The 1960s and '70s were times of changing race relations in the United States. A new book called Tim and Tom looks at the era through the eyes of two stand-up comics. Mike O'Sullivan spoke with authors Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen about their experience as the nation's first, and possibly last, black and white comedy team.
The 1960s were trying times, says comic Tom Dreesen, who co-authored Tim and Tom with former partner Tim Reid.
"The Vietnam War was raging," said Tom Dreesen. "I just got out of the service. Tim just got out of college. College students were protesting all over America. There were riots across the land. They were protesting against the war. The world was in turmoil."
Against this backdrop, Dreesen and Reid worked as community volunteers in an anti-drug program in suburban Chicago. The two friends visited schools and used humor to urge youngsters to stay away from drugs. Dreesen recalls that one student had a suggestion.
"She said you guys are funny," he said. "You ought to become a comedy team."
They embraced the idea and worked out a routine. From 1969 through the early 1970s, they appeared in bars and night clubs, telling jokes about their childhood, their friends and neighborhoods. Dreesen is white and Reid is black, and the two would often touch on the sensitive topic of race.
The United States was going through dramatic social changes. Congress had passed the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Reid says racism was still a fact of life, and while barriers broke down, most black and white people still led separate lives.
"The law had been passed, but still, in the height of our career, we called an integrated audience an audience that had maybe, out of 150 or 200, 12 to 18 blacks because they just did not feel comfortable being in that surrounding at that particular time," said Tim Reid. "So whenever they were in the audience, whenever we did a joke, people would look at the black people in the audience and see if they laughed first. And then if they laughed, then everybody joined in."
The two comics were sometimes the target of racial remarks from intolerant critics, both black and white, but their humor often got people of both races laughing together.
The men have since built successful careers, Dreesen as a standup comic who spent 14 years as a warm-up act for singer Frank Sinatra, and Reid as an actor best known for the role of disk jockey Venus Flytrap on the popular TV series WRKP in Cincinnati. He also starred in the series "Sister, Sister" and the critically acclaimed comedy-drama Frank's Place.
Dreesen says comedy is not easy, but performing in front of an audience of 20 or 20,000 can be addictive. He says most comics crave the laughter and applause.
DREESEN: "Eighty-five percent of all standup comedians I have ever met in my life are insecure, neurotic, sometimes psychotic, love-starved wrecks. And the other 15 percent are gifted, confident people who say, this is what I do. I know how to write a joke and I know how to tell it."
REID: "There really are gifted confident people there?"
DREESEN: "Fifteen percent. I include Bill Cosby. I like to think I am in that category, but never trust anyone who tells you they are sane."
The comedians say the election of the first black U.S. president has changed the cultural landscape, altering race relations in a good way. Tim Reid says comics will have to adapt, as the great ones have done in the past.
"Because we have a black president, all bets are off," he said. "And so I think they are interesting times for the future 21st-century Will Rogers or the future kind of person who can step out of the shackles of the old racial stereotypes and create new racial jokes, create new paradigms for comedy."
Dreesen says comics all pay their dues and learn their skills from hard experience, but no others have tackled the issue of race as directly as Tim and Tom did. He says both have the scars to prove it - a drunk once put out a cigarette in his partner's face.
"In the history of show business, no comedy team ever had to pay the kind of dues that Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen paid," said Dreesen. "None. Everybody pays dues and everybody's got their horror stories, but we were America's first black and white comedy team and we were the last.
The two men say that Tim and Tom, which they wrote with journalist Ron Rapoport, is more than a tale of two comics. It is a chronicle of a turbulent time of changing race relations, and it shows how the country got through the era with a dose of humor.