All Tim Allen wants for the holidays are a few cool outdoor gadgets. But don't expect him to use any of them.
"I love the thought of me out there fishing and hunting and camping," says Allen, on a break from rehearsals for his ABC hit Last Man Standing. "But I don't do it."
Is the guy who bemoans the state of his gender on his new sitcom experiencing his own manly crisis? Not quite. Allen simply doesn't have the time to pursue the testosterone-fueled pursuits he touts on his show. "My wife says, 'We're not going to start doing all of that, are we?'" he reports. "I'd like to get one of those stupid RVs that looks like you can drive it to the North Pole. She says, 'You know it's going to sit and never go anywhere, right? And I say, 'You're probably right.'"
Allen squabbling with his spouse over his macho hobbies sounds like a plotline ripe for Last Man Standing. In a season when several new shows tackled the demise of men (including CBS' quickly canceled How to Be a Gentleman and ABC's struggling Man Up!), Allen's show has resonated the most with viewers. Last Man Standing debuted to solid ratings, attracting more than 15 million viewers (including seven days' worth of DVR usage). That was good enough for ABC, which gave the comedy a full-season order.
It's a theme that fits the actor like a comfortable pair of dungarees — and it's probably no surprise that Allen was instrumental in hammering out the character that finally brought him back to television. "It's not misogynist. I call it masculinist," Allen says. "Celebrate what it is to be a man."
Twelve years after he hung up his tools on ABC's wildly successful 1990s comedy Home Improvement, Allen now plays Mike Baxter, the marketing director of Outdoor Man, a fictional sporting-goods chain. When the company cuts his travel budget, Mike winds up spending more time at home, where he's surrounded by a wife (Nancy Travis) and three rowdy daughters.
Like Tim Taylor before him, Mike Baxter shares a lot with Tim Allen. The actor is also a man looking to assert himself in an estrogen-dominant household; he's raising a toddler daughter with his wife, actress Jane Hajduk. And just as Home Improvement tapped into Allen's fascination with guy stuff, Last Man Standing gives Allen an outlet to mess around with the kind of big-boy toys you see in those supersize outdoor stores.
"I can't re-create Home Improvement," Allen says. "I can't forget that I did it — I loved that show. So I re-created an image of it. This is an alter ego to it. Same guy, but much butchier. Tim Taylor was a little beleaguered. Mike Baxter is not beleaguered. I don't want him wearing a flannel shirt with a T-shirt underneath. He's a University of Michigan graduate. He's been all over the world. So he can't make jokes about paninis and lattes. This dude has been around gay people."
It's a warm October afternoon in Los Angeles, but on Last Man Standing's soundstage, fake snow is sprinkled outside the Baxters' Colorado home. Allen is running lines with Travis and the three actresses who play their daughters, Molly Ephraim, Alexandra Krosney and Kaitlyn Dever.
The cast walks across the kind of set TV viewers grew accustomed to over the years — living room, kitchen, staircase, front door — but is now mostly absent from comedy. When Home Improvement premiered in 1991, TV was saturated with family sitcoms, from The Cosby Show to Roseanne. These days, save for ABC's Modern Family and The Middle and Fox's Raising Hope, sitcom families are a rare commodity in prime time. And traditional multicamera family shows have disappeared to cable (where networks like TV Land and Disney Channel keep them going).
Actually, a lot has changed in the years since Allen left TV to focus on movies and return to stand-up. "Tim took a big risk in coming back to TV," says exec producer Marsh McCall. "We're trying not to let him down."
The actor says he's still adjusting his mind-set to how viewers now consume TV. "People's attention spans are limited," he says. "I don't know if it's Twitter, Facebook, 800 channels, family problems, the economy... but keeping people's attention is a formidable task. They get bored quickly. Unless there's sexual content or the lowest common denominator."
That's the fight Allen's waging. The content on Last Man Standing would have been considered downright edgy 20 years ago, but now feels tame when stacked up against other prime-time sitcoms. "There are shows that will remain nameless, but I can't believe they're on network TV," he says. "Standards and Practices doesn't have a problem with 'chlamydia' at 8 o'clock. We've lowered our standards."
Allen says he's not against working blue, but he prefers to reserve that material for his adults-only shows in Vegas. "You're not going to see me doing this [stuff] at 8pm. I'm fighting this all the time. I'm the parent on this set." Hector Elizondo, who plays Mike's boss, says Last Man benefits from being a traditional show. "Its strength is in its comfort zone," he says. "The fact that it's familiar territory."
For more with Tim Allen and Last Man Standing, pick up this week's Holiday Preview issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, November 17!