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TUBA OR NOT TUBA? : Tom Wilson's Blasts of the Past Are Back

March 11, 1993|DENNIS McLELLAN | Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

Tom Wilson has a unique distinction: He's the only comedian in the history of "The Tonight Show" to make his stand-up debut playing a tuba.

"I played the tuba in the band all through school," he said after walking out and leading the hand-clapping audience in a rousing football game marching song with his instrument.

"Every marching band you see," he said, "the tubas are on top (of the stands) doing this--swinging back and forth--just trying to dodge all the garbage you people are trying to throw into this thing. . . . I've seen it a million times: 'Here come the tubas! Hey, give me the rest of that hot dog!' "

The tuba routine--it included a rendition of the menacing theme from "Jaws" and ended with his observing, "The tuba is a lot of fun at the beach"--went over so well during the 1990 appearance that Johnny Carson invited him--and his tuba--back.

"Oh, I'm the hero of tuba players across the country," Wilson joked by phone from the road in Minneapolis last week. "I've been very fortunate in my TV appearances with it."

The comic, who is headlining at the Brea Improv through Sunday, said the tuba is generally part of his act.

"Like so many comedians, I began my act as a regular observationalist," he said. "I had played the tuba since I was very young, and I had a tuba sitting in my room, and I thought I ought to use this. I think people really identify with it, because a lot of people were in the band."

The tuba-toting comic, however, is best known for one of his movie roles. He played Michael J. Fox's nemesis, Biff the bully, in the 1985 mega-hit "Back to the Future" and its two sequels.

" 'Back to the Future' is such a classic; I mean, everyone knows that movie," said Wilson, adding that he is so identified with the Biff character that he can't not talk about it at the top of his act. As he tells audiences:

"I studied classic acting--I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, studied Shakespeare, Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Then I moved to California only to say, 'What are you looking at, butt head?' "

Actually, Wilson said, when he was in school he was the exact opposite of Biff.

"The only reason I was able to play him was because I stared him in the face so often," he said. "I was on the debate team, I played the tuba--so you can paint your own picture of the kind of macho, swashbuckling hero I was."

Wilson, who grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, moved to New York City in the '70s to study acting. Then, in 1979, the proverbial "starving actor" tried his hand at stand-up comedy.

"It was a way to make some bucks," he said. "Actually, I was in a production of 'Richard III'--summer stock Shakespeare--and a couple of guys I knew who were actors tried this stand-up comedy, and they thought I was goofy enough to give it a shot."

His first stand-up performance in a tiny bar in Pennsylvania with "a bare light bulb and a rickety stage" didn't go well, he said, but it didn't go too badly, either.

"I came off stage thinking, 'That's done; I'm glad I didn't just die up there,' " he said, recalling that the club owner asked him back the next night when the scheduled comic canceled. "I did a little better that night, and I just stuck with it."

Since moving to Los Angeles in 1981, Wilson has alternated between stand-up comedy and acting (his film credits include "April Fool's Day," "Action Jackson" and "Let's Get Harry"). Increasingly, however, the acting has taken precedence over the stand-up.

Although he has performed his act on "Late Night With David Letterman" and other shows, Wilson said he has "purposely concentrated on my acting career rather than doing a lot of television shows as a stand-up comic for fear of being overly identified as a stand-up comedian rather than an actor."

Wilson, who is on the road about six weeks a year, describes his act as "very autobiographical."

"It's not a punch line act; it's an act of my personality and story-telling about my life, which are true stories which are funny," he said.

"For a very brief time after high school, I went to Arizona State University. I majored in international politics--Arizona being the hub of international relations."

The bottom line, he said, is that his act is high energy and truly fun.

"I try to make people happy, not only laugh," he said. "That's always, I think, the challenge of comedy. So many people--and I'm as guilty as anybody--work on material that just makes people laugh reactively, and they don't remember what it's about afterward. By storytelling and talking about myself, I try to make people happier than when they came."

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