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Monday, May 6th, 2013

'Buddies': Dave Chappelle's 'Home Improvement' Spinoff That Actually Got Made


Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we cry in vain. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where Brilliantly Canceled comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.

"It was a bad show. It was bad. I mean when we were doing it, I could tell this was not gonna work." – Dave Chappelle

(Grunt) – Tim Allen

There was a time when Timothy "The Toolman" Taylor changed lives.

On March 14, 1995, two gentleman that went by the names of Jim and Dave didn't realize that their tickets to Tool Time would lead to stardom, but as is the world's way sometimes, when you let your guard down, great things can happen. After Taylor for the umpteenth time interrupted a perfectly normal and informative lesson on how to better your home through old fashioned hard work and blue collar craftsmanship to vent about his personal life and make sweeping gender generalizations, he asked the audience if anyone could relate to women tricking them into fights, as women are wont to do. Jim and Dave knew exactly what he was talking about, and were called up to the stage.

Supposedly, Dave Chappelle's first seven minutes of screen time on television was so impressive, ABC executives hurriedly developed a show that would star Chappelle — who some people knew from 1993's Robin Hood: Men In Tights — and Jim Breuer, a complete unknown, playing their characters Dave and Jim from the Home Improvement episode. In what would end up being the only network television sitcom Chappelle would star in, (or appear in, besides Home Improvement and an episode of Wanda at Large), Buddies became a reality almost one year to the day of Jim and Dave's introduction to the world. The first and last spin-off of Tim Allen's show would even retain the character names of Jim and Dave's girlfriends (Lorraine and Phyllis), and appeased the continuity Gods by having Jim and Lorraine married when the series began, in line with Breuer's wedding date announcement in the above video. Most spinoffs, even the successful ones, do not bother with carrying the same back stories that were established on a completely different program 1, which makes it all the more strange that Jim Breuer was recast, and renamed John.

The chemistry exhibited by real life friends and future Half Baked co-stars Chappelle and Breuer didn't work for executives at some point during the rehearsals and shooting of the original pilot episode, and Breuer was fired, giving Chappelle his first bad taste in his mouth over show business. This seems unconscionable: the two really did make a fun comedy duo that showed enormous potential. Chappelle was already at 22 years old a smooth wiseass who could play silly without losing his cool (even his female voice sounded awfully similar to his white man voice that he used so humorously years later on Chappelle's Show, and Dave was pretending to be Breuer's white girlfriend in the Home Improvement clip, so it all checks out), and Breuer was the aggro that couldn't actually scare or offend anybody if he wanted to, ready to bounce off the walls for a laugh or to provide ballast for a scene. What apparently happened, based on how the show ended up being written and produced, was that the executives developed a fear that Breuer would chew up the scenery2 and overshadow the future star ABC really wanted to get in business with.

Whether he liked it or not, Buddies was strictly a Dave Chappelle vehicle, evident from Chappelle's character appearing in the majority of the scenes, to Chappelle's character being named Dave, when every other cast member was portraying someone with a different name, giving the show some sort of half-assed Piccadello play feel if you're feeling particularly generous in your literary analogies. With no offense to Christopher Gartin, Breuer's firing was a mistake. Imagine Breuer instead of Gartin acting in a scene where his tarantula-fearing character discovers a tarantula on his shoulder (starting at 15:50):

It's hard to believe that Breuer wouldn't have elevated that scene, with the only criticism that would have come from that would possibly stem from a hatred of any physical humor. Instead, Gartin played John, adequately, but not notably, a poor man's Campbell Scott in Singles kind of performance. John was recently married to Lorraine, played by Paula Cale, who never talked about her old fiancee Jim, and had a mother with an affection for the bottle named Maureen, virtually unscathed after six divorces. Dave and John ran a small video production business that went through growing pains throughout the series and survived on a gig to gig basis, with the threat of being evicted from their apartments by Dave's cigar chomping, hard-ass of a father/landlord, in the form of Richard Roundtree. While Chappelle and Gartin would occasionally play goofy practical jokes on each other and have each other's backs, their friendship from childhood would never feel entirely believable. The only remotely intriguing back and forth between two characters involved the tough love father-son interactions between Chappelle and Shaft. Roundtree was at times truly menacing, but even at his worst, Chappelle would have a wise cracking comment ready to pop out of his mouth after acknowledging the threat. The different rhythms were strange to watch. Roundtree's Mr. Carlisle never reached cartoonish heights of villainy, due to both the veteran actor's efforts and the writing. His capitalist view of the world never changed for a cheap joke or plotline, and the landlord wasn't above laughing in hysterics once he realized Dave was about to get yelled at by his girlfriend, or tricking Dave into thinking a huge spider was by his ear.

Dave's girlfriend Phyllis (Tanya Wright) was seen as a long suffering girlfriend of Chappelle's, who both breaks up with and becomes engaged to Dave over the course of series, fortunately for fans of love in that chronological order. Dave Carlisle has a fear of commitment that Phyllis understandably always took personally, and there are unoriginal stories stemming from Chappelle's character coming off as a jerk that seemingly listens to Tim Taylor's rants but never the apologies. On one hand, he was only 22 years old, but on the other, Dave said things like he was 22 years old and his "life is over," while stressing about his engagement. Phyllis isn't a particularly developed character, and a result only existed to endanger Chappelle of becoming unlikable by stringing along a nice woman.

But of course, that never happened. Chappelle would just respond to John asking why he had claimed to be Kareem Abdul-Jabaar's cousin with "Because I don't look like his sister" and be the hero again. There were some successful quips3, mostly from Chappelle, but from all of the characters. Unfortunately, Buddies was still a below average, at times hack sitcom. In most cases, comedies get funnier once the writers and actors know their characters a little bit better and where the rich comedy veins can be drawn from, but that never happened. Instead, Buddies talked more about race as the series progressed. Mostly, the extent of talk of race would come from Maureen's character spewing racist stereotypes out loud without any trace of malice, and Phyllis and Dave correcting her, with varying results, with Chappelle getting the last laugh, although he would never truly go off on an inspired riff like he would be allowed to do later on in his career. In "The Content of Their Character," Roundtree plants the thought in Dave's head that the Black Business Association decided against using their company to produce their commercials because John was white. The punchline: the winning bid came from a group that had a comically larger budget than Dave and John did.

Things never got downright hostile in that episode, but that wasn't the case for Buddies' final installment, "Whack and Blight." Dave's high school buddy Walter, now rapping with the moniker Iceman, refused to work with Chappelle in no uncertain terms because his business partner was white. John wasn't angry, only disappointed, by Walter's racism, and a chunk of his screen time was devoted to dealing with a creepy and disgusting doll that his wife was fond of, which yes, predated the Seinfeld doll storyline by a few years. The B story was better off put into a different episode altogether, but the writers' fear of weighing down a comedy show with a serious subject matter was too much for that. To their credit, the resolution to Walter's storyline did not result in the Iceman learning his lesson entirely, only thawing him a bit4 towards white people5.

Buddies filmed thirteen episodes, but ABC only aired five of them before cancelling the show in April 1996. Jim Breuer by then was known all across America for his work on Saturday Night Live. Chappelle would be cast in another sitcom, but the network would be accused by Dave of racism after they allegedly grew uncomfortable with the African-American cast and wanted most of them replaced by white people6. The Breuer firing, the subsequent failure of Buddies, the racism exhibited by the executives, and the death of his father led Chappelle to consider retiring from show business (the first time). Instead, he kept plugging away, which led to Chappelle's Show, which led to the DVD release of ten of the thirteen episodes7 of Buddies by Best Buy in 2005 in an attempt to capitalize on Dave's sudden stardom. The DVD is out of print, but they all exist on YouTube, airing in perpetuity along with that Home Improvement clip as a monument to how far Dave Chappelle has come, and how much we lost since he stopped fate and refused to make Tim Allen look even smarter.


1Frasier comes to mind: it was interesting to have Frasier Crane explain to Sam Malone why he had said his father was dead when Martin Crane was very much alive, sitting on his favorite recliner cracking wise with that dog of his in Frasier's apartment.

2Yes, I suppose like a half man half goat might literally do.

3Impressively enough a running gag used in two different episodes. "Barry." "Who?" "Black Barry." "Oh right."

4Sorry.

5"Whack and Blight" also had Dave successfully convince Maureen of hip hop music's legitimacy by outlining the similarities between the genre and her beloved country. The final scene of the series was Dave playing "Crazy" on the saxophone as Maureen sang along. The earnestly pleasant message was a little undercut by the weird image of Dave Chappelle playing the saxophone.

6Chappelle would parody this in The Larry Sanders Show episode "Pilots and Pens Lost," written by Buddies co-creator Peter Tolan.

7The DVD is curiously missing the pilot episode, and two other episodes ABC actually put on the air. Possibly those installments don't have enough Chappelle and/or were just that bad.