Our special guest this week is the legendary stand-up comedian, Tom Dreesen of Sherman Oaks, CA, father of three and outspoken advocate for father involvement.
Tom has appeared on stage with presidents and show-biz royalty, including most famously, as the long-time opening act for the chairman of the board, Frank Sinatra.
Tom’s made more than 500 TV appearances often as a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Late Show with David Letterman and hosted the show in David’s absence.
Tom also has a number of acting credits, including the following television series: Columbo, WKRP in Cincinnati and Murder, She Wrote, and in such films as Spaceballs, The Rat Pack and Trouble with the Curve. Starting in 2013 he began appearing around the country in a one man show called “An Evening of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra.”
He is also the author two books Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White and more recently a memoir entitled: Still Standing…My Journey from Streets and Saloons to the Stage, and Sinatra.
Tom’s been a long-time friend of our host David Hirsch and the two got together recently to talk about Tom’s life work and about the supreme importance that fathers hold in our society.
It’s a funny, entertaining and heartwarming conversation which we’ll hear in two parts on The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
In part one, this week, we’ll hear about Tom’s early life, in Harvey, IL, including how his uncle was actually his biological father and why he kept that secret for more than 50 years. We also learn about how Tom got his start as a comedian teaming up with Tim Reid for the first (and only) black and white comedy team.
Show Notes –
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/tom-dreesen-2b27b4b/
Still Standing: My Journey From Streets & Saloons To The Stage & Sinatra – https://www.amazon.com/Still-Standing-Journey-Streets-Saloons/dp/163758394X/ref=sr_1_2?crid=3F8ZIEZ3X8TF4&keywords=Tom+Dreesen+books&qid=1682078486&sprefix=tom+dreesen+books%2Caps%2C133&sr=8-2
Tim & Tom: An American Comedy In Black & White – https://www.amazon.com/Tim-Tom-American-Comedy-Black/dp/0226709000/ref=sr_1_4?crid=3F8ZIEZ3X8TF4&keywords=Tom+Dreesen+books&qid=1682078604&sprefix=tom+dreesen+books%2Caps%2C133&sr=8-4
Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Dreesen
Tom Couch: Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast, working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at HorizonTherapeutics.com.
Tom Dreesen: Now that you’re president of the United States, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? He said, I’m gonna get Congress to enact the law that dead people are not allowed to vote in Chicago and in the audience.
Tom Couch: That’s our special guest, the legendary standup comedian Tom Dreesen. Tom’s appeared on stage with presidents and showbiz royalty, including most famously as the longtime opening act for the chairman of the board, Frank Sinatra.
Tom Dreesen: It’s hard to describe what it was like being in that rarefied air. It’s hard to describe what it was like walking out in front of 20,000 people, and not one of them came to see you. They came to see him.
Tom Couch: Tom’s been a long time friend of our host, David Hirsch, and the two got together recently to talk about Tom’s life work and about the supreme importance that fathers hold in our society. It’s a funny, entertaining, and heartwarming conversation, which we’ll hear in two parts on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. And now here’s our host, David Hirsch, to tell you about an important event in his life.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to The Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network. Please support the 21st Century Dads Foundation by contributing to Dads Honor Ride 2023, which is a 3,100-mile seven-day bicycle ride taking place from June 17th to the 24th, starting in Oceanside, California and ending in Annapolis, Maryland. I’m one of the four riders and would really appreciate your support. Please make a tax-deductible contribution by going to 21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org. So now let’s hear part one as Tom Dreesen talks to David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with my friend Tom Dreesen of Sherman Oaks, California, the father of three, grandfather of four, and great-grandfather of two. Tom is a highly respected standup comedian who opened for Smokey Robinson, Tony Orlando, Gladys Knight, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. He’s made more than 500 TV appearances, often as the guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Late Show with David Letterman and hosted the show in David’s absence.
Tom also has a number of acting credits. The following television series: Colombo, WKRP in Cincinnati, and Murder, She Wrote, and in such films as Spaceballs, The Rat Pack, and Trouble with the Curve. Starting in 2013, he began appearing around the country in a one man show called An Evening of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra.
He is also the author of two books: Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White, published in 2008 and more recently, a memoir entitled Still Standing…: My Journey From Streets and Saloons to the Stage, and Sinatra. Tom, thank you for doing a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Tom Dreesen: Thank you, David. It’s good to be back with you again. We’re friends and been friends for a long time. So it’s always fun to be with you.
David Hirsch: Like you said, we’ve been friends for the better part of two decades. We’ve done a lot of fundraising events together, including more than a dozen golf outings, and you’ve been an outspoken advocate for the importance of father involvement. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Tom Dreesen: I grew up in Harvey, Illinois. Harvey’s a suburb on the south side of Chicago, and at that time it was a thriving metropolis of steel mills and factories. They made everything from clutch plates to crank shafts. There was also like 38 taverns in Harvey, and all the men that worked in the steel mills, blue collar guys, they would go to the bar after their shift. So I grew up around saloons. I had eight brothers and sisters. We lived in a shack. We were very poor. And being poor like that, I was a third child, there were eight of us, so I had to help feed my brothers and sisters. So I shined shoes in taverns. I set pins in bowling alleys, I caddied in the summertime, I sold newspapers on the corner, I had a paper route. All to help bring home money to feed my brothers and sisters, and none of this do I regret.
Also, at that time, my father was alcoholic. He only drank beer, but he drank a lot of beer. In those days they never said, is somebody an alcoholic? That was like, you never said that word. My mom would always say, your father likes his beer. I said mom, he likes your beer and the neighbor’s beer, [laughing] and he liked to gamble a little bit, thus putting my brother and I out there shining shoes and all that stuff.
But I don’t regret any of this. I really don’t. I’m a motivational speaker as well as a standup comedian, and I oftentimes bring up that childhood and say, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I really believe that it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Life is all about perception to me. It’s how you perceive it.
And I always give the analogy, a little boy goes in the backyard and he’s got a bat and a ball, and he says, I’m the greatest hitter in the world. And he throws a ball up in the air and he swings, and he misses. He said, I’m the greatest hitter in the world. He throws it up the second time and he swings, and he misses. He said, I am the greatest hitter in the world, and he throws it up the third time and he misses. He said, I’m the greatest pitcher in the world. [laughing] Changed his perception. So yeah that’s who I was, growing up that poor in Harvey, Illinois.
David Hirsch: So what did your dad do for a living?
Tom Dreesen: He at one time was a methods engineer, a time study man. He worked in factories. He used to work for Liberty McNeil in Blue Island, Illinois. And then he worked in Riverdale at Acme Steel. He kept drinking and eventually quit working at one point in his life. He just threw the towel in and just drank.
A nice man, not an unkind man, not an evil man. He never hit me or anything, or took out his drinking on me, but he just threw in the towel. And then, for a period of time in my life, my mom threw the towel in with him and started to drink with him. And those were real tough times at that time. They were both drinking heavy. She was a bartender in a bar, and I always joked that she took a job in the tavern as a bartender so she could spend some quality time with my dad. [laughing] Cause he spent most of his time in those bars.
Anyhow, so alcohol became a major part of my childhood and I grew up with an alcoholic mentality. My father would say things like, See that guy over there, Tommy, he can go in any bar in this town and get respect, or he can go in any bar in this town and get credit. So my growing up as a child, I’m thinking well, to be a success, you gotta go into any bar, you gotta be able to be a big name in the bars. And the men that owned taverns in my neighborhood were stars. They had their name on the marquee out in front: Sparrows Tavern, Allen’s Corner Club, Polizzi’s Tavern. So they were like stars to my father and to me growing up, shining shoes in these bars, the owners of these taverns were big deals.
And as a child, I used to dream that one day I would own a tavern cuz I thought that was the epitome of success in the world because that’s where my father spent all of his money. So I thought they were the epitome of success. That’s why I have always understood when a young kid in the ghetto says, I wanna become a pimp or a drug pusher or something. Cuz those are the only successful men they saw in their environment. Those men had new cars and nice clothes and wads of hundred dollar bills. So I understood that.
It’s when I went to caddying in the summertime at a place called Ravisloe Country Club. It was an all Jewish country club in Homewood, Illinois, and the members were very successful men and women. I started caddying for lawyers and doctors and Mr. Florsheim who owned Florsheim shoes and successful men, and they treated me like a son, not like a slave or anything. And all of a sudden, after a couple years in that environment, I thought maybe I could be more than just a bartender in a tavern. Maybe I could be more cuz I had never been inside of that kind of environment before.
So I understand young boys who, especially boys who don’t have a father in the home or have a father like mine who drank a lot.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for sharing. And you talk about this in your book. It was years into your childhood or maybe young adulthood that you came to learn that the guy who raised you, Walter Dreesen, was not your actual biological father. And what’s the backstory there?
Tom Dreesen: Yeah, it was a kind of an interesting thing. My mom was a bartender at Polizzi’s Tavern. That was her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. And as I was growing up, my brothers and sisters were fair. They had blonde hair, blue eyes. I looked so much like my cousins, like Frank Polizzi’s sons. He had two sons and I looked just like them. And in fact, one of ’em and I were born on the same day, September 11th, although he was older than me, but we shared the same birthday. And oftentimes when I was a little boy going places around Harvey, people would say, hey, Polizzi! And I’d say, my name is not Polizzi, my name is Dreesen. They’d say, oh. I’d say Polizzi’s my uncle. They’d go, oh. And I think they connected maybe my mom as his sister or something like that. But in truth, it was her brother-in-law. I’m 13 years old, 14 years old. I now know where babies come from and I start thinking about my mom and maybe having an affair with her brother-in-law, my uncle by marriage, and I thought, I didn’t want to think that my mom and dad did this, let alone my mom and my uncle. [laughing]
Anyhow. But he was a very tough guy. He was a wonderful guy who loved me. He was my favorite uncle, of course. And I’m gonna digress from how I got to confront him with it. But when I would shine shoes in all the bars, I would always go to all the taverns in my neighborhood. There were eight in my neighborhood. And I would go to his tavern last, cuz that’s where my mother was a bartender.
And also I’d wait for the shifts to change in the factories and go back out to the bars again, and my uncle Frank Polizzi would tell jokes behind the bar. And that fascinated me. I was so fascinated. This guy with his vocabulary, with his vernacular, he would tell a joke and when he hit that punch line, the laughter would fill the room like electricity and unite all these people. They would all be united. And that fascinated me. And I used to emulate him. I used to tell his jokes, many that should not be told on a Catholic school playground, [laughing] but he was my hero.
And he was a tough guy. He took no crap from anybody, anytime, anywhere. In my book, I even explained that one time, the Mafia, the syndicate in our neighborhood brought the jukebox into his bar and he told him to get it out of there. He had already bought a little old hundred-dollar jukebox in those days that played 78s. And they said, we can’t do that. We supply this. He took a two-wheeler and he took it outside and threw it on the sidewalk. It broke. And the mob guy from Blue Island, Illinois, a guy named Babe Tuffanelli came to the tavern and my mom and my aunt were saying the rosary. But he stood right in his face and he told him, I’ve got my own jukebox. I worked in a factory for years to buy this place. And anyhow, and finally the mob guy said to him, I’m gonna let you keep your jukebox, but if you ever leave this business, I want you to come and work for me. And he said, I’d never worked for you because he hated, he was Italian Mafia, he hated the whole thing about him. So this is the kind of man. He would throw Teamsters out of that bar two at a time if they swore in the bar. There were women in the tavern. So I knew he was a tough guy.
But I wanted to come to him. And I went to him one day when I was like 13 years old and I said, I need to talk to you. And we went for a walk and he said, what is it? And I told him, I said, I think you’re my father. And he said, why would you say a thing like that? And I said, cuz I don’t look at all like my brothers and sisters and I look like your sons. And people are always calling me Polizzi. And I think that’s where I came from. And I was really scared. I was just a kid.
And he said, he took a little while and he said it’s right. It’s true, and you can go tell the world now, but you would ruin your mom and dad’s marriage and you’d ruin mine too. He said but you have the right to tell that. And I said, I don’t really want to tell anybody. I just needed to know.
And I didn’t talk to him for a while, long while after that. And I felt uncomfortable in his presence, to be honest with you. And then I went in the Navy when I was 17 years old, and I came home on leave. By that time I was, I didn’t care who planted the seed. I’m here, kind of friends and closer. And then we really got close, and it was our secret. And I kept it till everybody was gone. I kept it. And then finally I told about it.
But let me digress for a second. There was a carnival in Blue Island, Illinois in the town next to Harvey that every year was an Italian carnival. And it was St. Donatus Church. And every time I went to that carnival, it was all Italian, the food Italian, the music Italian… When I was a little boy I always felt a kinship, and I don’t know, I felt like I belonged there. It’s a strange thing that, when I thought back on it, I always felt like I belonged in that environment before I thought I was Italian before I ever knew I was.
So we remained friends until his… He would on his death bed… By that time I was doing Tonight Shows and national television and he was dying. And I went to the hospital. I was sitting by his bedside and to the end, he was a tough guy. He said to me, do you have any bad feelings about knowing I’m your father? And I said, no. He said, don’t hold back because I don’t have long to live. If you had something you want to get off your chest or anything, please do it now. I said, no, I don’t. He said, you don’t have any regrets. I said, I don’t have any. I said everything I own, everything I am, everything I’m about, probably came because I came from you. So no, I don’t have any regrets. I said, do you have any regrets? He said, the only regret I have, he said, whenever I see you on national television and I’m in the bar with all my friends, I can’t say to them, that’s my boy. He said, that’s the only regret I have. And I said I’ll tell you what, cuz he had sung in a band. He had a band called Frank Polizzii and the Commissionaires. So I said one day I’ll win an award in show business. I’ll win something in show business and I’ll accept that in your name. And that’s the only time I ever saw him cry. He turned his head away and he had tears in his eyes. So that’s my story.
David Hirsch: That’s a really powerful story, Tom, and thank you for recalling it. It was an amazing gift that you provided him by keeping that to yourself or yourselves and preserving his relationship with your aunt and your mom’s relationship with your dad until they were all gone and I think it speaks to your character and the discipline that you have, right?
You didn’t get to where you are cuz you were undisciplined. You grew up in some pretty hard scrabble situations and I think that no doubt it’s why you made reference to the fact that you are who you are because of those experiences. And you made passing reference to serving in the Navy. And I’m wondering if you can recall your Navy experience.
Tom Dreesen: I was a high school dropout. At 16, I’m going to school with holes in my shoes and raggedy clothes. And you recall high school what that was like, that the kids dressed to the nines if they could and would have their father’s car or whatever. And I’m this poor kid with holes in my shoes and sometimes the sole flapping when I’m walking through the halls.
And I just, I didn’t belong, I didn’t feel like I belonged in that environment, even though I was a smart kid. I could get good grades, but I couldn’t do homework in the shack. I lived in there. Sometimes we didn’t have heat in the wintertime. We had an old coal stove that I used to, my brother and I used to go steal coal from the coal yard. Anyhow, I finally dropped outta high school my sophomore year and I start running with a pretty tough crowd, getting in street fights and things like that, and getting in a little bit of trouble with the law. And then when I was 17 years old, the day I turned 17 I got in the Navy. A judge helped me get in the Navy.
And then my life changed because all of a sudden here I am in bootcamp, they shave your head. Everybody gets their head shaved and we all wore the same clothes. So for the first time in my life, I was equal. You could judge me as a man, not by, as teenagers judge you by what you’re wearing or you know what you’re driving. And all of a sudden I was equal to all the others in my company.
And getting three squares a day. I’d never had three meals a day as a kid growing up in that shack. Also, we had no bathtub and no shower when I was growing up in that shack. So now, I can stand in the shower and let hot water flow on me as much as I want. I just thought it was fantastic. And for breakfast it was ground beef on toast. I thought I was in heaven! I said, you gonna finish that? Let me help you if you don’t want it. I saw all the things people were complaining about. I had my own bed! So the military changed my life.
And also I learned discipline. I learned discipline and promptness and things like that. I learned a lot of things in the service I should have been learning from a father. Your company commander and stuff like that. Sometimes they could be a father or you’re platoon leader, but he’d be a tough father, some of ’em. And some of ’em were nice but nonetheless, I was learning all that.
And then I came outta bootcamp, went over to Quonset Point. I went to Newport, Rhode Island first. And I got on a boxing team. I boxed for a little bit and then I went over to Quonset Point and the squadron called Naval Air Torpedo Unit, NATU. And while I was in the squadron they start taking a Navy man from every squadron and put him in a Marine Corps unit called NEGDF, Naval Emergency Ground Defense Force.
So now I’m training with the Marine Corps and they really taught me discipline. They had to put my rear end my whole time in with them. But I learned that after a while that discipline was a form of love. They were teaching us, they were taking the punk out of us, taking the street punk out of us, turning us into young men and also teaching you that when the sh** hits the fan, you better be ready.
And my drill instructor once said to me after the one week of training called Hell Week, he said, Dreesen, the rest of your life, you’ll judge every man you meet by if when the sh** hits the fan, do I want to be in a foxhole with him? And he’s right. I’ve judged men in my mind subconsciously sometimes. Boy, if it ever hit the fan, I don’t wanna be in the foxhole with him, or vice versa.
But it taught you the discipline, it taught you responsibility, personal responsibility. And so those four years in the military really changed my life.
David Hirsch: So thanks for sharing. So when you came out of the military, I’m wondering where did your career take you or where were you pointing?
Tom Dreesen: I was wondering aimlessly. I got married, I had children. Next thing you know, I got three children. I’m working on a loading dock for the Teamsters. I became a Teamster, and then I loaded trucks, and then I dropped my card and became management. So all the Teamster guys I worked with, I now was their foreman. So that was really a tough assignment.
But I did that. I tended bar, I always tended bar part-time. I worked construction. I went from job to job. My brother was a photographer. I started helping him in that business. I became a private detective for Don Polizzi. Frank Polizzii’s son was my cousin, truthfully was my half-brother. He had a detective agency called Polizzi Detective Agency. So I worked for that.
I just wandered aimlessly and I kept thinking, everywhere I turned around, I didn’t belong there. I couldn’t find myself being fulfilled. Sometimes I’d be in a bar with my buddies at one or two o’clock in the morning. I’d look around and say, I don’t belong here, but I didn’t know where I belonged.
And I started to pray. I really started. I went to Catholic school as a boy. And I always had a relationship with God. And let me digress for a moment there. When I was a little boy going to first grade, the nuns start talking about we had a father in heaven, and He sent his son down here to tell us about his father. And then they taught us the prayer about the father that his son came to, our father who are in heaven.
As a little boy, I didn’t have a dad that I could go to. Again, he wasn’t a mean guy, but he was drinking all the time. So I began to pray to this father in heaven that I believed that I had. All my life, even my childhood, my years in the military, whenever there was a problem, I would pray to this father. So here I was out of the service now wandering aimlessly, and I was praying to this father, my father in heaven, show me what… This can’t be what I’m supposed to be doing.
Anyhow, I joined a city group called the Jaycees, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and they worked on all the problems of the community. Whatever problems were in the community, they taught you how to attack that problem by being a chairman on the committee, serving on the committee, how to form committees, subcommittees, and how to attack the problems in your community.
I wrote a drug education program. One of the biggest problems in our community was our young men and women using drugs. So I wrote a drug education program, teaching grade school children the ills of drug abuse with humor. A concept I had getting the kids laughing and playing music, getting their attention, and then planting the seeds of the ills of drug abuse. They weren’t teaching drug abuse training at that time in high school or college, let alone at an eighth grade level.
And that’s what I wanted to do. Get to the kids before they got into high school. In many cases, we found out were even too late in eighth grade. Now, I proposed this at a Jaycee meeting one night, wanting the Jaycees to sanction this as a Jaycee project. At the end of the meeting, a young black man comes up to me and said, gee, I’d like to work with you on this project.
It was his first day there. He had graduated from Norfolk State College in Norfolk, Virginia, and E.I. DuPont recruited him into Chicago as a marketing rep. And he joined the Jaycees. In that very first meeting he said, can I help you? I said, gee, I already have a guy. I had a white friend named John DeBoer that was gonna help me. But I’m praying to God at that time, and God interfered.
The next day, John DeBoer calls me and said, gee, I can’t do that. I just got a new job. I said, okay. I said, gee, what was that black guy’s name? Oh yeah. Tim Reid. So I call him up. We get together, we rehearse the program over and over. We go into the classroom.
The moment we hit that classroom, I knew it was a godsend because the children were black and white and it was integrated schools and they saw we were two young guys, a black guy and a white guy. We got their attention immediately and we started doing jokes off of one another, making the kids laugh, poking fun at one another, and then finally planting the seeds of the ills of drug abuse. The program became number one in 50 states and in 22 foreign countries where Jayceess were through their publications as a model program on how to teach elementary school children the ills of drug abuse.
One day, a little eighth grade girl walking outta the classroom said to Tim and I, you guys are funny. You ought to become a comedy team. [laughing] It intrigued us. No one had ever done that before. And we start writing what we thought was the material. We became America’s first black and white comedy team, and history shows we were the last. And you read the book, Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White.
[Excerpt from The Late Show with David Letterman]
David Letterman: So this was a big life change, and an unusual one cause nobody was doing it, there wasn’t a black and white comedy team.
Tom Dreesen: Ever.
David Letterman: I don’t think. There never has been.
Tom Dreesen: We’re America’s first black and white comedy team and we are the last.
David Letterman: Until McCain and Obama. [laughter]
[End of excerpt from The Late Show with David Letterman]
David Hirsch: So you didn’t take your show on the road though?
Tom Dreesen: There were no comedy clubs in those days. So we worked all black clubs in the north and the south which they affectionately called the Chitlin Circuit. Black-owned, black-operated nightclubs in Chicago. The High Chaparral, Burning Spear, The Dating Club Lounge, Guys and Gals, The Cotton Club. In Detroit, Motown was still in Detroit in those days, so it was The 20 Grand. In Boston, The Sugar Shack. In Atlantic City before gambling, was The Club Harlem. So we worked all these black-owned black-operated clubs where I’d be the only white guy. And then we worked all white night clubs where Tim would be the only black guy.
Now keep in mind, this is 1969, 70. The Civil Rights Act had been passed in ’64. We were only five years removed from that. Jim Crow was out there everywhere. Clubs were integrated. They didn’t integrate, black folks went to black clubs, and white folks went to white clubs. But Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. There were riots all across the land. One of the biggest in the country was in Harvey, Illinois, in the neighborhood I grew up in. And also students were protesting the Vietnam War. America was in turmoil. And here we were going across the land, trying to make people laugh.
We did 11 prisons in one year. We did colleges, high schools. Anywhere there was racial tension, we would go perform. Again, we weren’t preaching, we were just trying to make people laugh. Everywhere you went in that era, people would say, we need more discourse among the races. What we need is more discourse among the races. You know what they’re saying today, 52 years later? We need more discourse among the races! Tim and I were having a discourse that America wasn’t having.
And I’ll close with this, of all the things that I’ve done in my career, gone on afterward, and Tim would go along with me on this. The most rewarding things that I remember, I can’t tell you how many times Tim Reid and I went somewhere where there was racial tension and made the kids laugh. And a young white kid would come up to us afterward and say, I have a black friend that I’d like to reach out to, but if I do, the white guys are gonna call me all kinds of names. But after watching you and Tim up on stage today, I’m gonna reach out to my black friend. And then a black kid would come up and say, I have a white friend that I’d like to reach out to, but if I do, the brothers are gonna all get on my back. But after watching you and Tim, I’m gonna reach out to my white friend.
That happened more than you’ll ever know wherever we went. That pleased me more than any awards that you could bestow upon me or any accolades. That really means, meant a lot to me then, and so does to this day.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thanks for sharing. And it is something that you recall in the book, Tim and Tom. And I’m wondering if you can just share one, maybe anecdotal story, like from one of the sets that you did.
Tom Dreesen: One of the things we did, we attacked every stereotype that blacks had about whites and every one whites had about blacks. We would attack the stereotypes. We did a routine where Tim taught me how to be black. It was interesting. The cover of that book, Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White, is a picture of Tim and I on stage at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago, which is now Gibson’s Steakhouse. But at that time we were doing a routine where Tim, I was interviewing the first black president of the United States. [laughing] So were we ahead of our time? Hah! I like to think that.
One of the lines was, now that you’re president of the United States, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? He said, I’m gonna get Congress to enact the law that dead people are not allowed to vote in Chicago. [laughing] And then the audience would laugh, and I’d say, second thing you’re gonna do, he said, I’m gonna get Congress to enact the law that live people are not allowed to vote in Mississippi. [laughing]
And there was another routine where I took him to meet my Italian father. And then there were a lot of routines we did that had nothing to do with race at all. But again, we were having the discourse that America was not having. And oftentimes people didn’t know who Tim and Tom were. We’d go in a tough club, we’d go up on stage and they’d say, and the crowd’s talking and babbling and waiters and waitresses, and there’s a comedy team of Tim and Tom, we’d walk on stage and you’d hear a pin drop. They go, woo! What is this all about? Because in those days, you didn’t see a black guy and a white guy walking down the street together, let alone on a stage together.
Tim: Look, man, you’re a black, man. This is your idea. I’m already black. Now you wait for the bus. Now I’m coming up. Check me out now. Remember, we brothers.
Tom: We brothers.
Tim: In the ghetto.
Tom: In the ghetto.
Tim: Hey, what’s happening, jack? My main man! Say, look here baby. This way I catch Big Mac. I gotta ease uptown. Get me some new rags. A couple fronts. Pack Gators. Go check them traps. Do a little night crawling through the hood.
Tom: That’s outta sight, man. I didn’t know you spoke a foreign language.
Tim: That’s ghetto talk, man. That’s the way you talk in the hood.
Tom: In the hood?
Tim: The neighborhood. Just walk up here and repeat what I just said. Come on now. I’m waiting for the bus. Hey, baby!
Tom: Look here, man. This is why I catch big rag. I gotta slide up town and buy a bus. There are some alligators stuck in my traps. I’m gonna go crawl through tonight with a hood on.
Tim: No, Tom. Don’t you ever crawl through a black neighborhood with a hood on. Let’s get outta here.
[End of audio excerpt]
David Hirsch: Yeah. I wish we could delve more into it, but fascinating. And for those that are interested, I think the book, Tim and Tom would be a great read.
Tom Couch: We’ll be back with more of the conversation on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast in just a few moments. But first, this quick message. Please help 21st Century Dads gather research on families raising children with special needs by having them complete the Special Fathers Network Early Intervention Parents Survey. A link to the survey can be found in the show notes. As a token of our appreciation, each person, mom or dad, who completes the survey will receive a Great Dad Coin. Thank you. Now, back to the conversation.
David Hirsch: You did get your start in comedy officially with the Tim and Tom duo that you just talked about, and I’m wondering what took you out to LA? Where did you get your official start?
Tom Dreesen: The comedy team split up. Tim wanted to be more of an actor, the team split, so it broke my heart. I had never been on stage alone before. I’d only been on stage with Tim. I thought we were gonna become, and my dream and my setting goals, like I learned how to do, we were gonna become America’s greatest comedy team. That was my goal. And when the team split up, it just crushed me.
And I was sitting in a bar one night in Harvey where I used to tend bar, a place called Asoki, and a friend of mine owned it. They were closing up and I actually had two beers in front of me. And I’m sitting in this bar and I’m thinking, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? I didn’t wanna get outta show business.
My wife wanted me out of show business. She hated show business. She hated everything about it. And I don’t blame her. She didn’t marry a comedian. She married a working guy. Her father worked in a factory his whole life and brought a check home every Friday for 40 something years. So this precarious business of show business where you never knew if you were gonna… There were times I didn’t make any money for a whole month or more. So she wanted me outta this. Now I’m sitting in a bar and I thought, okay, what can I do? I was always good at alternatives. I said I could get another black guy and do the same act that Tim and I were doing, or I could go it alone and become a standup, or I could get a job in a factory and give up this dream of mine of show business and please my wife.
And I made up my mind at the bar. I said I know what I’m gonna be. I’m gonna become a standup comedian on my own. And I’m at the bar. I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, and I start, as I always do, I set goals. I said, what’s my goal? I want to get on The Tonight Show. In 1975, wherever you went in America, people say, what do you do for a living? You say, I’m a standup comedian. The next question out of their mouth was, oh yeah. Have you ever been on Johnny Carson? If you hadn’t been on Johnny Carson in the eyes of America you just weren’t a comedian. You might wanna be one. You might going to be one, but you weren’t one now. So that one show. Freddie Prinze did one appearance on that show. He got a sitcom the next day. So that was the show.
So I’m sitting at the bar and I’m thinking of that. Okay, that’s what I wanna be. I’m gonna be a standup comedian. My goal is to get to The Tonight Show. And I remembered a book I read, Positive Mental Attitude by Clement Stone, W. Clement Stone. And in it he said, if there’s something noble you want to do, search your life and see if there’s something that can deter you from that noble achievement and get it outta your life. And I sat in that bar. I said, what could stop me if I wanted to be a standup comedian and get to The Tonight Show? And I thought about it and I said, alcohol. I love to drink beer like my father. And I pushed the two beers that I had in front of me. It was closing time anyhow. But my friend came down the end of the bar and he said, you through for the night, Tommy? I said, I quit. He said, yeah, you’re through for the night. I said, I quit. I’m never drinking again. He said, yeah, I’ll see you here tomorrow. And I never touched it again.
And I achieved all the goal. I went to the West coast. I got on at The Comedy Store, Mitzi Shore had The Comedy Store out in LA where I live now. I finally got on and I worked my way through the system and became one of the stars of The Comedy Store. And I finally got The Tonight Show to come and see me. And then I got The Tonight Show.
Tom Couch: And that wraps up our first part of David Hirsch’s interview with Tom Dreesen. Tune in next week for part two when we’ll hear Tom say,
Tom Dreesen: If you like me, if you’re Protestant say a prayer for me. If you’re Catholic light a candle. If you’re Jewish, somebody in your family owns a nightclub. Tell ’em about me, will you? And I walked through the curtain. [laughing]
Tom Couch: That’s next time on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast.
The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to Facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad”. Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch.
Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at HorizonTherapeutics.com.