Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
“Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen paid dues like no other comedy team in the history of show business had to pay, and it bonded us so that we’ll be friends ‘till our graves”
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Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen broke both color and comedy lines nearly 40 years ago as the comedy team of Tim and Tom. Both men have made such profound contributions of their own, but collectively they deserve accolades for their trailblazing efforts.
A new book, Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White, explores both men’s lives and recounts when the two met in Harvey, Illinois, when both were volunteering for the Jaycees. Reid was born poor on the East Coast, and Dreesen, one of eight children, was “raggedy-ass poor” living in the Midwest in Harvey.
While speaking to a classroom of children in late 1969, a young girl commented that the two should be in comedy. And the legends were born. Reid and Dreesen performed as a comedy team that explored issues of race during a climate when America experienced much racial discord.
“They took to stages across the country and helped America confront its racial divide…by laughing at it.” For about five years beginning in 1969, the team performed at dives and celebrated entertainment venues. The road was tough for both men, as they seemed to always scramble for jobs that would pay anything resembling something with which they could make a living and feed themselves and later their families.
Their first paying gig was at the Golden Horseshoe in Chicago Heights, and the fact that the club catered to a white clientele made Reid feel anything but comfortable. “I felt like I was walking into Alabama in 1932,” he said.
They became popular, appearing at Chicago’s South Side jazz clubs, between sets played by Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Eddie Harris, among others. But the race issue was forever on the team’s minds.
“Because things were so polarized, it affected what people thought about us as much as the jokes we were telling,” Dreesen said. “What I realized was those who wanted us to succeed didn’t see color, while those who didn’t want us to succeed saw nothing but color.”
Reid and Dreesen had limited success. They secured many gigs, at a moment’s notice, when other entertainers had cancelled out. “Whenever another act fell out, missed a plane or something, boom we were there,” says Reid. “We were the National Guard of comedy teams.”
Reid and Dreesen learned hard lessons as their friendship and careers blossomed, but they both echoed similar sentiments of having received blessings beyond imagination in exclusive interviews.
“I feel most of the time so blessed that I’m living a life that I never could have imagined,” Reid said. “It never dawned on me to think beyond my small boundaries of Norfolk, [Virginia] because then every day was a day of survival.”
Dreesen admitted that even though he struggled during his early career, the lessons were invaluable. “I believe everything is in God’s hands, so all that has happened to me was meant to be,” Dreesen said. “Both the good and bad. All were lessons that I needed to learn.”
After constantly chasing gig after gig, the two split after an unsuccessful stint at the Los Angeles Playboy Club in early 1974. Reid decided to stay on in Los Angeles, after having made good friends with singer Della Reese.
Reid later performed at clubs on the East Coast, and finally found a steady paycheck playing Venus Flytrap in the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Reid thought the part stereotypical, even though the show lasted a few, successful seasons. “The character is a stereotype,” he said, upon auditioning. “It seems so one-dimensional, and I’m not sure I want to be walking down the street when I’m 60 years old and have somebody refer to me as Venus Flytrap.”
Reid has continued to fight Black stereotypical roles throughout the years. In the late 1980s, his weekly show Frank’s Place, which also starred his wife Daphne Maxwell Reid, earned Reid two Emmy nominations as well as an NAACP Image Award, among others. He also won acclaim for the movie Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored.
Dreesen returned to a cold, gloomy Chicago winter and continued as a stand-up comedian opening for Sammy Davis, Jr., Smokey Robinson, and Harvey’s R&B singing group The Dells, among others. He eventually starred on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and later signed on as Frank Sinatra’s opening act until the crooner’s death. “I shined shoes on my hands and knees, and Sinatra was on the jukebox playing, and then I went off and opened for him for 14 years.”
Dreesen has also starred on television shows and performs at many charity functions. And he insists that comedy is always an equalizer. “We learn from each other through humor.”
The recent election of Barack Obama as the first African American President was fresh on Reid’s mind, and he commented on the national and global celebrations that followed.
“Black people stay in the warrior’s stance so much that many of us don’t stop to enjoy life. I saw Black Americans enjoying themselves, and we weren’t trying to recover from a bad weekend or hide pain. There was spontaneous excitement and parties all over the world; we just came out in the joy of being alive and witnessing something that many had dreamt would never happen.”
Reid is busy lately with taping documentaries in Africa and Brazil, among other places, as well as learning sculpting in Italy. And he’s glad the struggle is over. “I also was in the survival mode for so long that I realized that I needed to slow down, and now I’m enjoying the living part of my life.”
Others who have read the book echo the sentiment about laughter being the best medicine.
“The story of these remarkable entertainers’ Hollywood beginnings is a fabulous and funny read,” Nikki Giovanni is quoted in the book. “Tim and Tom is not to be missed. Someone once said, ‘Laughter is jogging for the insides.’ So this book will not only make you happy—you’ll be healthier, too.”
Dreesen is glad to be on the circuit again with Reid, albeit it’s on a book tour. “Tim and I being on the road together again has been fun, and the reception we have been getting has been overwhelming.”
Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen will appear on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson November 11 and will appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno December 5.
Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White is published by The University of Chicago Press.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a veteran public relations and journalism professional and former journalism professor. She’s publicist for her daughter, Hip-Hop artist Psalm One. A native Chicago South Sider, Elaine was a recent University of Maryland Bio Ethics, Health Disparities & Clinical Trials Fellow and winner of a Black Press Messenger Award.
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