Where would situation comedies be without stand-up comics? Time after time, a comic who has woven routines from a quirky world view or weird friends and relatives - Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart, Ray Romano, Brent Butt, Roseanne Barr - has been given a tailor-made sitcom.
Tim Allen struck pay dirt with his character of a grunting macho man obsessed with power tools, showcased on the 1990 Showtime special Men Are Pigs. Before he could say A-B-C, he was starring on ABC in Home Improvement. The sitcom ran from 1991 to 1999, and is out this week in a 25-disc, 20th-anniversary DVD collection housed in a red toolbox with a Binford all-in-one tool.
Considering that true fans must have bought the DVD sets season by season, will a tool and a branded toolbox entice them to buy the whole thing all over again? Well, it's the same marketing philosophy that saw The Man from U.N.C.L.E. issued in an attaché case, I Dream of Jeannie in a mock bottle and Scooby-Doo Where Are You? in a replica of that show's van. Collectors are collectors.
Home Improvement offered something for everyone. Part of it was set in a house in Detroit, where Tim Taylor (Allen) would try to turbo-charge the dishwasher, wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) would protest and their three rambunctious sons (curiously, all played by actors with three names) would marvel as the back of the dishwasher flew into the next yard.
Part of it was set in the workplace, where Tim and the less macho but more competent Al (Richard Karn) would co-host Tool Time, a cable-TV handyman series designed to promote the wares of Binford Tools. Introductions to the show-within-a-show were made in the first season by Baywatcher-to-be Pamela Denise Anderson (as Pam Anderson was then billed), and later by Debbe Dunning.
Then there was the next-door neighbour, Wilson (Earl Hindman), a character created as Tim's mentor in the spirit of Robert Bly's men's-movement bible, Iron John. This was a man's man, the kind of guy who caught and barbecued squirrels and was always repairing something, but a wise soul who could instruct a frequently clueless Tim on the finer points of relations between men and women.
It was one of the show's oddities that Wilson's face was seen only from the nose up as he imparted his counsel from the other side of a tall fence. Allen, who had a similarly half-seen neighbour in Michigan, wanted Wilson not to be seen at all, but the three men who created the sitcom from Allen's blueprint nixed that idea.
The show could be touchy-feely, in the Father Knows Best tradition of family members getting into trouble and talking out their problems. It could depict a relationship full of love and banter; Allen and Richardson had real chemistry. And it could revel in slapstick. The viewer knew Tim would at some point try to fix or improve a machine he knew little about, and the thing would explode, fall over or otherwise test the props budget. He seldom disappointed.