There’s a riddle that showbiz types in Hollywood enjoy sharing with colleagues who’ve just arrived from the opposite coast: What do you fly over on the way from New York to Los Angeles? The answer: ”the audience.” It’s not the most sidesplitting joke, but it’s a helpful one for people trying to understand, among other things, the Tim Allen phenomenon. The gigantically popular Michigan-bred stand-up comic-turned-sitcom star is one of the few examples that Hollywood can point to as evidence that yes, it is so in touch with America.
Allen’s persona — on the ABC series Home Improvement, in his comedy routines, and in his big-screen leading man debut, The Santa Clause (1994, Walt Disney, PG, $19.99) — is that of a reasonably responsible, unreasonably put-upon Middle American husband and father whose great escape from his duties lies in what he calls ”men’s stuff.” At least that’s what he calls it when he’s not on cable; on another new cassette, Tim Allen Rewires America (1991, Paramount, unrated, $12.95), originally a Showtime special, his catchphrase occasionally changes to ”men’s s — -.” And of what does this men’s whatever actually consist? Here’s a clue.
Allen comes close to getting a standing ovation from his Rewires America audience when he rhapsodizes about ”a garage with a drain.” A lot of critics cringe at that sort of thing. But that’s a reflex action, not a considered judgment; most critics are urbanites who have spent much of their lives trying to escape from the world of power tools, safety goggles, and, yes, garages with drains that Allen so enthusiastically extols.
Still, for his turn in The Santa Clause, Allen tones down his explorations of hardware-based masculinity. Here he’s merely a divorced dad who can’t cook and knows a lot about the local roadways. Scott Calvin, a toy salesman whose son is reluctantly staying with him on Christmas Eve, mistakes Kris Kringle for a prowler and knocks him off the roof. On inspecting the suit, Calvin finds a card, the fine print of which says he’s now got Santa’s job whether he likes it or not; he and his son are summarily rushed to the North Pole for training. As grotesque as the scenario might sound, it’s played out with fluffy cuteness.
Director John Pasquin (who also directs Home Improvement) imbues the fantasy elements and emotional conflicts with the same benevolent softness. While the movie excises much of what makes Allen truly Allen, it nevertheless traffics in his comic image with its suggestion that grumpy men can have marshmallow hearts under their get-things-done exteriors. The Santa Clause owes a lot to Mrs. Doubtfire in its transformation of a dubious father figure into a cornerstone of all-knowing child love, but surprisingly (this is, after all, a Disney picture), it’s not as ruthless as the Robin Williams vehicle, which reduced its mother to a careerist shrew to make its point. In The Santa Clause, Mom (Wendy Crewson) is at first merely concerned about Allen’s transformation into a fat, white-haired Santa; eventually she becomes a convert. Even the ostensible bad guy — Judge Reinhold as the over-rational stepfather — emerges as a well-meaning buffoon. This is not the pop tour de force Doubtfire was, but it is, strangely enough, easier to swallow.
Rewires America offers Allen’s own version of himself. He’s amiable and clever, but in the first three minutes of the tape, with its multiple utterances of ”bitch,” one might mistake him for Andrew ”Dice” Clay with a mortgage. But Allen tempers his political incorrectness with his good-natured allowance that ”men are pigs.” His audience, composed mostly of couples, happily laps up his observations on men’s work spaces, table manners, and communication habits — that’s where the belch jokes come in. It’s all completely divorced from any larger social context, but, hey, you can’t slam the guy just because he’s not another Lenny Bruce. On the other hand, one could argue that Allen’s humor is rooted in precisely the kind of middle-class complacency that the late Bruce used to rail against so convincingly and hilariously. Allen is content to aim at the quotidian concerns of his often neglected and more often pandered-to audience, and his success is unimpeachable proof that this crowd is delighted to be getting the attention. Both tapes: C+