Tim should have a credit that reflects the contributions from his stand-up act."
"The credit for this particular show is under review," Writers Guild spokeswoman Cheryl Rhoden confirmed Monday. "At this point, Tim Allen does not have a (writing) credit."