Metro Detroit’s Tim Allen is Sticking to His Brand of Comedy

…whether you like it or not.
Tim Allen is not afraid to speak his mind onstage, online, or in print — thought police be damned. // Photograph by Ross Pelton

Tim Allen knows better than anyone that these days, comedy is no laughing matter.

Oh, it’s fine if you’re on prime-time TV, playing a character like Mike Baxter on Last Man Standing, his recent sitcom that ran nine seasons and was so popular it aired on two networks (ABC, then Fox) and is still seen in syndication (5 and 5:30 p.m. Monday- Saturday, WKBD-TV). But when you’re on social media, with nearly 1 million followers on Twitter, or on a stand-up comedy tour where the audience can see and hear you in person, you could almost begin to believe America can’t take a joke anymore.

Allen, who was raised in Birmingham and developed his punch-line precision at Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle in Royal Oak, performs live between his TV and movie roles, picking up the pace since Last Man Standing ceased production in 2021.

“I’ve been on the road since before COVID and all the way through it,” he says. “A very liberal comedy writer wanted to write jokes for me, and one of them was ‘Biden went to do 60 Minutes. I heard he asked how long the show was.’ I posted it on Twitter for a lark, and my God, the internet blew up!

“[Stephen] Colbert, [Jimmy] Kimmel, and [Jimmy] Fallon almost every night, and Saturday Night Live every week, did quote-unquote ‘jokes’ about the former president for years, and it became normal. I do one softball gag about Biden, and it was as though I’d committed a crime. Because I posted that, I’m immediately a Trump lover, I hate gay people, hate women. There’s a list of identity-politic bullet points, and as an anarchist comedian, none of them fit me.”

What was to be a 20-minute phone interview to promote Allen’s six-chapter miniseries The Santa Clauses, which premiered last November on Disney+ and has already been renewed for a second season in 2023, quickly evolved into an intense, hourlong discussion on the state of humor today in a deeply divided, hypersensitive post-pandemic America.

The stand-up superstars who inspired Allen to pick up a microphone — Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin — couldn’t do their material in this environment, he feels. In fact, he provides his audiences with a kind of “glossary of terms” before launching into his act.

“I mention it up front. I break the wall,” he says. “I tell them, ‘There’s a whole lot of shit I’m going to say tonight that you’re going to get pissed at. Let’s just get it out in the open. When I say this word, this is what I mean by it. Don’t sic the thought police on me.’ This anti-anything-that’s-anti-woke I just don’t understand. I’m not saying you don’t deserve to have an opinion, but when you want to cancel me or shut me up because my opinion doesn’t agree with yours, that’s different than free speech. That’s not American.”

Like many comedians, Allen, 69, has had ticket- buying audience members shout at him mid- routine, hurl curse words, and stomp out of the auditorium in a huff. Lowell Sanders, the Detroit-born stand-up who has served as Allen’s regular opening act since the two met at the Comedy Castle over 40 years ago, believes such reactions may be due, in part, to mistaken audience expectations.

“We go places, and young ushers working the show have no idea Tim is a stand-up comedian,” Sanders marvels. “They know him from The Santa Clauses or Last Man Standing. He’s always been an edgy comic and quite dirty, but he also has that image as America’s TV dad, and some people really think that’s who he is, so they don’t want to accept the language he uses. But his true fans — they know his past and they accept all of that.”

Nonetheless, Allen doesn’t still do that grunting modern-man-as-Neanderthal schtick that catapulted him to fame and inspired his breakout sitcom Home Improvement over 30 years ago, right?

“Oh yeah, I do,” Allen says matter-of-factly. “I’ve got to start with the new stuff, but eventually, people pay to see the character they remember.

“I tell my daughters all the time, ‘Tim Allen’ is an invention,” says the man born Timothy Alan Dick. “It’s like how a painting is a reflection of the artist, not the artist himself. The real me is much more introverted — a very private guy. But when I go onstage, I developed this character who is really freedom to me.”

But, as is always the case, freedom isn’t free.

“There’s a component of society right now that’s obsessed with gender and race,” Allen observes. “And they are very important. But I can’t just concentrate on them every time out. If I drive a car and I’m obsessed with the tire pressure, it’s not that tire pressure isn’t important, but if that’s all I’m thinking about, I’ll drive myself nuts. You have to look ahead and steer through the turns.

“Race and gender? Important. So is climate change and income inequality and Palestinian-Israeli conflict and pancreatic and breast cancer. There’s a lot of shit we need to focus on. Let’s get through this.”

For information on where to see Tim Allen’s live shows, visit Follow Hour Detroit for updates on season two of The Santa Clauses.

This story is part of the April 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition.