Which is easier for Americans to do: agree on a black candidate for president or agree that a racial joke is funny?

We’ll see in November how doable the first is. We already know the second is really tricky.

Ron Rapoport came to Chicago in 1977 to write a sports column for the Sun-Times, and thus just missed what was arguably the most important failed comedy team in nightclub history. Tom Dreesen and Tim Reid had broken up in bitter frustration in 1974. But Rapoport recently coauthored a book with the two comedians, Tim & Tom: American Comedy in Black and White, and the Reader‘s excerpting it this week.

“You did what?” Rapoport said four years ago, when Dreesen proposed the book. A mutual friend, Tribune sports columnist Mike Downey, had suggested Rapoport to Dreesen as a collaborator. Rapoport knew Dreesen slightly as “a man about Chicago,” but had no idea he’d once been half of a black-and-white nightclub act. “You see,” Dreesen told him, “we were doing it before anybody wanted to hear it.”

The comics met at a Jaycees meeting in Harvey in 1968—Dreesen was selling life insurance then and Reid was a salesman for DuPont. They began by taking a drug-prevention program into local schools, where an eighth-grade girl told them they were so funny they ought to be a comedy team. By the next year they were. Working out of Chicago, they earned frequent mentions in Irv Kupcinet’s Sun-Times column but little else. “They never made enough money to make a living,” says Rapoport. “They struggled like sons of bitches for five years and never stopped wondering if they’d made a terrible mistake.” Reid would soon make it on his own as Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati, and Dreesen would become an “overnight” star by triumphing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But the show wouldn’t give Tim & Tom a tumble.

“Back then,” says Rapoport, “you couldn’t have a black man and a white man onstage without going through all these stages—physical violence to racial heckling to liberals being uncomfortable. It was too weird. Black comedians were beginning to make their mark then. Cosby and Pryor—they weren’t on television much then but they were starting to perform in clubs. But somehow, a black man and a white man added a new element that was very threatening.

“Now, 30 years later, we have Barack Obama, and we have a black on the Supreme Court, and our greatest golfer is a black—think how that would have gone over 30 years ago—and it shows how much we’ve come around.”

Or not. Rapoport has heard tapes of their old routines and says, “The stuff is very fresh, very funny today.” Why wouldn’t it be? Tim & Tom was not just the first black/white team but—with all due respect to nice tries like Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder—the only. Pryor and Wilder, like Robert Culp and Bill Cosby before them in I Spy, performed written scripts on closed sets. Tim & Tom did their own material before live audiences—”sometimes all too live,” Rapoport observes.

Unlike a lot of comedy teams, Reid and Dreesen actually liked each other. They wanted their audiences to see that and also notice how they played absolute equals in their act. Says Rapoport, “They thought all the time about, ‘Is this going to be perceived the way we want it to be? Is this racist? Is this going to be looked at as racist?’ There were times Tom would suggest something and Tim would say, ‘That’s going too far. That’s racist.’ Tom would apologize, and Tim would say, ‘No, no, I don’t want to stifle your creativity.'”

They performed in both white and black clubs. Sitting in a Detroit hotel room, Dreesen came up with a line he thought he might use the next time Reid got heckled by a white audience: “Hey, go get your own. He’s mine. After all, you know how hard they are to train.” Reid told him the line was unacceptable. But that night, in a black club, someone yelled, “Hey white boy, what are you doing here?” and Reid stepped in. “Hey brother, go get your own. He’s mine, and you know how hard they are to train.” The crowd screamed, and Dreesen was thinking, What the hell? “But Tim was right,” says Rapoport. “The line worked that way. It would not have worked the other way.”

And it wouldn’t work the other way today.

The City That Reads Together

On August 14 a public forum on the future of the Los Angeles Times was held in the auditorium of LA’s central library. The panel was distinguished, the audience large, and the prognosis bleak. But what interests me is that the event took place at all, and that the civic concern it demonstrated for the Times is ongoing. In May the city’s Autry National Center of the American West had hosted Times editor Russ Stanton for a discussion of the paper’s future that was later broadcast by the local public radio station. And when the editor of the Times‘s editorial pages resigned in July rather than lay off a large part of his staff, the present mayor and a former one turned out for a reception in his honor.

In other words, Los Angeles has made the fate of the troubled Times a public issue. I was given a heads-up about the forum by a frustrated Tribune reader who wondered if something similar could be staged here before it’s too late for the Tribune. “When readers complain, we’re brushed off and told we don’t understand the newspaper business,” she wrote me. “When journalists complain, the answer seems to be that they’re whiny and out of touch with the public.”

But what if the entire city complains?

Chicago hasn’t. Not about the Tribune nor about the even more imperiled Sun-Times. Something vital to our city is at risk, but no one’s raising a fuss about it. Gary Dretzka, a former Tribune editor who now watches the paper closely from Los Angeles, e-mailed me to observe, “Apparently, community groups and politicians hate/mistrust the Tribune enough not to take sides (altho both would miss it if it were gone), and the laid-off and fired employees have basically allowed themselves to vanish quietly, like sheep being led to slaughter.”

Besides, Dretzka added, Tribune loyalists live in the suburbs, Sun-Times loyalists in the city. In other words, the two papers appeal to separate, even rival, constituencies. I wonder if in the back of the minds of each paper’s most faithful readers is the idea that if the other paper dies their own might not.

Between 1988 and 1996 Ron Rapoport lived in LA, and when he retired from the Sun-Times two years ago he moved back there.

“The Times has a different relationship with the community than the Chicago papers do,” he says. The Times “is considered to be really a part of the political and cultural fabric of the city in a way I don’t think the Trib is. It occupies a higher place. There isn’t much that unifies Los Angeles the way the Cubs and Bears do in Chicago. Los Angeles is more amorphous, it’s bigger, it’s harder to get around in, the various parts don’t relate—that’s a big difference. One of the things that does unify Los Angeles is the Times. One of the things that does reach into all areas is the Times. And people are taking its downsizing, its degrading, what they perceive as a lessening of its commitment, very hard.

“And the swaggering attitude of Zell and Abrams is just not going over well here.”

That’s owner Sam Zell and his innovation officer, Lee Abrams. Maybe we in Chicago cut Zell some slack because he’s our billionaire. The Tribune Company bought the Times in 2000 and LA has smarted ever since. A couple of that city’s own billionaires explored buying the Times when the Tribune Company was put up for sale a couple years ago, but that much-prayed-for act of deliverance didn’t happen. So LA’s anger at what it sees Zell doing is compounded by the ongoing insult of colonization.

Mariotti: Friends in No Places

As a deputy sports editor at the Sun-Times in the mid-90s, Rapoport was formally Jay Mariotti’s superior. He closely followed the drama when Mariotti left the paper on August 26.

“The thing that surprises me the most is the over-the-top reaction,” Rapoport says. “The Tribune ran Roger Ebert’s whole letter [to Mariotti]. When’s the last time that happened? But doesn’t this prove Jay’s point? He was huge. The fact they’re ripping him so bad shows what his position in this town was.”

And he deserved that status, Rapoport thinks. “He was a very good writer. He backed up all of his opinions with reasons. He didn’t just vent. He told you why. He did the one thing a columnist has to do. He made you have to read him.

“But he also did the one thing that no columnist and no writer should ever do. And I’ve told this to him in his face in the line of duty as deputy sports editor. I said, ‘Jay, you’re a great sports columnist but you do one thing that’s unforgivable—you can’t get along with the people you work with.’ I should have added, ‘and work for.’ The angry phone calls, the ripping of colleagues in print—it’s just unforgivable.

“Look, Mike Royko was a cranky old guy. But he would sit down and have a beer with you. But nobody Jay worked with liked him.”v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on the media, see Michael Miner’s blog, News Bites.