INTERVIEW — Infinity and Beyond: Comedy Legend Tim Allen Talks “Toy Story 4” and Stand-Up at The Mirage in Las Vegas
If there’s one stand-up comedian whose career has gone to infinity and beyond, it’s Tim Allen. Dared by a friend, Allen first performed stand-up in a Detroit comedy club in 1975.
After diligently honing his talents on stage, the hardworking comic rose to household name status as grunting know-it-all handyman Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor on Home Improvement, the ABC television series that ran for eight highly successful seasons from 1991 to 1999.
By November 1994, Allen’s stardom was undeniable — and unprecedented. Following three concurrent number ones — his best-selling book, “Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man,” Home Improvement and Disney’s The Santa Clause, his first major big screen role — it seemed there was nowhere left to go.
Enter Toy Story. The first feature-length computer-animated film, Toy Story was the highest-grossing film of 1995. Allen was chosen by director John Lasseter, a fan of Home Improvement, to provide the voice of macho space ranger Buzz Lightyear. “In the beginning, Buzz was much more superhero-like, along the lines of Dudley Do-Right,” Lasseter recalls. “Tim put a spin on it that was much more realistic… [he] made the character real to the audience.”
Two sequels, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, followed. A third sequel, Toy Story 4, is currently in development from Disney-Pixar for a 2019 release. Toy Story 3 grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide in 2010, once the highest-grossing animated film of all time (until it was supplanted by Disney’s own Frozen).
Allen has since gone on to star in another hit ABC sitcom, Last Man Standing, as Mike Baxter, father of three wildly different girls and the conservative and politically-outspoken marketing guru for sporting goods store Outdoor Man. Currently airing its sixth season Friday nights on ABC, Last Man Standing also launched into broadcast syndication last fall. As further testament to Allen’s star power, the sitcom has proved itself a successful commodity in the off-network game.
Having successfully returned to his stand-up roots in-between appearances on the big and small screen, 2011 saw a series of regular weekend shows at The Venetian over a nine month period. Further appearances at The Mirage followed in subsequent years, and Tim Allen is once again headed back to Las Vegas as part of The Mirage’s popular Aces of Comedy series, featuring the biggest names in stand-up. Allen will be performing this Saturday, January 28th at The Mirage, with further shows on March 4th and April 8th. I spoke with Tim about stand-up, performing Vegas, his history with Las Vegas and the upcoming Toy Story 4.
Cam Bonomolo: You have a history with Vegas. You’ve performed at Tropicana, Caesars, The Venetian and The Mirage. What excites you most about performing in Vegas? How is it unlike performing anywhere else?
TA: It seems like this is — for some reason, this seems more real to me. I’ve done comedy clubs, concert venues, but somehow, especially for Las Vegas — it’s hard to describe Las Vegas, the attraction I have. It’s nice to be able to say I’m working Vegas, you know, some of the old guys [say], “You gotta earn the right to say ‘Vegas,’ not ‘Las Vegas.'” And I feel like I have, or at least I’ve worked there for so long. You get a specific crowd, you’re coming to see a show, shows, it’s not — boy, that’s a good one. It’s a real inarticulate answer to a very good question.
I believe it’s because, in the best way, it’s the showbiz capital. It’s for show business, be it music, musicians, magicians, impressionists — that’s where it is and has always been, and it’s combined in one area. You can get comedy clubs and I can do venues around the country, but in one place, it’s all there. You know, across the street, Celine [Dion] and Elton [John] play here, it’s all entertainers of every ilk is in the same place. So you’re on a level playing field, I guess that’s what it is. There’s no place like Las Vegas.
CB: In recent years you’ve established a relationship with The Mirage. What do you like best about performing at the Terry Fator Theatre?
TA: Once I got used to the amphitheater layout — I really did like The Venetian, and I liked the [theater that previously housed The Phantom of the Opera] at The Venetian, that was a good size room for me — but this is a perfect size, I think it’s 1,380 or 1,400 seats, which we love. The Venetian was a really intimate room, really good for comedy. I loved that room. Once we got the lighting and my stage cues set, which we did about two years ago or a year ago for the Fator theater, the showroom there at The Mirage, it’s a perfect size. It’s an amphitheater set up which I had to get used to, but I’ve gotten my lights and cues in, so now I love that size, I love the sound.
You have probably, to me, a top-tier management and entertainment management group at The Mirage. They’re just top notch. They get some of the best comics, certainly, I believe they’ve got one of the top line ups of comics in there. The accommodations are fabulous, my room is real close to the show room. The entrance and exits, all that kind of backstage stuff is great at The Mirage.
CB: Before your return to stand-up earlier this decade, there was a sizable gap between your Las Vegas performances. Why so much time away?
TA: Well, I was doing — I did, what, eleven movies in there and I had Home Improvement. Home Improvement took up so much of my time, and then I wrote a couple books, and then I did — I was doing movie after movie after movie, and there was just absolutely no time. It’s something I love doing, but I forgot — not forgot about, that’s not quite the word. I was so focused on movies, it takes so much time, that there was very little time for family and doing personal stuff, so comedy went by the wayside. I did gigs for charity, but I was so vastly out of practice. It took a year of rehearsals to get me back up to, really, fighting weight, if you will.
And this was — like it was the first time, it was on a dare from my brother-in-law and my wife, “Have you ever thought of doing this?” And it’s daunting to come back after, you know, having such huge success — Home Improvement was based on my original act, and now to re-up it — I’m a different guy now. I’m a different dad and a different husband and a different friend, so it was challenging, and a fun challenge, and I was able to get back up and do road work and eventually get back to my position in Las Vegas.
CB: Do you recall the first time you performed in Vegas? What was it like?
TA: I believe it was — early on, it was at Caesars. It was fabulous, it was fabulous. I did — no, way earlier on it was Rodney’s [Dangerfield], at the Tropicana. I worked with Rodney Dangerfield at [Blue Room] at the Tropicana, which I believe Brad Garrett is running now. Low ceiling, that’s all I remember. I mean, if you jumped up, you’d hit the spotlight, it was that low. And it’s still a peculiar showroom. Intimate, nice crowd size, but I worked Rodney’s and that — that was a huge deal for us. I mean, to work Las Vegas, and that’s when it was like a shrimp cocktail capital. I mean, every casino seemed to have shrimp cocktail.
I feel like I’m a hundred years old. And we were in the last of live bands bringing you on and off. When I finally moved up to a big showroom in Vegas, it was the big room in Caesars. I don’t even think it’s there. The one with the round tables, is that still there? I don’t think so. I think that’s now where Celine works, they changed it into the Colosseum. But they had that showroom with the band. I think we were one of the last acts that had a live band bring you on! And they went to canned music. Not a pleasant thing, because it was great in Vegas when you had big bands there, for everybody.
But that was a huge, wonderful time for me. Because as I said, I was on a roll comedy-wise, going from big arenas to Home Improvement, to then back to big arenas, and then, for some reason, Vegas feels like a big arena even though it’s not. And that’s the best way to describe it. You feel like you’re doing, you know, a 3,000-seater when you’re doing 1,100, and it feels – for some reason, it feels very special.
CB: And that was at a time when you had three concurrent number ones. You had the number one book, TV show and a movie.
TA: “Oh, your book is number one today?” And I go, “Yeah, it’s Monday.” Friday it posted, then comes Monday. “But your show is number one, right? And your Santa Clause is number one?” I said, “What are you saying, Steve?” He says, “Well, you have three number ones, probably gonna be a while for anybody to do that again.” And I go, “I never thought of it that way.”
You know, it’s funny that none of my management or agents thought of that. So he sent me a wonderful little poster, which I have right near me right now. It said “number one, number one, number one.” And eventually I think it came out, or somebody put it on a — I don’t even think Variety or any of the newspapers in Los Angeles picked it up, but my brothers did, and I think somebody finally posted it somewhere. It’s amazing. Of course, it wasn’t the goal, it wasn’t what I was shooting for. I was very fortunate to find a wonderful script in Santa Clause, the original was an amazing script.
I love writing, I love philosophy. [My book] was kind of a philosophy/joke book. I mean, not a joke book, it was a humorous look at — a different way of looking at existence, oddly enough. And then I was doing Home Improvement, so the planets lined up. And I said, how can you take credit for stuff that just happened that way? Certainly, as somebody once said, the harder I worked, the luckier I got. Certainly that came in, but you know, there is a point where my family suffered because, my God, I was doing nothing but work. I was gone all the time. So it’s one of these weird sacrifices in life. And everybody survived and my daughters, everybody’s cool. I said “I survived,” but it was a wonderful time in my life.
CB: You got your first taste of stand-up comedy on a dare. When did you realize that stand-up was something you wanted to pursue?
TA: When I got paid for it. I didn’t think you could ever get paid for that. I’d been a funny guy all my life, got kicked out of school for it. I never burnt anything — I did blow stuff up and paint graffiti and all that kind of stuff — but I got kicked out of school more for never shutting up. And I was always disrupting class with comedy. So I always — I just never thought you could [get paid for it], until I watched these comics on Johnny Carson back then.
I’d go, God, these guys are on this wonderful TV show — which I wanted to do and eventually did do two shows with Johnny — but I just never thought you could get paid for it. I mean, who knew you could get paid for something that you loved to do? It doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard — it’s very difficult to be funny enough to get paid for it. It sounds easy, but it isn’t. I mean, ask any young guy to try new talent night, young woman, young man, eventually, mature men and women — it’s not easy. And it’s certainly not easy to get it past the “$500 a week” thing. It’s barely living. And then it becomes an OK living. And I’ve got men and women in my life that made a great living out of it, and you never hear about them. They’re on the road, that’s what they do. They’re on the road all the time.
CB: How long did you spend developing the material for your show this weekend?
TA: Well, I’m in the middle of it now. Right now I’m just readjusting some of the upfront, like what’s happening for all of our lives right now, and that would include current events a little bit. I’m not really a political humorist. But it’s current events and how they affect other things in my life. And then we’ll go to my notes session, I have a rehearsal today, and then I’ll rehearse tonight, and then it’s a club in Los Angeles on the [Sunset] Strip, and get my Vegas legs ready. And then we’ll do our show on Saturday. But it’s gonna take most of the rest of the afternoon. I’m just a stickler, I’ve been doing Last Man Standing since my last Vegas gig and my last concert, and I gotta get my sea legs back.
CB: You’ve shared previously that one of your goals is you’d like to have a place in Vegas — you’d like to operate your own comedy club. Is that still in the cards?
TA: Oh, no, I say that all the time because I’m a stickler for the location. I just love Vegas clubs and I like the place there. I’ve done so many clubs in my life and there were some that were great, they had a great restaurant area, but none of them outside of a few had a great showroom. You know, my idea of a great showroom — great sound system, great monitors, great place for the comic to enter and exit. So, I think it’s just a dream. It’s like, I’ve built hot rods, and I’m always thinking about the next hot rod. So it really was more of a random thought.
CB: Audiences may have a preconceived notion of you, because of your widely recognized roles in Home Improvement, The Santa Clause and Toy Story. Do you take that into account when performing live?
TA: The basis of all of that comedy is a comedian that’s been there since I was a kid. And I’m a little — the word isn’t “raunchy,” and it isn’t rye balled. I’m not the same guy. I’ve been interviewed before for television shows, and they’ll confuse me with Tim Taylor from Home Improvement or Mike Baxter from Last Man Standing, or Santa Claus. I’ve done a lot of family films, so they know what’s proper for a family. That’s because I’m not a proper for family comedian. You wouldn’t want to bring anybody under sixteen. It’s just inappropriate.
I’ve got a smart mouth. It’s not sexual in nature. It’s sometimes a little angry, but in fun. It’s all to make people laugh. To make adults laugh. So I’m a little different — a little stronger opinions than Mike Baxter, but Mike Baxter is getting close. But that’s on a network television show, not even cable. So he can’t use expletives or get, you know, pointed, so — lose your expectations. But I’ve been doing this for quite a while, I’ve been entertaining troops and people for quite a while. But it’s a big surprise if you’ve never seen me. I believe you’re in for a big surprise. [Laughs] I do this and I’ve done it for quite a while, and I’ve entertained people, and I’m resisting blowing my own horn, but I do this pretty well.
CB: What can people expect when they see Tim Allen live on stage?
TA: I work hard at this, and I love — I get more enjoyment, if it means anything, than the audience. I saw Richard Pryor many times, live and in person and in movies, and he made me laugh so hard. The joy I felt by being able to express myself by laughter is nothing short of magic. Marty Short, in person, is the funniest experience of anybody. Just to spend the time with him, I just adore being around this guy. I want to do that to the audience. I want to keep you laughing for an hour and five minutes, that’s what they give me, and there’s not a pause. I want to move along, I want you laughing so hard. It gives me so much joy. And that’s my goal. And that’s what I’ve been practicing at and that’s what you can come to expect.
CB: John Lasseter, director of the first two Toy Story movies, is returning to direct Toy Story 4. How’s it been working with John again after all these years?
TA: Well, John and I go way back, and I said, this is an amazing occurrence. [Pixar] is on and off, they’ve put us off [Toy Story 4] for about eight months, which just means we all take just a little bit of a break. And I can’t answer why Pixar puts us off, but Toy Story 4, working with the original director, it’s always fun — intimidating, for him as well as us. Because now we’ve all grown, and you grow into these characters. It’s a fabulous thing to be part of, especially with Buzz Lightyear and Woody. I love it.
CB: Lasseter has said Pixar won’t do anything with the Toy Story characters unless new projects live up to or surpass what’s come before, adding to the already high expectations for Toy Story 4. I feel like you, Tom Hanks and everyone at Pixar wouldn’t be bringing more Toy Story to life if there wasn’t a fantastic story behind it. That said, do you feel a lot of pressure for Toy Story 4?
TA: I think, luckily, I don’t have to, it’s not my job. [Laughs] My job is to do Buzz Lightyear funny, and then work with Tom and the other characters real funny. These [Pixar] guys are under a tremendous amount of pressure, but they’re also kids at heart. They’ll get the story right. It will be simple, meaning it’ll be a story that’s easy to follow for kids, and it will be adult enough for adults to follow. They haven’t told us much about it, and I can’t tell even what I have. I think they’ll get this right. And they literally won’t do it unless they feel it’s right. They’ll even do the movie and if they see it and they don’t like it, they’re not going to put it out there. But I think you’re going to be very happy.
CB: Toy Story 4 has been described as a romantic comedy and a love story, with Buzz and Woody setting out to find Bo Peep. Without giving too much away, what can you tell us about Buzz’s role in the movie?
TA: You know everything I know with that little sentence. I didn’t know you knew that. [Laughs] That’s all I know, and they won’t show us anything because they keep adapting it. They don’t want us getting set on any kind of mode.
CB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
TA: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for the questions.
Tim Allen performs this Saturday, January 28th at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Tickets start at $65.99 (plus service fee). Purchase tickets here. Tim Allen will return to The Mirage on Saturday, March 4th and Saturday, April 8th. Last Man Standing airs Fridays at 8/7c on ABC. Toy Story 4 opens June 21st, 2019.