Ask Tim Allen how he came to star in his own series, and he's likely to answer, "I saved Jeffrey Katzenberg's daughter's life. He owes me badly."
A typical comic's remark. The actual truth is not nearly as dramatic, although Katzenberg, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, has been instrumental in bringing Allen's off-beat sense of humor to television audiences on a weekly basis with "Home Improvement", Touchstone Television's new family comedy for ABC-TV.
According to Matt Williams, one of the executive producers of "Home Improvement," Katzenberg invited Williams over to his office last fall to see a tape of Tim's 'Men Are Pigs' SHOWTIME special. "Jeffrey said, 'Tim is a talented guy, we just made a deal with him, and I think the two of you would click,'" remembers Williams. Allen had recently signed a series development deal with the studio, and Katzenberg felt Williams would be a good match for Allen's talents.
When Williams and colleague David McFadzean had a "get-acquainted" lunch with Allen, they not only clicked, they felt like brothers under the skin. "What happened at this lunch that absolutely sealed it for me," says Williams, "is we started talking about our backgrounds -- we all come from Midwestern families. We swapped stories about growing up with our brothers, and by the time we got into the territory of 'you know what really bugs my wife?,' I knew we all thought the same way. This is who I am, this is who David McFadzean is, this is who Tim is: a man who really wants to be a good father, a good husband, and a good man, in the societal sense. But no one ever taught us how to do these things, so we've learned by trial and error."
By the time lunch was over, they were already throwing out story ideas for the series.
From there, Allen, Williams and McFadzean, working with colleague Carmen Finestra, fine-tuned the show's concept.
"Tim said to us, 'My act is power tools and fix-it stuff and male improvement,'" recalls McFadzean. "So we wanted to give him a forum in which his act could be incorporated into the show, without just having it be suddenly -- bang -- his stand-up." Allen threw out the suggestion of having his own home improvement show. "But," Allen said, "let's make it more than fixing a house. It's fixing men."
Jumping on that idea, Williams added that the series really needs to be about that nagging feeling men have inside of them that they're going to get caught. "Someone's going to come up and say, 'You really don't know what you're doing, do you?' And all of us said, 'Oh, gawd, yes, that's in there!,'" sayd McFadzean. "From that developed the idea that Tim Taylor hands out male advice on his show, but when he gets home and tries to live it out, it's easier said than done."
Around the same time, both Williams and McFadzean had been reading Deborah Tannen's book on male-female communication called "You Just Don't Understand," which McFadzean says should be every sitcom writer's guide to humor, because of the way it explains the different languages men and women speak.
On the flight to Detroit to visit Allen's hometown, McFadzean remembers, "Matt and I were both reading the book. He was only at about page 30, and he looked at me and said, 'I know now why I have had every fight I've ever had with my wife.' We realized that a major theme of the series needed to be that men and women shouldn't live together. So that was the final pin in this show -- it's the real behaviour of men and women trying to work out a life together."
In casting the character of Jill, Tim Taylor's wife, Williams says, "We said all along, we need to find a female John Goodman for him, an 'Edith' for 'Archie.' We had to find a balance, because we didn't want him to just overpower the series." After a long and involved search, casting director Deborah Barylski found Patricia Richardson, a strong comedic actress known for her feisty roles in series like "FM" and "Eisenhower & Lutz."
"With Pat," continues Williams, "we found someone who is strong and funny, and who happens to be a real mom with theree kids. Those are all pluses, because she's drawing from real-life experience rather than writer's lines. She just embodies that role."
The three boys who play the Taylor's sons, and Earl Hindman, who portrays Tim's guru-like neighbor Wilson, were found outside of Hollywood. Hindman makes his home in Connecticut, Zachery Ty Bryan ("Brad") is from Denver, and Taran Smith ("Mark") and Jonathan Taylor Thomas ("Randy") both live in Northern California.
With all these elements in place, Williams, McFadzean, Finestra, and the entire cast and crew of "Home Improvement" set out to make a series that's both entertaining and true-to-life, week after week.
Says Williams, "The biggest challenge for us is to take absurd situations, or extreme points of view or actions, and root them in some kind of truth. For example, when Jill is desperate to find a baby-sitter because Tim screwed up and didn't get one, she hires a magician who entertains at children's parties -- as a baby-sitter. It's sort of an extreme solution to a problem, but it makes sense. If we do our job correctly, those are the things the audience will never think twice about, because we've rooted them in some kind of behavioral truth."
Thanks to Touchstone Television for providing the information.