By Eric Deggans
Times TV/Media Critic
Tim Allen wants to talk about the n-word.
He doesn't want to use that often-derided euphemism, either. He says the word itself with a directness that hearkens to his self-professed comedy heroes, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce.
But it also comes close to sounding like a well-meaning white guy who may not understand how tenuous the ground he's walking on could become. "(The phrase) 'the n-word' is worse to me than n-----,' " said Allen, who spoke to me on a day when the controversy ignited over Paula Deen's admitted use of that slur in 1986.
For him, the criticism that keeps any nonblack comic from using the word is a step backward from the days when Pryor and Bruce were breaking comedy boundaries by purposefully using street language in ways middle-of-the-road comics wouldn't dare.
"You want to take the power away from that word so that no one is offended by it," he added, telling a 50-year-old joke by Bruce about how President Kennedy could defuse slurs by using them to describe Jewish, Italian and black people in his cabinet. "If I have no intent, if I show no intent, if I clearly am not a racist, then how can 'n-----' be bad coming out of my mouth?"
Such sentiments are important because Allen is embarking on his first extended standup comedy tour in a while. And at a time when the comedy world is debating whether rape jokes are appropriate, even a guy who defends using racial slurs to defuse their power may not seem so cutting edge. When I tell Allen there's not really a word in modern America that can sum up 400 years of slavery and oppression like the n-word does for black people, for instance, Allen admits the point.
"But imagine a world where, you know, literally sticks and stones, they break your bones but words (do) nothing," he added. "Maybe it's when (prejudice) goes away and healing begins, perhaps words like that, they'll become like 'mick' and 'dago' and all that s--- that doesn't mean anything."
It's an explicit sentiment coming from a comic whose fame has been rooted in family-friendly work: standup routines on Johnny Carson's middlebrow Tonight Show that became a hugely successful mainstream family network TV sitcom Home Improvement; playing a guy transformed into St. Nick in the Santa Clause movies; his role as Buzz Lightyear in the blockbuster animated Toy Story movie franchise.
Allen said that pedigree now requires him to educate the audience, because his act isn't always family friendly and he doesn't particularly like children.
Say what? The guy who plays Santa Claus and Buzz Lightyear — roles that helped earn him the title of "Disney legend" in 1999 — doesn't like kids?
"I have a whole story (in the new standup show) about how that happened," Allen said. "I'll do a little history lesson: 'Get used to a guy that isn't family friendly, but I honor and completely adore American families and my family.' I'm a mixture of stuff, and it takes a while to get used to me."
Allen, whose father was killed in a car accident when he was young, served two years in prison after a 1978 arrest for drug possession. In past interviews, he has acknowledged he has a dark side, but these days, he says jokes about religion and his status as "a perpetual 11-year-old boy who still likes farts" are what still get him in trouble on stage.
As star of the ABC sitcom Last Man Standing, Allen doesn't need to tour the country. Why does he? In a way, because he can.
"I'm kind of politically an anarchist, and comedy is the ultimate anarchy — there's nobody telling me what to do," he said. "I have a skill and it's not related to acting, it's not related to auditions, its not related to studios, not related to public whim. It's whether I'm funny or not and whether I can entertain people."