So the other day I went on YouTube and discovered that someone had conveniently spliced together some of the funniest bits from “Tool Time,” the fictional TV show embedded within “Home Improvement.”
“Home Improvement,” of course, was the long-running sitcom starring Tim Allen as a home-repair specialist with his own television show. Richard Karn played Al Borland, his caution-urging assistant. Things would always go wrong, and the result was some of the funniest physical humor you can see anywhere.
“We had so much fun it was criminal,” Karn said recently during a lunch break at the New Theatre rehearsal studio. Karn is in town to star in the New Theatre’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which Joe Fox is directing.
“It was the best job in the world,” Karn said. “The (scripts) would come in, and it would say, ‘Tim flies out the window.’ And we’d say, ‘OK, how do we get to that?’ You always had to be specific because there were six cameras on us. So there wasn’t as much improv as you might think. We’d improv earlier in the week and then set it for the cameras. And then our job was to make it
Karn began his career as a stage actor. He grew up in Seattle, studied theater at the University of Washington and immediately moved to New York.
One of his first gigs was a national beer commercial, which gave him a nice payday, but then, like most young actors, he immersed himself in the audition grind. He was based in New York for 11 years, but a lot of his work was in regional theaters.
“My Broadway debut was in ‘Me and My Girl,’ which opened the Marquis,” he said. “I played a suit of armor. I had one physical bit, got a laugh and was home 40 minutes after the show started.”
Karn also appeared often in off-Broadway productions.
“Really, I went up for everything,” he said. “What I most got cast in was comedies. But I did serious stuff. At Players Theatre in Columbus (Ohio) I played the inspector in a Sherlock Holmes play. But what I really enjoyed doing was stuff like ‘The Foreigner’ and ‘The Nerd.’ ”
Eventually Karn settled in Los Angeles, where he continued doing plays while pursuing film and TV work. Initially he was cast only in the “Home Improvement” pilot, but he soon became a regular. The sitcom ran from 1991 to ’99, and Karn later landed a four-year gig as the host of “Family Feud.”
When the New Theatre approached him about playing the vice principal in “Putnam County,” he thought it sounded like a nice challenge. He hadn’t performed on stage since “Home Improvement” went on the air.
“I thought this will be a great way to get back and see if I can remember more than five minutes of dialogue,” he said. “In film you only have to know three or four minutes. It’s a great role to get back into the lifestyle of theater because the show doesn’t really depend on me. I mean, it does. But it doesn’t. I was so (pleasantly) surprised that I was almost off-book after the first week.”
This is not Karn’s first connection to Richard Carrothers and Dennis Hennessey, owners of the New Theatre.
Back in the day, when they operated two dinner theaters on the Missouri side of the metro, Karn’s wife, Tudi Roche, performed here in a production of “Nunsense.” Tudi also played a recurring role on “Home Improvement.”
“You have this thriving musical-theater scene in a town that has the highest pollen count,” Karn chuckled. “I’m sympathetic because my wife, who is really the singer in the family, was affected by it when she came here.”
Karn said on “Home Improvement” he learned an important lesson early on: If the writers give you a joke, you have to own it.
“Coming from a stage background, all of a sudden lines are changing,” he said. “And not having been in the creative process of a new play where that might happen, I’m thinking: ‘Whoa, if you don’t get your joke right away they’ll take it away or change it.’ Sometimes you have to fight for the joke and sometimes you have to pick your battles. It took me a while to learn how to articulate what I needed.”‘TIME STANDS STILL’ AT UNICORN unicorntheatre.org