A Brief History of Tommy Dean
Friday, May 04, 2012
âOh, where do you even begin?â Tommy Dean asks.
Where indeed? Itâs as good a point of departure as any for an interview on the eve of his one and only 2012 Sydney Comedy Festival show.
Iâve known the long-haired American for a decade-and-a-half as a true comic genius: a man who seemingly can take anything you give him and fashion it into hilarious material. And when he watches other comedians â or, more to the point, wanna-be comedians and newbies â Tommy can point out weaknesses and suggest ways to make stronger the stuff they come up with by adhering to things like âtruth in comedyâ and âanswering comedy with comedyâ. He's also as decent a guy as youâll get to meet.
But Tommyâs questions are in fact answers to one of my own that comes much later, and more important ones that should come first are ones such as, why is such a brilliant comic comparatively so little known in Australia? Other brilliant comics â like Fred Lang, for instance â will describe him as âAustraliaâs best kept comedy secretâ. But then, there are people who claim to love comedy who have never had the supreme pleasure of seeing Fred Lang in action either, so perhaps we should start somewhere else again.
Okay, how about this one: why is it that Tommy Dean only doing one Sydney Comedy Festival show?
âI guess Iâm supposed to say, âIâve been very busy, Iâm obligated to a lot of other things, the schedule didnât really come together, Iâd love to do more but it didnât really work outâ¦ââ Tommy offers.
All of which is true, as this interview will demonstrate.
What is patently not true, though, is that Tommy Dean's sole one-night-only performance is in fact his only show of the Festival. Heâs already appeared in that brilliant Troy Conrad and Paul Provenza-produced Set List, in which an array of comics is given topics virtually on the way to the microphone, from which to construct their ten minute set pretty much as theyâre delivering it. And heâs got a few Thank God Itâs Friday obligations in the live Thank God Itâs On Stage: the first, in Wollongong, has already taken place, but thereâs still Saturdayâs Seymour Centre show, and one at the Parramatta Riverside Theatre a week later. And Tommyâs also appeared in one of the [âlesserâ] galas that have taken place.
So really, Tommy Dean is all over the Sydney Comedy Festival; but even if he werenât, his âcover storyâ sounds pretty convincing. And thatâs because itâs pretty much true: Tommy does seem to be busier than ever. And, to be fair, there was a time when Tommy seemed less gung-ho about pursuing opportunities. If anything, he is a less well-kept secret, surely.
âI think thatâs probably still fair,â Tommy says. âI mean, one night in the Sydney Comedy Festival is just another night in Sydney. Iâm around all the time, so why should people come to this one night in Sydney when then can find me on any given night in Sydney?â
Good point. Of course, being part of something like the Sydney Comedy Festival does at least bring Tommy to the attention of the âspecial eventâ comedy audience â the people who donât go and see comedy every night of the week all year round. People, letâs face it, who may not even know you can see comedy regularly in venues around Sydney.
And the other point worth raising is, can you actually still see Tommy Dean in a comedy club any time you want to? Not as regularly as you used to, surely. I mean, nowadays, I see Tommy more often as the hilarious warm-up guy at the taping of a television show â (and note, not all warm-up guys are hilarious) â than I do as the killer headline act in a comedy room.
âYes,â Tommy concurs, âthat has become my main source of grocery buying at the moment. It takes precedence over club work. That ate up the front part of the year, this year.â
Some of the shows at which youâd have been warmed by Tommy Dean, had you been in the audience, include the Andrew Denton-produced Gruen Planet and Randling.
âI love doing warm-up for Dentonâs shows because the nature of the shows he produces makes it easy,â Tommy explains, although he prefers the term âfocusedâ to âwarmed upâ. âMost audiences come to a show wanting to have fun; Andrew Dentonâs shows are fun, so I feel good about the product behind me. Iâm not saying âWhoo, letâs be all excited about thisâ knowing full well Iâm about to hand them over to a pile of crap that I canât justify.â For Tommy, itâs a matter of principal: he doesnât want to be the entertainment equivalent of the snake-oil seller.
He also doesnât want to be the guy desperate to âget laughsâ; see â or hear â him as a guest on a panel show, and you won't see him hog the limelight or talk over people. âThe nature of what I do, comedically, is share what I think is funny. Itâs always about âsharing the laughâ, rather than âgetting the laughâ.â
Having a Denton-produced program as the reason to focus an audience makes that sharing so much easier: able to remain relaxed and confident, Tommy essentially treats his sessions with audiences â getting them primed for the show, filling in the gaps if there are technical issues that halt proceedings â as âimprovâ. Heâs playing games with them, talking to them, bouncing off them rather than delivering prepared material. âI like to share the show along with them, as though Iâm just the audience member who talks more.â
Though not always much more â Randling, for example, has Denton up front and comedians and similarly quick-witted guests. If something did go wrong, there was always sufficient banter to ensure Tommy's presence out front was not required. âIn fact," he says, "I can remember no moment during the entire time I was doing it where, once I said âhereâs the showâ, I had to come back out!â Watch any episode â Wednesday nights, 8:30pm, until some time in October â and you'll see why: hilarious television!
Thank God Itâs Backstage - Wollongong
Tommy has a theory that comedians are like prophets: theyâre loved more in lands other than those they were raised. âI still believe it, and therein lies the rub of why Iâm not doing a full run in the Sydney Comedy Festival,â Tommy says with a chuckle. âI am of Sydney Town, so Sydney takes me for granted; there is no rush to go and see me. If I were playing Perthâs Wild West Festival, itâd be a case of, âthis is the only time he here this yearâ and thereâd be a rush to go and see me.â
Yet, according to Tommy, even if a comedian is better loved away from home, the cruel irony is that the comic is also funniest in his or her own hometown, since they know it so intimately. âYou should be at your most perceptive at that to which you have the most knowledge,â he insists. But he illustrates it with an example of the other extreme:
âI was recently in Malaysia, where the entire audience was Malay, and Iâve never been more ânot funnyâ. We just didnât have a common ground.â
Iâm a bit surprised by this â what about the whole âinnocent abroadâ thing â where the outsider sees the place for what it really is, noticing stuff the locals donât because they take it for granted?
âI would argue that thatâs the case if youâre âof the backgroundâ,â Tommy says, essentially explaining that there has to be some common ground. There wasnât any for him and his Malay audience. âIâve never been to England, but I would expect to do well there, being more-or-less of the English ethos and presenting a view that would be easily understood to the English.â
None of that holds true when he visits Malaysia, and furthermore, Tommy says, Malaysia is a âvery interesting case in pointâ because it feels as if itâs âvery newâ to comedy: âThereâs a very interesting dynamic there, in the old guard of the oppressive government holding out, while the new internet-trained, westernised youth coming up through the system starting to rebel against it.â Stand-up, and having touchy subjects discussed out load, seems very new to them, so when an outsider starts âhaving a goâ, the locals have trouble dealing with it. "It feels like a very fresh wound; theyâre not sure if they can accept that.â
Really, itâs not unlike initial reactions to Tommy Dean when he first hit the stand-up scene in Australia. Some audiences resented the âSeppoâ telling them how things were. âIn Malaysia, if you made any reference to corrupt police as an outsider, they were very, âoh, letâs be a little bit cool now, youâre judging Malaysia!â But the locals could talk about corrupt cops and the audience would be all, âoh yeah, theyâre corrupt!â Generally speaking, the locals were better prepared to service the comedy needs of Malaysia than I was. And fair enough, too!â
In conclusion, however, Tommy still maintains: âYou must go abroad to be at your funniest. Or at least, to be seen as being at your funniest.â
Pick a card/perception of doors
Another thing I recall Tommy mentioning in the past, is his process of delivering comedy. He likens it to constantly shuffling a deck of cards, knowing at any one time only the card heâs currently playing, and the one heâll play next, but otherwise he is constantly going through the deck.
âThat is so true,â Tommy insists: âComedy is a game tactical manoeuvres, not strategy.â Because you can plan an entire set, but if something unexpected happens, you should be prepared to address the unexpected thing and veer âof pisteâ as necessary, rather than stick to the script. Itâs much funnier that way.
âThatâs exactly right,â Tommy says. âAnd I like the metaphor more now, because Iâm thinking I probably only have about 52 cards. Itâs not an endless deck.â
There was also a metaphor of âgoing through doorsâ: youâre constantly faced with options on stage â choices between different doors.
âItâs simply a re-visualisation of the cards metaphor, isnât it?â Tommy reasons. âSame idea: you walk through a door, now youâre in this room; this room only has so many doors out of it.â
Perhaps, but at least with the doors, you can go back the way you came if you hit a dead end or a situation where you donât want to go through any of the doors currently on offerâ¦
âYeah, I suppose, in a pure metaphorical sense, the door philosophy is probably better,â Tommy agrees. âBut you could backtrack on the card play. I see no reason not too. Maybe youâd take the card metaphor kind of like a game of solitaire: you play the card, they only allow certain options, but eventually, because of card play on the right hand side, you suddenly now have access to move that shift back to the left sideâ¦ âoh, finally, a red 8! Right, 9 â and weâre back in business on the left side!ââ
Dom, Tommy and Fred Lang playing games for Collectors
The card metaphor is most telling; the best door to open when it comes to Tommy Dean, is the one that leads to the games room. See, Tommy loves games. Board games in particular. His collection of games has featured on the ABC show Collectors. Indeed, Tommy is a member of Board Games Australia, a body that exists to âpromote gaming as a fun and educational toolâ. Board Games Australia awards annual âbest gameâ in various categories, with Tommy on the panel for âBest International Gameâ.
Again, thereâs nowhere to start with this one apart from the most basic and obvious place:
âTell me about your love of games, Tommy.â
âOh, where to begin? Where do you even begin?â Tommy replies. âThis is my true, true passion. I absolutely adore it at so many levels.â
Tommy reckons he âspotted very earlyâ the âgloryâ in sitting around the table with friends and family playing games. It was his favourite adolescent pastime: âWhile cooler kids were sneaking into keg parties and getting interested in drugs and alcohol, I found it much more satisfying to gather with a few friends and play cards all night.â
The father of one of those friends was âa high-rated chess master whose mental processes went to all things gamesâ so the interest spread from card games to board games:
âIt was hilarious fun, just at a social level,â Tommy explains, âand then at a tactical thought level, it became energizing and engaging, being able to deal with thought processes and results that you never had a chance to experience in real life. Thereâs something about playing for survival in a game where, on the board, you lose and the world is destroyed, but in real life, the world is fine.â
It sounds to me like Tommyâs describing âRiskâ, a game that has come up time and again in his stand-up over the years. But suggesting as much makes me sound ignorant: âThere are many, many other games that put the entire world at stake,â Tommy says. His favourite at the moment is âTwilight Struggleâ, a two-player game based on the cold war; one player is the US, the other Russia, and game play is card-driven.
âYou attempt to influence the various continents such that you score more points and prevent nuclear war. If things go wrong, the world gets lit up!â
It's not too much of a stretch to consider the decision-making and strategic â or rather, tactical manoeuvring â as good training for a leadership role. We seem to be a at somewhat of a loss with regards to the top job in this country right now. Any chance, Tommy?
âItâs not bad training,â Tommy says, but heâs a bit reticent to commit to that kind of responsibility, pointing out that winning the cold war by avoiding a nuclear apocalypse is not the same on the game board as it is in real life. âItâs the difference between playing poker for chips and playing poker for cash,â he says, explaining that âitâs one thing to go all in on a bluff when the only thing you lose is your pile of plastic. Itâs a different thing when your house is there in the middle.â
After the briefest of pauses, Tommy adds: âBy the way, I hate poker. Just so weâre clear on that. I like board games. Gambling games, not so much, for that reason right there: I like the stakes to be fantastical, as opposed to real.â
For Tommy, it's all about the tactical thought and the games themselves.
âI love the themes that come out of the games, I love tactically manoeuvring against the mechanics of a game â the concepts the gameâs designer has given you to play with â manipulating those concepts to make happen whatever needs to happen in the game. And I do love pushing against the other players. Thereâs something amazingly telling about what you can learn about the other players over a board game.â
Games Mormons play
Iâm vaguely aware of Tommyâs Mormon upbringing, and Iâm wondering how formative it was of the young Tommy Dean. Was it particularly strict? Is that what led to his love of games over other adolescent pursuits? Is that what gave rise to his love of Coca-Cola, something that would have been denied a child in a strict Mormon household? And how did his love of comedy develop?
âWe were a very religiously aware family, but I wouldnât use the word âstrictâ,â Tommy advises. He was initially raised a Southern Baptist â in fact, had an uncle who was a preacher â which meant not just Sunday School, but also âWednesday night pot luckâ, entailing midweek âcasserole and preachingâ.
From 13 to 15 years of age, Tommy was indeed âembroiled in the Mormon faithâ, which, he says, involved âplaying a lot of gamesâ. But even if the Mormon faith is âeven more dedicated to itselfâ than other denominations, for Tommy and his family, it wasn't really a change at all. âChurch is just what you did,â he says. âWe just joined different churches. It wasnât until much later that I even recognised a difference between religions. It was just âchurchâ.â
Yeah, but still â Mormons are the âno caffeineâ denomination, arenât they? Itâs only an issue â potentially â because I notice Coke is Tommyâs tipple of choice, and the biggest sin is putting lemon in itâ¦
âAbsolutely,â Tommy says of his Coke imbibing. But as to Mormons eschewing caffeine, itâs âall down to how hard-line they take itâ.
Turns out there is a major split in the Mormon faith, and it has something to do with The Doctrine and Covenants, the book upon which, along with The King James Holy Bible and The Book of Mormon, the Mormon faith is based. The Doctrine and Covenants is the Word of God as transcribed by the prophets to whom God spoke. âThose are where the basic rules of Mormonism are given and taken away,â Tommy explains, âand one of them, referred to as âThe Word of Wisdomâ, has a sort of health plan for Mormons. The key phrase is, âNo hot drinksâ.â
âHot drinksâ of the time were coffee and tea. âNow that we know what caffeine is, thatâs probably what God was getting at,â Tommy says. âBecause God, who also at the time should have known what caffeine was, wanted to be obscure.â
There was a backlash later on, when it was discovered that the Mormon Church held a lot of stock in the Pepsi company, apparently. It was seen by many to be hypocritical. Of course there is the stricter Reformed Church of Jesus Christ And Latter Day Saints branch of Mormonism who take a harder line still, according to Tommy: âI donât think they even eat soup!â Well, he adds, not until it cools down. But then, the point at which âhotâ becomes âtepidâ becomes a point of issue. And âJesus loves iced coffee!â becomes a major heresy.
The community that prays togetherâ¦
âThe reason we got into the Mormon Church,â Tommy says,âis the same reason we got into most churches: the neighbourhood responded in kind to our arrival.â
Tommyâs family moved around a lot, dictated mostly by his fatherâs work. Both parents were born to Maryland farmers, but Tommyâs dad chose not to live âoff the landâ, opting instead for âIT, before they called it ITâ.
A project manager for various projects that involved computers, he happened to be be managing a project for âthe bank of Disney World, Sun Bankâ that took the family to Florida for a couple of years. Later he worked for a company that sold mailing lists, as a kind of precursor to spam email. "That took us to Michigan. Then my mum had asthma and the Michigan climate didnât suit her, so he took a job in Arizona and off we went to the Asthma State.â
Tommyâs family arrived in Arizona when he was 12 and the new neighbours âcame around with casseroles and hellos and invited us to come to church with them.â Taken with the very social nature of the neighbours â who happened to be Mormons â Tommyâs mum decided to take up their offer.
âThe reality is, the Mormon Church, for all of its odd philosophies and theologies, is â take away the religion â one of the greatest social co-ops,â Tommy says. âThey do more to support their members than any other church Iâve ever been involved in. Theyâre very much community based, neighbourhood basedâ.
He also points out that churches in places of âheavy populationâ such as Arizona are like schools: âyou donât choose what church you go to; you live here, so you go to that church during that time period. And everyone you go to church with lives in your neighbourhood, the idea being to build giant community ties so when your parents are sick, your neighbourhood rallies to take care of you.â
In fact, he says, âevery Sunday one of the meetings was the womenâs group, and the main thing they discussed was who was on the casserole list that week. Almost everything the Mormon Church does is designed to keep Mormons hanging out with Mormons, helping Mormons, espousing Mormonism. That was also part of it: I played a lot of board games with those guys â softball leagues, basketball leagues and Wednesday night dances to keep the youth together.â That was until Tommy was 15. âThen I fell in with a group called âConcerned Christiansâ, which was really sort of âWe Hate Mormonsâ.â
That must have just been a phase; Tommy doesnât really seem to hate anyone, and unlike a lot of comics, isnât hell-bent on pointing out â humorously â the logical flaws in belief systems. Not specifically. He loves pointing out logical flaws generally.
BarrÃ©d from school
It was neither the religion nor the travel that was to inform the young Tommy Dean, wandering prophet of comedy. Rather, he says, his âmain line of formationâ resulted from childhood illness: Tommy contracted Gillain-BarrÃ© Syndrome at age 8. âI was paralysed for two years from the waste down and spent all that time out of school. Thereâs something about spending all that time out of the system at a time when youâre at your most malleable.â
Home-schooled for grades 2 and 3, Tommy Dean âspent two years out of the system, developing my own way of thinkingâ before returning to school for grade 4. At which point, after two years of paralysis, Tommy was âbarely starting to walk again, in a very obvious and bully-drawing way.â Heâs quick to point out, however, that âbullyingâ is a âbig termâ; in this instance, he means that people made fun of the way he walked at school. âSo I think my sense of humour first develops around the defense of that. I was getting heckled for the way I walked, and I was quick to recognise that âyes, I do walk funny, but you guys have got your problems too, I noticeâ¦ââ
Some of the ways in which people have reacted to Tommyâs distinct walk were quite amusing. He recalls a time at college when his gait mistaken for cockiness. âSomebody said to my best friend, âHey, I see youâre friends with that guy Tommy â he sure seems to strut a lot! Whatâs his deal?â âNo, no, thatâs just the way he stays uprightâ.â
The permanent effect of Guillain-BarrÃ© Syndrome on Tommy is a lack of muscle tissue in his legs. âI have about 85% muscle activity in my upper thighs, down to about 10-12% in my ankles. Normally people walk âheel to toeâ, whereas, very much like an artificial limb, I swing my foot through and land it flat.â
Thatâs why Tommyâs classic stance on stage is to keep hold of the mic in the stand âin a classic left foot forward, right foot back poseâ: heâs using the stand to help balance. âI have a really hard time standing up straight and still. If I take the mic off the stand, youâll notice Iâll walk left to right a little more often than is necessitated by the dialogue, and thatâs just me self balancing.â The worst scenario, of course, is when Tommyâs doing a corporate gig: wearing âcorporateâ shoes â âwhich Iâm completely uncomfortable inâ â and they havenât given him a mic stand.
âIâve seen photos where Iâve ended up in this hilarious half-squat as I try desperately to stay upright in dress shoes! Iâve lost my balance and Iâve ended up in a half-kneeling position, but Iâm halfway through a joke so Iâm adjusting my posture, trying to stay upright and not lose the timing on the riff.â
I think about it, and yes, Iâve noticed Tommyâs tendency to balance with the mic stand, and pace. But itâs only now that heâs told me â Iâm usually too interested in the comedy to notice the physicality. But I know that Tommy plays baseball. Doesnât he?
âYeah. Poorly. I play in an old manâs league, so even though Iâm quite slow, compared to the other 50- and 60-year-old guys I run around with, I can keep up for a base or two.â Even as a kid, playing, Tommy says, the big joke was that he âhad to hit the ball to the fence just to get to first baseâ. Back then, though, he played better, so he could hit it all the way to the fence in order to get to first. âThe other big joke in baseball was to flash me the signal to steel second. That wasnât gonna happen either!â
Game, Set List and match
If the first stage of Tommyâs comedic development as a comic was his homeschooling at a formative age, forcing him to devise his own world view, the second stage was his discovery of drama.
âThe Mormon Church do a lot of âchurch playsâ, and somebody said, âyou seem to have a thing for this âchurch playâ business; when you get to high school, you ought to investigate the drama clubââ
Thatâs exactly what Tommy did, and âthatâs where stagecraft became the game.â Four years of drama at high school involved âthe competitive elementâ known as Speech and Debate â the âSpeechâ aspect of which consisted of monologues rather than public speaking. âThey judged you on your ability to interpret 8 minutes of drama or poetry or comedy.â There was also a âtwo-handerâ option, known as âdual actingâ. Tommy was State Champion in Dual Acting and State Finalist in Poetry Interpretation.
âThe reason I got that was because I did a piece from Chaucerâs Canterbury Tales that was quite funny,â Tommy says. I donât doubt it. Tommy is hilarious. The night he did Set List â which, unfortunately, I missed â I bet he âhit it all the way to the fenceâ.
âI donât want to sound all braggy, but I pretty much did. I played the game exactly the way it was meant to be played, which I truly enjoyed.â Again, the game metaphor: seeing the rules and playing by them is clearly important to Tommy. So, with Set List, rather than see each topic and improvise free-standing bits, or throw the rules away in mock indignation of the ridiculousness of it â which can also be hilarious â Tommy went with the rules, justifying why each note existed on his set list and delivering a spontaneous set that carried the logical links, structure and â Iâm guessing this last bit â call-backs that a polished set would carry.
Tommy on his dad, on Thank God It's On Stage
Given the âwarm-upâ â sorry, âfocusingâ â work, Thank God Itâs Friday and appearances on [âlesserâ] galas and things like Set List, even if itâs taking its time, Australiaâs best-kept comedy secret is still getting out, slowly but surely.
âMy schedule would suggest thatâs the case,â Tommy agrees. I still think that Iâm still the person with whom nobody can figure out what to do.â
Yes, there has always been that aspect to Tommyâs career. Clearly, he can do stuff. But what stuff should they get him to do? When his contemporaries were getting stabs at non-ratings period seasons of stuff, or being asked to audition for present jobs on game shows, it seemed like Tommy was still too much âthe foreignerâ to be offered those gigs. I mean, how on earth could an American front a game show in Australia? Iâd ask Bob Dyer if he were still aliveâ¦
âThere does still seems to be a weird reticence,â Tommy acknowledges, describing his career so far as having been âdefined by benevolent championsâ such as âRichard Gloverâ. However, he is also aware that he himself would have a hard time finding the ideal category to place himself in:
âIf someone said to me, âyou could do any of these things, you choose,â Iâm not quite sure what show I would host. Iâd like to think that I could do it.â
Again, Tommy turns to his gaming metaphor: âI define myself by the game Iâm asked to play. I donât know which game I want to play but I can play the game you ask.â
And, he says, itâs interesting to see âjust how many gamesâ heâs currently involved in: âthereâs radio panelist guyâ (Thank God Itâs Friday); âwarm-up guyâ (Q & A and Andrew Dentonâs shows); âcorporate workâ (either as the guest who âinjects a bit of irreverence to your corporate settingâ or the MC who âplays it straight but provides just enough irreverence to add a point of interest to your corporate gatheringâ).
But televisionâs the weirdest one. I watch Tommy focusing the audiences for shows he could easily be guesting on â be it Q & A or Randling. âItâs interesting that Spicks & Specks found me useful, but Good News Week didnât,â Tommy says. âThey strike me as the same gameâ.
And there, I think, is the way for it for the comic guided by game theory: he should be playing it far more obviously, and be writing his own rules. Rather than seeking the role of panelist or guest on a game show, he should be hosting a show. Perhaps about games. Or perhaps hosting the next television presentation of the Paralympic Games. Television would love that perfect fit. Point is, since heâs brilliant at âsharing the laughâ, Tommy would be a brilliant host, and one whoâd be able to step in the moment anything comes off the rails.
Well. Tommy Dean fans live in hope.
For now, take the opportunity to see his festival show â the one that actually appears under his own name, for which heâs appearing up front rather than as an integral team member. Itâs called Drop Off and Pick Up â most likely about him being a dedicated dad. But titles are almost irrelevant to Tommyâs festival shows â itâs always gonna be a bunch of his funniest stand-up, each routine hilarious and relevant to that very moment itâs being delivered.
â¢ Tommy Deanâs sole Sydney Festival show Drop Off and Pick Up is on 7:30pm, 4 May at the Factory Theatre.
â¢ Heâs appearing in Thank God Itâs On Stage 8pm, 5 May at the Seymour Centre.
â¢ Heâs also in Thank God Itâs On Stage 8pm, 12 May Parramatta Riverside Theatre.
â¢ Board Games Australiaâs Best Game Awards will be announced at the 2012 Sydney Toy and Game Expo taking place in Homebush June 9-11.
â¢ Tommyâs appearing with Josh Earl, Kate McLennan, Kevin Kropinyeri and MC Dave Thornton at the Manning Entertainment Centre, Mid North Coast, as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow 15 July.