Tag Archives: Tim Allen

Celebrating the strange legacy of Tim Allen’s ‘Last Man Standing’

When ABC announced it was canceling Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing after six seasons, conservative viewers cried foul, insisting that the show was being canceled for its conservative point of view. It’s true – Hollywood tends to skew liberal (at least when it comes to the creative side), but we’re also looking at a season that saw the end of The Real O’Neals, a coming-of-age sitcom about a queer teen. Last Man Standing‘s cancellation is all the more surprising because even though it was a sleepy performer in its Friday night time slot, it was still pulling in an average of about 8 million viewers per season. ABC also canceled Dr. Ken, the other Friday night sitcom, which may mean that the network is looking to revamp its Friday night schedule.

Allen, the star and one of the executive producers of the show, has been an outspoken conservative in the last few years. He also discussed the difficulty in being conservative in Hollywood. He likened it to 1930s Germany, which goes to show you that though he’s a funny guy, he isn’t necessarily a smart guy. But Last Man Standing, which produced 130 episodes will now live in syndication on basic cable, alongside his other long-running sitcom Home Improvement, and will probably easily forgotten.

It’s easy to see why. It’s not a great sitcom. It’s an old-fashioned multi-camera sitcom, filmed live in front of an audience, with a laugh track. The actors march onto the set, hit their marks, and announce their punch lines to the merriment of the studio audience. In light of single-camera sitcoms like Modern Family and The Middle, watching Last Man Standing can be a jarring experience. The laughter – which is probably genuine with just a touch of sweetening – feels aggressive and rote. The acting is broad. The sets are laid out so that everyone is facing the audience. There’s an artificiality to Last Man Standing that feels disruptive, and the show’s limits cannot transcend the issue.

Still, it wasn’t a terrible show, and it deserves some recognition of what it was trying to do. Tim Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, wasn’t the first conservative on a TV sitcom. Two of the most famous examples would be Archie Bunker on All in the Family and Alex Keaton on Family TiesAll in the Family aired for nine seasons, from 1971 to 1979. During that time the country saw three presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. For the bulk of the show’s run, Archie Bunker became a voice of the reactionary American conservative during the Nixon and Ford administrations. When show creator Norman Lear created Archie, he wanted to lampoon the knee-jerk response to the growing progressive movement. His show aimed to ridicule the backlash to anti-war movement, feminism, gay rights, and civil rights. But the writers and star Carroll O’Connor took what could’ve been a toxic character and imbued him with dignity and appeal. His conservatism was played for laughs, and the scripts always made sure that the audience knows that Archie was wrong, but he evolved into a nuanced and complicated character, who was able to outclass Lear’s oft-preachy tone.

But Tim Allen is no Carroll O’Connor. One of the main debits of the show was its star. On Home Improvement, Allen was able to parlay his comedic persona – the grunting, wannabe Alpha-male – into an appealing sitcom character. Home Improvement was a smash hit, lodged permanently in the top 10 for all of its 8 seasons (peaking at an incredible number 2 in season three). At one point in the show’s history, over 20 million people watched Tim Allen’s Tim Taylor hurt himself in a variety of ways by misusing and abusing power tools. Even though the show was a ratings hit, critics were dismissive, and though it pops up form time to time in syndication (often paired with Last Man Standing), it’s barely remembered as an important program of the 1990s.

Despite Allen’s presence, the show still manages to say something, despite its deadening blandness. Those who defend the show’s conservatism – and those who lambaste it – are missing the point. Yeah, Mike Baxter was a conservative and he hated Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the anti-liberal jokes were incredibly soft (this could be because as Allen pointed out, most of the writers were liberals) When Mike Baxter got on a rant against something – whether it’s political correctness, gender, or taxes – he morphed into the archetypal cranky old white guy. There was little bite to what he was saying, because he wasn’t saying all that much.

And there was so much potential. The show ran during the Obama Administration when so much of the country was divided by a backlash against his progressive policies and against the fact that a Black man was running the country. Mike Baxter could’ve been a voice for that backlash – a humanizing voice that would complicated the image of the eccentric and violent yahoos who burned effigies of Obama at protests. Because the show is centered on an upper-middle class family, none of the economic issues that the country faced, namely the crawling recovery from the Great Recession, are handled in any sort of meaningful manner. During the Obama administration, queer rights had made some startling leaps forward, and the show barely mentioned queer people. The reason for this is probably because Friday nights on ABC tend to skew to family-oriented shows. In its salad days, ABC marketed Friday nights with a bloc of family sitcoms, TGIF. Such classics of mediorcrity like Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, My Two Dads, and the magnus opus of suckitude, Full House were event watching for a lot of 80s kids. So the real estate probably wasn’t the most hospitable for a hard-hitting, socially relevant sitcom.

But there’s another show in Last Man Standing, a far more interesting show that hardly anyone looks at: and that show stars Nancy Travis. Travis is TV’s most appealing character actress/comedienne, whose career is marked by an inability to find a sustaining vehicle for her abundant talents. The fact that Last Man Standing gave her work for six straight years is reason enough to praise the show because Travis is a find.

On the show, Travis played  Vanessa Baxter, a geologist who is married to Allen’s sporting goods store exec. It’s with Vanessa that the show starts to gel into something somewhat interesting. The story of how a moderately progressive, intelligent scientist can stand being married to a sometimes-blowhard like Mike Baxter makes for some solid TV watching. Unfortunately, despite Travis’ lovely presence, too often, she was pushed into the role of the straight man to Allen’s grumpy goof. Her politics skew center-left, and she supported Hillary Clinton – though her liberalism is treated much like Mike’s conservatism, it’s a trait, like “blonde” or “pretty” and there is precious little exploration into why Vanessa likes Clinton outside of her being a woman and a Democrat. One episode decent episode explored Vanessa’s personal convictions well. In it, she had to defend her support of fracking to a group of high school kids. Fracking is indefensible, and I think this was probably Allen’s influence, but it gave Vanessa some shading – something that doesn’t exist in the fictional world of Last Man Standing. If Travis was spun off into her own show, one of say, a recently widowed Vanessa Baxter working as a geologist or high school teacher, and juggling the demands of motherhood (and grandmotherhood), then I’d probably watch that show.

But Allen was the star of Last Man Standing and his comedic fingerprints are everywhere. He never worked to challenge his audiences, nor did he want them to question their assumptions. Instead, he was a genial, if slightly insufferable, dad who would grouse  about how weird kids are nowadays. Last Man Standing could’ve been a good show if it found a strong voice and stuck to it and was committed to it; instead, it coasted on being mildly dickish, sticking it to liberals, when really, they weren’t watching it anyways.

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Asshat of the week: Tim Allen

After reading an interview with comedian Tim Allen, I just shook my head, muttering, “I just can’t…I just can’t…” The former Home Improvement star was interviewed by Eric Deggans for the Tampa Bay Times about returning back to standup after years of working on television and films. The conversation then turned to disgraced TV chef Paula Deen, and Allen went on an interesting rant:

“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?”

He later goes on to say:

“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 nigger. 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.”

So there are a couple of things I’d like to hash out when writing about Allen’s idiotic word diarrhea.

Firstly, Deggans is black. Regardless of how you feel about the n-word and whether it should/can be used in polite conversations by whites, you should always, always, always remember to be courteous and sensitive when you’re addressing a black person you don’t know. It’s called public versus private language. I don’t know how Allen conducts himself in private among his friends – maybe he tosses the n-word around freely, and his black friends don’t mind, but when he leaves his private sphere, he should know better and conduct himself more carefully, showing some kind of decency and respect to a black man he’s addressing in a public sphere. My gut instinct tells me that Allen’s lack of guile comes from years of being coddled as a celebrity, which translates into an inflated sense of ego and a deflated sense of self-awareness. He never had to pull his punches with people, and so I’m not sure if he knows how to now.

So, that’s first – a quick reminder to all white folks – even if your black friends are totally cool with you using the n-word, don’t presume every black person is like your friends, and don’t presume that every black person will be okay with your use of that word.

Two. Allen claims that when he’s with Martin Lawrence, who will use the n-word as a term of endearment – even toward Allen – he finds it confusing to his European mind (his words, not mine) that it’s not okay for him to use the word. Sometimes, I feel like I’m a broken record when discussing this issue, but I’ll have to say it again: white people cannot use that word and expect a pass, even if they hear black people using that word – there’s an admitted double standard, because black people can use that word and white people cannot.

I never understood why there’s this bottomless need for some whites to use that word – it’s as if they don’t have enough white privilege – they also want to be able to use racial slurs in any way they feel appropriate, but then be immune from charges of insensitivity and racism. Sorry, guys, it just doesn’t work that way.

And why is Allen so confused? I don’t think he’s a stupid person, so I don’t understand what’s so confusing – white people can’t use that word. Period. The history and present of white people using that word is attached to ugliness, violence, discrimination, segregation, and oppression. If black people have co-opted that word to remove the sting, that’s up to them – as whites, we don’t have the authority, nor do we have the currency (moral or otherwise) to dictate how black people address one another, or how black people appropriate certain words.

It’s not just black people, by the way. Gays embraced queer – a word once used as a slur, now is embraced by some LGBT folks as a badge of courage, and a political label – one who is queer disrupts the status quo when it comes to sexual roles and gender mores. So, it’s okay if a gay person calls herself a queer – but I wouldn’t suggest to a straight man that he goes up to a group of lesbians and start calling the ladies queers unless he’s ready to run.

Another thing that gets to me is Allen’s willful obtuseness. In his interview, he cites a definition of the n-word as ” unemployed and indigent dock worker.” So he feels if he knows someone  – his brother in his dumb example – who fits that description, it’s fine to call that individual the n-word. I see, so not only does Allen feel entitled to use that word which is rightfully taboo among whites, but he also feels he can bend and twist the definition to fit his own, limited world view.

And then he laments that he can’t use certain words as a comedian. Ah, poor guy – so because he can’t use racial slurs, that means he’s going to have to think extra hard about how to be funny (maybe more grunts?). And by the way, the n-word is used in comedy – Chris Rock has a legendary bit where he deconstructs the word; Sarah Silverman has also used that word – although with Silverman the joke is on her, and not on black people – her comedic persona is that of an ignorant bigot who doesn’t realize how ridiculous she sounds (and Allen’s conduct during the interview is exactly the kind of thing Silverman skewers in her act). And it’s clear in Allen’s responses, that he’s not interested in intellectually dissecting the word, nor does he want to project an image of the knuckle-dragging racist – he just wants to say the word, and feels stifled because he can’t.

Not surprisingly Allen’s boneheaded remarks were condemned by some media pundits, including the brilliant Michael Eric Dyson who said, “Look, y’all [white people] invented the n-word. We didn’t invent it. We just co-opted it. We hijacked it. We did a carjacking on that word a few decades ago, and now you’re mad because we’ve made more sexy use of it—some denigration as well. And now you want back in? No, you can’t have back in… He says it’s confusing to me. It ain’t confusing! Here’s a general rule of thumb to follow when using the n-word for white people. Never. When you do that, then you understand you can’t do it.”

And I think Dyson really hit the nerve of Allen’s problem: it’s an issue of entitlement and imagined persecution. We’ve seen many people defend Paula Deen and George Zimmerman, complaining of this Big Brother-esque PC police ready to monitor how one speaks, how one thinks, and how one behaves in public. In Deen’s case in particular I read many arguments that run the line of “It’s a free country!” or “What happened to free speech?” Or “I hate this PC crap!” or “This is liberalism gone crazy!”

First of all, racial sensitivity should not be a liberal versus conservative notion. It’s an insult to liberals and it’s an insult to good, fair conservatives who are interesting in racial equality and are coming from a place of good faith. To assume that racial sensitivity is a concern only for liberals is to assume that conservatives, by nature, are racists – and I refuse to do that.

Secondly, we do live in a free country, where people like Allen can spout off nonsense like that – but even though we are a country with the freedom of speech, we are not a country with freedom from consequence. And Allen, and everyone else who stands around shrugging about why the n-word is so bad, should be prepared to be schooled.

But going back to Dyson’s point about entitlement – this is what Allen’s issue lies at – he feels his freedom is somehow hampered because there’s a word he wants to say, but can’t. It’s a rare moment for a rich, white, straight man when he’s told what he can and cannot do, and I guess he doesn’t like it very much. He’s cast himself as a kind of martyred victim to political correctness, wrapping himself in the hallowed reputations of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.

I also found it interesting that when Allen talked about Deen, he only mentioned her admission of using the n-word, when clearly that is not why so many people were appalled by her behavior – it wasn’t just the n-word; in fact, I’d venture to say that if she did use the n-word sporadically until the year 1986, and then went cold turkey, and behaved appropriately, we wouldn’t have an issue with her. It was also the warm nostalgia she had for when black people were servants to whites, exemplified by her idea for a Southern plantation-style wedding (it’s important to note that a key detail for this wedding was that the entire wait staff were to be nattily-dressed middle-aged black men). It’s the alleged atmosphere of racial hostility that was condoned in Deen’s restaurant. But Allen, like a lot of whites, trivialized and reduced the justified anger to a word she might’ve used almost 30 years ago.

It’s clear from all this that the United States is still struggling to understand its complicated racial discourse. Allen claims we’re going “backwards” and in a certain respect, we might be – because the backlash against racial sensitivity is gaining momentum and strength because its proponents have been able to present themselves as hapless, oppressed victims of political correctness gone wild. They have cast themselves not as nefarious bigots, but as well-meaning, but genuinely befuddled and “confused” people, who cannot keep up with the current PC trends. These are the same people who claim ignorance to why it’s wrong to compare the president or the first lady to apes; or why it’s offensive to refer to certain black people as “well-spoken” or “articulate”; or why saying somebody’s “ghetto trash” is appalling. If milequetoast, middle-of-the-road, family entertainers like Allen are struggling with this issue, then we really have a long road ahead of us.

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