One Episode

I’ve been reading the new book “Tim & Tom: An American Comedy In Black and White”, written by Chicago journalist Ron Rapoport in conjunction with the two members of America’s first and only black-white comedy team: Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen. The book isn’t only about their partnership; it couldn’t be, because their act broke up in 1974, and both of them went on to successful solo careers of very different types. (Reid became a well-known actor and producer; Dreesen was one of the last of the professional “opening act” standup comedians, touring first with Sammy Davis Jr. and then Frank Sinatra and doing a comedy act as a warm-up for their shows.) But the core of the book is the story of two guys in Chicago back when Chicago was the comedy capital of the U.S., their almost offhand decision to become a comedy team, and the reactions they got, from the audience, the business, and each other, at a time when race was the defining issue in the whole country. Much of it is a typical story of a struggling comedy act, trying to find the right material, dealing with different audiences, going all around the country to wherever there was work — except that the experiences are anything but typical, because it was a type of act that had never been tried before, had no clearly defined audience, and left audiences unsure about how they were supposed to react. (“Every time there was a black person in the audience,” Reid recalls, “not a single white person would laugh until they looked at him.”)

Since the book covers at least three things that really interest me — comedy in the late ’60s and early ’70s; the ’70s and ’80s TV world that Reid wound up in, and the old-line showbiz world whose demise Dreesen got to witness first-hand — I enjoyed it a lot.

To get this back on a TV track, it also tells a story I hadn’t seen before (maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place) about why Frank’s Place was canceled. Frank’s Place, created by Hugh Wilson and starring Reid as an uptight Bostonian who inherits a restaurant in New Orleans (based on Chez Helene, a real New Orleans restaurant), was one of the most famous cult flops of the ’80s, a show that looked and felt like no other television show before or since, portrayed Southern black culture in a way that had never been seen before, and radically changed tone every week from comedy to tragedy. (It was also, as the book explains, an unusual case of a show that was improved by network suggeestions: Wilson and Reid went in to pitch something closer to “a black Cheers,” about an ex-athlete who buys a restaurant in Atlanta, and the network executives pitched them the idea of setting the show in New Orleans and having the hero take the restaurant over reluctantly, which Wilson and Reid agreed was much better than their original idea.) CBS originally intended to renew it despite problematic ratings, and writing and pre-production were starting on a second season when the network changed its mind and canceled it. Reid, in the book, claims that Walter Cronkite (a member of the board of directors of CBS) told him a few years later why the show had been canceled:

The episode that killed Frank’s Place, Cronkite said, was the last one of the season, “The King of Wall Street.” It was one of Wilson’s most heartfelt scripts in which he poured out his feelings about the wave of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts that was sweeping across corporate America. A businessman stops in the Chez where he gets a phone call telling him he has been the victim of a corporate raider. Stunned, he pours his heart out to Frank. “My great-grandfather made chairs,” he says, “wonderful sturdy chairs that I sit in today. My grandfather took over the business and he, too, made beautiful chairs. Then my father took over the business, but nobody wanted quality chairs any more so the business died. Today, I sell junk. I add no value to anything I sell. Yet in one transaction I make more money than all the generations of my family put together. Something’s wrong with that.”

“That episode really got Laurence Tisch [the CEO of CBS] upset,” Cronkite told Reid. “He viewed it as a direct slap in the face.”

“I guess if I owned a network I’d bought with junk bonds, I’d be upset too,” Reid said. “But to cancel the show over one episode?”

“We tried to convince him,” Cronkite said. “We all did. But he wouldn’t relent. He said, ‘Not on a network I own,’ and that was that. I’m sorry, Tim. We tried.”