In the biggest Home Impodcast to date, we sat down with a very special guest – the man who played Al Borland, Richard Karn himself! Our interview spanned many topics, from Home Improvement to his favorite food. Below you will find a shortened and slightly paraphrased version of our interview. If you prefer to listen to the audio, you can do so here.
Home Impodcast: Let’s start with the beginning of Home Improvement. We’ve heard the story of how a traffic citation led to your being cast in the pilot. Is that true?
Richard Karn: It’s weird you never know where your opportunities are going to come from. Mine came from an 8-hour traffic school session here in West Hollywood. I was stuck next to this person who was an agent and we knew certain people in the business that we talked about when we were studiously paying attention. I knew the producers and when I found out about this opportunity, I gave them a call. Best phone call I’ve ever made.
It says here that you were managing an apartment complex at the time. Is that something you continued to do as you took on the role?
That’s one of those jobs that you have as a young actor. You know you’re a waiter, a bartender, an apartment manager. Our first apartment in LA was another actor and his company was opening up another building down the street and asked if we were interested. We said, “Free rent? Sure!” And it was a great job. I held on to it for a little bit as we started the Home Improvement run, but it became clear pretty quickly that it would be something that would get in the way.
Let’s talk about the evolution of Al. What are some of the influences of Al? What kind of imprint could you put on Al?
The pilot and the first few episodes were not written for what Al became as it was written for a different actor. But you know the audience kind of knew who Tim and I were before we did. We would say a line that we didn’t think was particularly funny, but they would laugh with a kind of inside knowledge of who these people are.
About 3 or 4 episodes in, the writers wrote this innocuous line, “I don’t think so, Tim.” This line took on a life of its own and crystalized who these two characters were for the writers. I didn’t put any spin on it or anything, but I took my time which got a laugh and then said, “I don’t think so, Tim,” which also got a laugh.
That’s really interesting that such an iconic line came by accident. In terms of the character Al, what were you drawing on? I read that your father was a contractor, did that influence you?
I had done a lot of theatre at that point. I had been in New York for 11 years and did theatre in school before that. I was playing the role as written, but it wasn’t a play anymore. Things change over weeks and things aren’t written in stone anymore.
I was really wanting to help Tim. He’s not a vulnerable guy, but he’s a stand up who wasn’t sure if his acting prowess would stand up to Pat who played Jill. I was really there to help him along and motivate him whether he knew that or not. I was just damn glad to be there.
Let’s talk more about seasons 1 and 2. Do you have any particular memories that stick out from early on?
I remember one of the first times that Tim and Al were outside of Tool Time. They brought on a new writer, Roz. Tim and Al were in a department store looking for clothes for his wife. That bit where I pulled out my measuring device and measured a dress like I knew what I was doing. That really made me laugh.
When did you know that the show had captured something special?
I don’t know if I knew what that meant. However, when we were filming the pilot I knew this was good and funny. The audiences were responding quickly. When it was edited all together it I went, “Wow this is going to be a really great show. I’m not going to be in it, but I’m glad I was in it.” When the pilot aired, I was got a called from my dad who was getting calls from friends who watched it. He said, “Ya know, I gotta tell ya. You look like you really know what you are doing.”
The show ended over 15 years ago, but it was apparent that you had a great relationship with the cast. Are you still in touch?
Yeah, we are, but it’s very different. It’s like the friends you had from high school and then you see them once in a while during or after college. Everyone has their own lives, but you meet up every once in a while and have a drink.
Tim and I played golf last Monday for the Screen Actors Guild charity event. I always laugh hard when I am with him. It’s cathartic. It’s really fun. We had a little Home Improvement gathering last Saturday night. The boys were there with their parents. Tim and Pat couldn’t make it. Earl, of course. Debbie is doing a show about dude ranches.
Who is the better golfer, you or Tim?
Definitely, I am.
No need to pause, huh?
He has heart though. He wants to get better. He wants to beat his wife.
In terms of after the show ended, any props from the show that you took with you?
Tim was the king of that. He has the whole Tool Time set at his offices. He has the biggest prop ever from that show.
After the 1st season, I go back to get my tool belt and it’s gone. In its place is a new fabric tool belt empty. They told me to fill it back up again. I took pains to fill it up with the right tools and to rough it up in the right places. Then I find out that Disney took the tool belt down to Disney World to display it in their museum. But I still have the second tool belt with me in my office.
This question is a little bit different, but we your input on it. How much credit do you take for the recent rise in the sex appeal of flannel and beards? Is it 100%?
You know what’s funny? When they started the show, I’m from Seattle. Everybody just figured I’m the nucleus of the grunge look because that’s also the grunge look. Valerie who did costuming for us would get flannel or plaid shirts from Ralph Lauren that didn’t fit me because I’m not a model. She would also get some from Sears. These shirts that were $110 in the early ‘90s, but I said just go get the $35 ones. They actually look better on camera.
The beard was something I had at that point. As a young actor, you don’t think a beard was going to be that commercial. You had to be open to different looks. I had just done a Shakespeare play and the producers liked the beard. Part of them calling me back to fill in was maybe based on that because it was a look that Norm Abrams had and those guys on public television. Hence Al Borland was born.
The first time early on where they did that great bit where we are changing out of our Tool Time outfits and I’m changing into the exact same shirt that I pull out of my locker was a great sight gag.
Well, it sounds like you take about 100% of it. That was a long way of saying it, “I caused all of that.”
Recently you appeared on the season finale of the Detroiters, playing yourself. A very funny show. How did that transpire?
They called up and said, “We want you to play you.” And I go, “Oh wow.” That’s so weird. I’m now of the status of playing me. I don’t know how to feel about that, but they wrote a song because I am playing a host of a Detroit advertising award show. So there is a song and a whole bunch of stuff that is going to go on.
We are recording the scene and there are 200 extras there and they are yelling out, “We love you!” and, “I just started acting, can you give me any advice?” When you see the final product, you see some quick cuts. It was fun and hysterical.
Switching gears a bit. We’re curious how the rise of social media has affected your relationship with fans.
I am not as social media savvy as some people. Some people hire people to do social media for them, but I felt that was a bit weird. So I throw stuff out every once in a while, but I’m not as prolific at it. But the fans seem to love Home Improvement. But when you see some of these lists that are the best show so the ‘90s, sometimes Home Improvement isn’t even on that. How can that be? Maybe it’s I’m just too close to it.
That is a common thing. For our money though, one of the most popular shows of the decade.
It holds up. It holds up for families to watch with their kids. Something they can feel comfortable doing.
I think you are selling yourself short on the social media thing. You are retweeting, you’re liking things, and you got a hold of us. You’ve got some knowledge.
I have a particular set of skill.
We solicited some questions from our audience in preparation for this. Emma on Twitter asks if you miss flannel or wear it much anymore?
It’s hard to wear flannel in Southern California, but if I’m in Calgary of something I will wear some flannel. It’s hard though. It’s like a beacon. If I’m in flannel it’s like flashing lights as I walk down the street. I have shirts, but they are not my go-to shirts.
Speed round time. You up for it?
This is where you really get into my psyche huh?
That’s right. What’s your favorite season of Home Improvement?
This one comes from Sarah from Twitter. She wants to know your favorite episode.
There are so many different things that I really enjoyed. Just for the sheer differentness of it was when we went up to Traverse City in the last season.
Oh man. I’m so glad you said that. I was there! I was staying in the same hotel the cast was staying at. I was 7 then, but I saw Zachery Ty Bryan and JTT. My sister says we saw you. I think it was a Holiday Inn?
Do you want to know the secret of why we ended up in Traverse City?
This was actually when Tim quit drinking. He had got a DUI and part of his community service was bringing the show to Michigan.
That’s not on any of the IMDb pages! Next one, what’s your favorite Al moment?
I think it was when Tim invites me over to play poker. I ask him if there is a theme and I come as a cowboy in a 10-gallon hat. We stood at the door as we were doing the scene and I keep raising my head and hitting the light. Every time I did that Tim cracked up. He just couldn’t stop laughing.
What’s the first thing you thought after the show wrapped?
Oh man, I am going to miss this. You know you are going to miss it, but the reality of it is that there is a comfort to knowing that this amount of time is set aside to do this. You are with people and you are laughing. So that was my first thought. I am going to miss this.
Another fan question from Twitter. This one is from @kigtweets. What is the weirdest interaction, compliment, or gift that you have got from a fan?
Let’s see. There was a wonderful moment when we went to Australia. We were huge in Australia. I went to one of the grand championships there. There were these huge guys who saw me. And they come running over. They have bodyguards for me. I don’t know why. People don’t really bother me. They lift me on their shoulder and start running away to take me away to a party. My bodyguards are just laughing and my wife is behind me hitting them yelling, “Get them! They’re taking him away!”
There was this time in Washington D.C. We were going to the Air and Space Museum. There are 5000 buses of high school kids. If one sees you, they all see you. This moment happened and we are running down the hall. I am ushered into this room so they can put a hat and glasses on me so we can continue our tour. That was fun. I felt like a Beatle.
What’s your favorite food?
Copper River Salmon.
There are the classics like Godfather. So brilliant. Not as known – Three Days of the Condor. I love that. Citizen Kane.
Favorite place to visit or vacation?
Italy. You can’t find a bad meal. It’s incredible.
I’m getting hungry. Favorite non-Al role?
The character in The Foreigner was one of my favorite roles. I tried to get that play made into the movie and I found out the Disney owned the rights. I asked them to do this movie and they said we forgot about this. They had it for like 10 years.
The next week Tim comes to me and he told them that Richard should do this. Apparently, Disney didn’t want me to do this.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed in your life?
It had to be of been one day at rehearsal. One day I couldn’t recover and my stomach hurt.
In 5 years when they make the Richard Karn autobiographical film, who will play you?
My son. When I saw him on stage a couple of times, I would see physical things that I kind of knew I did. I said Wow. That’s my move.
Did you watch Home Improvement as you were on the show?
Yeah, we tuned in, but I haven’t watched it since then. Someday I will have to sit down and have the memories wash over me.
Favorite guest star to work with? Lots of good cameos!
Well the K&B boys. The first time they were on Mickey Jones brought his guitar. He was singing and talking so much he lost his voice. If you go back and watch the show, he can barely talk. Casey Sander and I went to junior high together.
1999 the show ended. It’s been a while. What is Al up to?
I think he has kids. He is doing remodeling for friends and family and word of mouth. He’s building decks and remodeling kitchens. Maybe even trying to get another little how to show up.
Last speed round question. What’s the biggest difference between you and Al?
I think his innocence. That really helps in telling stories. Somebody has to learn for the story to have a moral.
Two more quick questions. Any upcoming projects you’d like to plug?
Things just kind of happen to me and I don’t have anything specific right now. There is some theater offered in the future. I don’t know if I will do that. In the last 5 years, I’ve done about 5 plays across the country. This one guy wanted me to do a show for him where we remodel celebrity bathrooms. I thought that might be funny.
Last official question. You tweeted there were a reunion and talk of a reboot. Is there a reboot planned?
There isn’t one planned especially. Wind Dancer and Disney are still haggling over some things. There is a lawsuit still going that they haven’t resolved after 25 years. Once that is done maybe they can start putting their heads together and doing that.
Do you think everyone would be game for that?
I think most people would. Yes.
And that’s the end of the interview we had with Richard Karn. Not everything from the audio version was included here so make sure to check out the full audio conversation here.