The whole story sounds preposterous: In 1969, Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen formed a comedy team they called Tim & Tom. Reid, a black man, and Dreesen, a white man, traveled the country in the days before comedy clubs, performing in nightspots that catered to either all-black or all-white audiences, looking for a break that would catapult them to stardom.
Instead, they found resistance from audiences and reluctance from talent scouts. After years spent opening for the likes of Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond and Sha Na Na - and a list of appearances that included Indiana Black Expo in 1971 - they couldn't break through. Dejected, they split up in 1974.
It seems hard to imagine that Reid - a Virginia native who went on to star in WKRP in Cincinnati
and other television shows - and Dreesen - the pride of Harvey, Ill., who would spend 14 years as Frank Sinatra's opening act and close confidant - would even know each other, much less have worked together.
But it's true. They tell their story in the book Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White
, a terrifically interesting read that documents their struggles together and their successes apart. (More information can be found at timandtomcomedy.com.)
"I felt the title of the book should have been Before Our Time
," Dreesen says, "because everybody who reads the book says, 'You guys were before your time.' The book is really about a lot of things, but it's inspirational, it's motivational, it's about a friendship that still exists. It was never about race with Tim and I. It was about trying to get some laughs. The irony of this book is not that we were America's first black and white comedy team. The irony is, we were the last."
In separate phone interviews, Dreesen and Reid discussed the book and shared some memories.
NUVO: When I first heard about this, I thought it was an elaborate prank - the idea of you guys as a comedy team I'd never heard of didn't sound real. But after reading the book, it made sense: You didn't have the kind of success that would leave a lasting mark.
Dreesen: We paid the dues and we had the opportunities, but the industry rejected us. We put up a hell of a fight those six years, but the frustration set in. It broke my heart when the team split up. I was convinced that we were going to be this earthshaking, great comedy team. But everything turned out for the best. We both had successful careers and we're the best of friends.
Reid: It's for real. It happened so long ago that probably a lot of people aren't aware of it.
NUVO: It's hard to tell - comedy doesn't translate that well to the page - but I got the impression you guys may not have been ready.
Dreesen: You could argue that, and I wouldn't argue against you. The standup comedian I was on my first Tonight Show
, I'm 10 times better than that now. And I wowed them on my first Tonight Show
. And Tim and I would have been 10 times better, given the right opportunity. In some ways, we were way before our time. And in some ways, we needed more time.
Reid: We were very funny. And it wasn't just a novelty act of being black and white. That was, believe or not, the least important thing for us as entertainers. It happened to be the most important for the audience, the first five or six minutes. Then they would settle into, "These guys are funny." We never said, "Let's focus on being black and white."
However, once you start being a comedy team in 1969, we would have to have been completely without brain power to say, "Let's not play that." That was probably 40, 50 percent of our act in terms of material.
NUVO: Why did you decide to do the book now?
Dreesen: As Tim will tell you, I pestered him for 10-12 years. Tim kept saying, "Tom, they didn't care about us then. Why would they care about us now?" But I said, "The book needs to be written, Tim. If for nothing else, for our kids and for our grandkids." Just like you didn't know, they wouldn't know, either. And they wouldn't know how significant that was, either. It changed their lives as well as it changed our lives.
Reid: It was more of Tom's idea than mine. I tend not to be one of those people who relish looking back at the past. "It happened, let's move on" is kind of my attitude about life. But he convinced me. He was so passionate about it that I said, "OK, let's do it - as long as we get somebody to help make it compelling." Ron Rapoport came aboard and he brought a narrative to it that I really enjoyed. It turned out to be a wonderful experience.
NUVO: I think it's a much more interesting story once you guys break up.
Dreesen: I appreciate that, because I've had other people tell me that if there was to be a movie, it would be '69-'75 and what these guys had to do across the land at a time when America was going through utter chaos. Tim and I, once we hit the stage, a hush would come over the crowd. A lot of comics would say, "You've gotta get up there and you've got to get their attention." We'd walk out and you'd hear silence. In an all-black club and in an all-white club, it was: "What's this all about?"
Reid: That's the way life is sometimes. You never know till you step out there and see what life has to offer for you. We would have either starved to death or we would have made it eventually, perhaps. But I couldn't chance that.
NUVO: Tell me what you remember about performing at Indiana Black Expo in 1971.
Dreesen: I remember the big crowd. I also remember the group I grew up admiring in my neighborhood was The Dells. They were on that show with us. As a little boy, I would be on street corners, singing their songs, and here we were, appearing with them.
Reid: Like many things we did at that time, it was another opportunity to go before an audience. For us, every time we went in front of an audience, we just assumed this may be the thing that would bring us the attention we needed. Certainly, this kind of event was going to get press, and we were excited about being there. The thing I remember most was, after we performed, we were identified by the crowd as not being important enough to crowd [around]. When we talk about it, that's what Tom and I laugh about: "Who are they?" "Oh, they're nobody." That rings in my mind and keeps me humble, that's for sure.