Tom Dreesen Interview
In September of 2009, he will celebrate his 40th year in Show Business.
He opened the show for Frank Sinatra for 14 years, traveling the world with him.
He’s made over 500 appearances on national television as a stand-up comedian, including the Tonight Show and David Letterman.
If you said, that sounds like Tom Dreesen – you’d be right!
Q – Soon, you will celebrate your 40th year in Show Business. You say, “All my dreams have come true”. What dreams are you referring to?
A – To make it quite simple, when I got out of the Service, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I went from job to job. From construction to tending bar to private detective to photographer. Just wandering aimlessly. When I met Tim Reid and we went onstage, and the first burst of laughter occurred, I knew at that moment this is what I wanted to do.
Q – I saw you and Tim Reid on Jay Leno recently.
A – Yeah. Tim Reid and I have a book out. Tim Reid and I were America’s first Black and White comedy team and we were the last. That was 35 years ago. Tim and I started out in 1969 together. We have a book out on our life called ‘Tim and Tom: An American Comedy In Black And White’. And in that book, it talks about what it was like being America’s first Black and White comedy team, the dues we had to pay, like no other team had to pay. So there’s a lot of that heartache and the joy of Show Business at a time time when the Vietnam War was raging, I’d just gotten out of the Service, students were protesting in the street, African-Americans were rioting in cities all over America and here Tim and I were going across the land trying to make people laugh. So, Tim and I have a book out. In that book it goes past when we split up and where I went afterward, touring with Sammy Davis, touring with Frank Sinatra, doing the Dean Martin Shows, that sort of thing.
Q – I actually remember seeing you on the Johnny Carson Show. How difficult was it for you to get on a show like that?
A – Very difficult in those days because when I became a single, when the comedy team split up in 1975, wherever you went in America in those days people would say, ‘What do you do for a living’? I’d say, ‘I’m a stand-up comedian’. The next question out of their mouth was, ‘Oh, yeah. You ever been on Johnny Carson’? If you hadn’t been on the Carson Show, you might’ve wanted to be a comedian, you might think you’re gonna be one, but, in the eyes of America, you weren’t one then. That was the stamp of approval. So, that’s why all of us came out to the West Coast cause The Tonight Show was in California. David Letterman. Jay Leno. Me. All of us migrated from different parts of the country to come here, because if you wanted to be known as this comedian, you had to get on the Johnny Carson Show. So, it took me a long time. I had them come and look at me to audition. When I got on, when I finally got approved, I got bumped 3 times and then I finally got on the 4th time, like a month later, actually 2 months. I started in October going to The Tonight Show and kept getting bumped and then in December I finally got on the show. It totally changed my life. The moment I got a lot of applause that night and I went back to the curtain and Johnny called me back out to take a second bow. The following day all hell broke loose in my life. C.B.S. signed me to a development deal. Sammy Davis Jr. saw me and I ended up touring with Sammy. My whole life changed. I never stopped working since that first ‘Tonight Show’.
Q – At the time you started, there was not this explosion in comedy clubs as happened in the 1980’s.
A – No.
Q – So, where did you work?
A – At a place called the Comedy Store. You didn’t work. You worked for free. You didn’t get paid. No one paid. There’s another book coming out in August of next year (2009) called ‘I’m Dying Up Here’. It talks about how the comedians in 1978 or 1979 went on strike at the Comedy Store hoping to get paid, which they finally won. Comedy clubs were popping up all over America and they weren’t wanting to pay anybody because the mother of the all, The Comedy Store wasn’t paying. So, when you start out in Show Business and there were no comedy clubs you had to work wherever you could, anytime you could. Get up onstage anywhere. I tell comics this all the time; start where you are, work as often as you can, read the book ‘The Magic Of Believing’, realize no one is ever gonna help you, and don’t ever quit. If that’s your dream, don’t let anything deter you from your dream. Bertrand Russell once said, ‘There are people in Show Business who become major stars simply because they didn’t have sense enough to quit when they should have’. And that’s my story. I wouldn’t give up.
Q – Were you one of those guys who was a cut-up in the classroom? How did you know you were funny? Did someone tell you?
A – I emulated a man in a bar. When I was a little boy I shined shoes in taverns. We were very poor. We lived in a shack. Five of us slept in one bed. There were eight kids, four boys and four girls. I shined shoes in taverns from the time I was 6 years old til’ I was 12. I set pins in bowling alleys. I caddied in the Summer time. I sold newspapers on the corner. But, one of the bars where I used to shine shoes in, my mother was a bartender and in that bar the owner was her brother-in-law, sister’s husband, my uncle. He told jokes behind the bar. His name was Frank Pulizzi. He was funny. People laughed and laughed. And, it fascinated me as a little boy that a person could talk and with their inflection and with their vernacular could cause this sound to come out of your body that would fill the room with electricity and everybody would just bond together because of this one way he told the story. It fascinated me. So, he told jokes in a bar and I would go and tell those same jokes, many of which shouldn’t be told on a Catholic school playground. Years later when I went into comedy it made sense to me because I always enjoyed making people laugh. I love to hear the sound of laughter.
Q – What was it like to grow up in Harvey, Illinois?
A – Harvey was a suburb on the South side of Chicago. I mean there were Irish, there were Italians, there were Polish, there were Black, there were Mexican. We had steel mills, factories. It was a blue collar town. I grew up around saloons. There were 36 taverns in Harvey, 8 in my neighborhood, all around these steel mills. The town was not unlike Hoboken. When I met Frank Sinatra, we would talk a lot and compare Hoboken and Harvey and saloons. His mother and father had a bar, Marty O’Brien’s Bar and Grill, named after his dad who took that name as a boxer. His father was Italian of course. In those days there was so much pr against Italians, they fought under Irish names. So, his father fought under the name Marty O’Brien and had some local popularity. Frank grew up in that bar (Marty O’Brien’s Bar And Grill) singing alongside the piano roll nickelodeon for the sailors. And I grew up in bars, shining shoes. Frank Sinatra once coined that phrase when somebody asked him why do you use Tom Dreesen as your opening act for all these years? Frank would say, ‘You mean beside the fact that he’s funny’? He said, ‘Well, if I’m a saloon singer and I am, then Tommy’s a saloon comedian’. By that I mean we’re just a couple of neighborhood guys. I’ve always treasured that quote.
Q – The street where you used to shine shoes, they named the street after you. Isn’t that a nice thing to do, so you can appreciate it while you’re alive?
A – Yeah. It was a very touching moment for me to go back there and do that. It was very touching that they named that street corner where I sold newspapers. It became Dreesen Street back in Harvey, Illinois. I was very touched and humbled by that.
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