The impetus for Mike Toomey’s career in stand-up comedy essentially began with an admonishment from his first-grade principal.
Word had gotten out at school that Toomey liked to watch TV.
Sleeping, bathing and sometimes eating interrupted his valuable TV-watching time.
The principal, to Toomey, decades ago: “No one ever made a career out of watching TV.”
Toomey, to himself: I’ll show her.
Toomey is 54 years old today, and he’s sitting with me at a table at Le Peep Pancake House in Evanston. A friend, New Trier graduate Bill Kissinger of Wilmette, had recommended the restaurant to Toomey since Toomey lives in New Lenox and a request had been made to Toomey to pick a North Shore restaurant.
He orders a glass of orange juice, an egg bagel sandwich and a side of hash browns.
“I took what the principal told me as a challenge,” Toomey recalls with a half-smile and a half-smirk.
“So I watched even more TV.”
Toomey — a stand-up comic since the age of 18 and the WGN-TV Morning News (9-10 a.m.) announcer — will perform his “TV & Me” show at Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest on November 11. The father of four (ages 18-25) and the husband of Beth (a first-grade teacher, no kidding) plans to impersonate at least 50 TV characters, including his signature and spot-on Adam West (Batman, the TV series), Robert Reed (Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch) and Richard Dawson (game-show emcee of The Family Feud).
Toomey takes his audiences on a journey back to the 1960s and 1970s, all while relating how his childhood-TV watching has shaped his adult life. He shares his unique, whip-smart observations about his favorite programs and commercials and iconic characters.
“Don Knotts’ Barney Fife character on The Andy Griffith Show,” Toomey says, “is one of the best TV characters ever. It has to be. It was unique, with so many layers to it. I think I was four years old when I first watched an episode of the show. I enjoyed it, immediately. I really enjoyed the way Andy’s character dealt with Barney and all of Barney’s quirks.”
The multimedia presentation at Gorton will feature more than 300 slides and sound bites.
That career Mike Toomey was not supposed to be able to make out of watching TV?
He continues to do so, and a certain principal, somewhere, has just ordered another heaping helping of crow.
Toomey had practically just removed his cap and gown from his 1981 Glenbard North High School graduation ceremony in Carol Stream when he found himself on a stage at a comedy club, facing nothing but older faces.
Make me laugh, the older faces demanded.
“What I had going for me,” Toomey says, “was knowledge of TV shows. Those adults had more life experiences than I had, but I had TV experiences in common with pretty much everybody in the club. Think about the lines, the unforgettable lines, from a show like The Brady Bunch — lines like, ‘Mom always said, Don’t play ball in the house, and Peter [doing his Humphrey Bogart voice] saying, ‘Pork chops and applesauce’, and Marcia saying, ‘Something suddenly came up.’ ”
Toomey did his first morning bit for WGN-TV News in 2003, when the show aired from 6-9 a.m. It was a Halloween bit. He was Batman, giving Halloween tips.
“They asked me back the next month, for a Thanksgiving bit,” Toomey says. “I was Batman, again. That Batman TV series was the best because it had the look of a comic book. I still enjoy the reruns today; there’s plenty of adult humor in them.”
WGN-TV producers let him branch out from there, giving him opportunities to ditch the tights and cowl and entertain viewers in different outfits on or around Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Opening Day (baseball) and St. Patrick’s Day.
“I was Lord of the Limerick on St. Paddy’s Day,” he says.
Toomey’s first “stage performance” netted him zero dollars but plenty of applause — from family members. On Thanksgiving Days, a young, courageous Mike Toomey couldn’t wait to stand in the middle of an oriental rug — surrounded by tryptophan-loaded cousins and siblings and adults — and recite, verbatim, acts performed by comedian Stan Freberg. Toomey had listened to Freberg albums, over and over again, before his post-Thanksgiving Dinner gigs.
“I was fascinated with comedians and TV comedies at a young age,” says Toomey, who ranks George Carlin at the top of his Best Comedians of All-Time list. “People want to be transported back to a time when there were just a handful of TV channels, when people talked about the funny episodes and great lines. It’s still fun today to relive that time, through memories of TV shows and characters; it’s relatable.
“Funny people,” he adds, “have always enthralled me.”
Mike Toomey will perform his “TV & Me” show at Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest on November 11, beginning at 8 p.m. GCC is located at 400 E. Illinois Road. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door and $10 for students. For more information, please visit gortoncenter.org/event/mike-toomeys-tv.