Tim Allen's still hungry for sitcom success

Tim Allen knows what he likes: hamburgers. And sitcoms. Specifically, sitcoms of the hamburger variety. At least, that's how Allen describes it. He calls his new TV show, "Last Man Standing," "comfort food for the entertainment industry. Revisiting hamburgers."

On the show's set in Studio City, Allen kicks back in his trailer and explains further. In a TV-scape glutted with reality shows and slick sitcoms crafted primarily in post production, Allen deeply missed the more traditional multi-camera sitcoms produced in front of a live audience. "Last Man Standing" is a decided attempt to return to that classic format. It reunites Allen with ABC, on which his "Home Improvement" had such a successful run — it finished in the top 10 of Nielsen's prime-time ratings all of its eight seasons.

Now, 12 years after that show went off the air and with a decade-plus of studio films behind him, Allen is returning to TV to "reboot" the small-screen magic. "I think we did it better than anybody else," Allen says. "I'm not really reinventing the wheel here — this is just what I like to do."

Allen, 58, seems thrilled to be back on a TV set built around, well, him — a big kid on a small couch, arms flailing, voice booming with anticipation and occasionally letting slip one of his signature grunts. He loves everything about the sitcom world, he says: the snappy jokes, craft services, set design — about the latter, he has "very clear preferences." Traditional sitcoms speak to him on a primal level because more than anything, Allen loves the live audience.

"Tim comes alive in front of an audience. And that energy is really important," says "Last Man" director John Pasquin, who was the original director on "Home Improvement" and also directed the first "Santa Clause" movie Allen starred in. Pasquin says "Last Man" is referential in tone to "Home Improvement," but also a departure. "The character has evolved, the situation is different, but comedically, it's still Tim's point of view," he says. "You wanna honor the audience's expectations. But then take them along with us on this new ride."

"Last Man Standing," which debuts Oct. 11, follows Mike Baxter, a Denver dad and rustic outdoorsman who wields hunting and fishing gear at work but must navigate the nuanced world of women at home, where he lives with a strong-willed wife (Nancy Travis) and three daughters. Allen describes the show as "'Home Improvement' inside out." Instead of three boys, it's three girls; instead of power tools, it's guns, knives and canoes. Rather than hosting a cable-access show, "Tool Time," his character runs a video blog at an adventure gear store.

Like "Tool Time," the vlog is a device for Allen to connect with the audience, allowing him to riff on his signature material: the male-female communication quagmire. In that respect the show remains in the tradition of stand-up comics who've brought their acts to the sitcom arena, such as "Seinfeld" or "Roseanne." But Allen — who's not a writer on the show but does have an executive producer title — says "Last Man" won't draw from his stand-up act in the same way "Home Improvement" did.

"I don't wanna do that this time. Because it sucked my act dry," he says.

ABC and 20th Century Fox Television have a lot invested in the show, which is using expensive state-of-the-art cameras and especially large, deep sets to give the show a sophisticated and filmic quality. The network finished in third place last season and received criticism from advertisers for skewing too female (almost 65% of its prime-time audience); it needed to draw in the men this fall.

Allen says he and the network started tossing around ideas about 18 months ago. Meantime, creator Jack Burditt, most recently co-executive producer/writer on "30 Rock" and with other writing credits such as "Frasier" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," had been pitching the "Last Man Standing" concept. It was a perfect match. "Last Man" will now lead the network's prime-time block Tuesdays at 8, followed by "Man Up" at 8:30 — call it the Man Hour.

"Tim is a man's man, and his ability to speak to the fickle male audience is invaluable," says Samie Falvey, senior vice president of ABC Entertainment Group. "But we've also gotten such a great response from women who live with men like Tim or relate to the female-dominated household."

The question remains: Will a traditional sitcom about a loving, happy family feel dated in an era of "Modern Family"? And could the show possibly capture the viewership that "Home Improvement" did in today's splintered entertainment world? "Last Man's" producers seem confident that Allen's appeal between the coasts will sustain it. Still, there's more than a little pressure on Allen.

"Of course it's scary," he says. "But I wouldn't do this unless I thought people would like it."

If the show doesn't work, Allen says, he'll simply move on with his stand-up and films. He enjoyed his 2010 directorial debut, "Crazy on the Outside," but says it solidified his preference for acting. And though his films have been hit or miss over the years — he's had far more success in animated features like the "Toy Story" franchise over live-action projects like "Big Trouble" and "Joe Somebody" — there is at least one "really big idea" film in the works: "Jungle Cruise," which he says is in development now in the scripting stage and will likely costar Tom Hanks.

"It's something Tom and I have been wanting to do for a long time. It's almost Woody and Buzz live."

In the meantime, "Last Man" reunites much of the "Home Improvement" crew, including director of photography Donald A. Morgan, who won "Home Improvement" seven Emmys. Backstage at a recent taping, the mood was jovial and the familial camaraderie palpable.

"I said, anybody who's still alive, call 'em up," Allen says. "I'm hopeful that we'll have a job for a while. Because I like it here. This is bigger than television; there's a family developing here."

deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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