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?"
What surprised me, is that a star big as Allen would say the actual n-word in a conversation with a journalist. But Allen seems to wear his heart on his sleeve during much of our conversation, from pulling back on claims that he's a Hollywood conservative to talking about how using racial lurs feels from a white guy's perspective.
As he brings his standup comedy tour to Ruth Eckerd Hall tonight, here's an extended sample of our conversation:
Me: You’re a big movie star, you got a big TV show. Why get in front of people and tell jokes?
Allen: Well, the long and the short of it is, I’m kind of politically anarchist, you know? And comedy is the ultimate anarchist. There’s nobody telling me what to do and I guess I’ve always liked … A conversation I had with a famous rock star. We were at a charity dinner and he said, hey, when the bottom falls out, if it does I know I can make 900 hundred a week doing my gigs (laughs). And it’s true, I have a skill and it’s … it has not related to acting, it’s not related to auditions, it’s not related to studios, not related to public whim. It’s whether I’m funny or not and whether I can entertain people.
What about people who come in expecting more family friendly stuff?
A: I’m an adult and I have adult themes and – some adult themes masquerading as 11-year-old, I might add, my bevy of fart and poop jokes … but in context. That’s not my act. And my act isn’t there to defame or diminish human relations or anything else. It’s just about being funny. And if I annoy you, it’s because you don’t think it’s funny. If I …it’s relatable stuff. If you came from a family with boys and girls and you had parents that worked hard, you’ll like it. I wouldn’t bring anybody under 18.
I remember talking to Drew Carey about people asking if he would do standup, and he said it would take him too long to actually get in an hour-long set that he felt confident about. Was it like that for you?
A: It was uncomfortable, tell you that. ‘Cause basically it’s starting from scratch. I do my old act and then just pause, and I just didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t have the courage to try say what was on my mind (at first). The first three big concerts I did, there’s a moment in Vegas where I’m thinking to myself, Christ, I should give ‘em their money back. I’m not going to because I did the 45 to 48 minutes where I struggled to get it.”
How did you get past that?
A: “(I’m thinking) let’s look at life and what’s happened lately, and I didn’t think I had the courage to do that. And that took a long time to get where I felt what I had to say was valid and what I got to say is valid. I think there’s a percentage (of the audience) that don’t realize, that don’t know that (standup) is how everything began. We planned it, we work hard, rehearsals to get this. It’s more of a … it’s not just coming in there in a T-shirt and holding a microphone. I like the whole deal, always have liked shows. That said, I will pay homage, I’ll do a little history lesson of who this guy is, what you know about me and what you don’t know about me or what you may have read, which gets you to this point right here. Get used to a guy that isn’t family-friendly but I honor and completely adore American families and my family, so I’m a mixture of stuff, and it takes a while to get used to me, I’ll tell you that. I have a whole story about how that happened, and I said, Jesus, how did I get here? You know, how did I get to be Mr. Family and I’m not particularly friendly with kids?
Seems the comedy world has shifted a bit. Now we’re debating whether standups can joke about rape.
A: I’m just … I’m just watching Paula Deen.
A: “I’ve had this argument on stage a million times. I do a movie with Martin Lawrence and pretty soon they’re referring to me, ‘hey, my n-----’s up.’ So I’m the n----- if I’m around you guys but 7 feet away, if I said n-----, it’s not right. It’s very confusing to the European mind how that works, especially if I’ve either grown up or evolved or whatever, it literally was growing up in Colorado, with Hispanics and Anglos, that’s all I remember. So when Paula Deen (admits her language), they go after her, and now we’ve gone backwards in the world. She said n----- in ‘83 or something?
‘86, I think.
A: ‘86? How the f--- do you know that? Who remembers that?
She admitted it in a court deposition.
A: “In Webster’s old dictionary the word “n-----” means unemployed and indigent dock worker. That’s one definition. So I said, (to my brother) in that case … he lives in Boston and he’s not employed … so you’d be a n-----. And he goes, yeah. If my brother told me not to call him a dingleberry in front of my mother, ‘cause I knew it pissed him… pisses me off. As soon as Mom left, and I wanted to piss him off? I’d say ‘dingleberry, dingleberry, dingleberry.’ So if you’re around a word to be problematic for you and low intellect or uninvolved people find that out, they’re gonna call you n----- all day long ‘cause they know you don’t like it. And I said, so this debate rages in the public, but when it gets to the comedy world, we’re not even allowed to say it, and I gotta refer to it as the N word, F word, B word … it gets all the way down the line. It gets really intense; we’re running backwards.”