He first tried stand-up at a Detroit comedy club and soon made a name for himself by lampooning men as lovable pigs. An early joke: "Mom said the only reason men are alive is for lawn care and vehicle maintenance." The hook took off. "Everything I did got bigger and bigger audiences," Allen remembers. "Someone heard about me, and I was suddenly in California. Then I was on Showtime. Then I started selling out arenas all over the country. Then I rolled into Home Improvement. That was pretty hard to beat."
Except for the fact that Allen wasn't entirely present for much of his success. He drank — heavily — as his career soared. It was a difficult lifestyle to maintain. "I was doing comedy clubs, concerts, movies and TV, and didn't ever realize how fatigued I was or how much I was missing in my life," he explains. He came to regret all the time that he spent away from his daughter Katherine (the two are now very close), and his first marriage fell apart. After a drunk-driving arrest in 1997 led Allen to court-ordered rehab the following year, he finally realized it was time to clean up for good.
"What I wanted more than anything was clarity, and I still do," he says. "That's what I appreciate about spending time with older people. My wife and I have befriended couples in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and they're so clear about who they are. They teach us humility and gentleness. Maybe their bodies don't work the way they once did, but they're right there. That's how I want to be as I get older."
Allen may be closer to clarity than he thinks. Riding all those ups and downs has made him a wiser, saner man. "Seeing the worst parts of my behavior helped me understand the better parts," he says. "So while I'm still more anxious than I want to be most of the time, I'm far less anxious than I used to be." Allen groans a little and turns up the palm of one hand. "I guess that's progress."
Watch television these days and Allen will soon come on-screen, even if you can't see him. As the ad-campaign voice of Chevrolet and Campbell's Soup, he's as American as, well, a burger and fries. "Tim's the everyman that men wish they were, which is why he's so popular," says Julie Bowen, the Modern Family star who has made two movies with Allen. "He's funny, charming and attractive without being too much of any of those things. Tim makes you think, 'I could be that guy.' "
And like many guys, the comedian loves his cars. He owns around 30 of them, including hot rods he built himself and drivable versions of scale models he collected as a boy. ("My wife also has a bunch of very hot cars that I bought her," he says.) Allen will sometimes spend weeks talking shop with a potential seller or haggling over prices. He bought a 1939 Studebaker truck from a 90-year-old veteran in Pennsylvania. "I would have bought the car no matter what," he says, "but I loved that I got to talk to this guy every day and argue about the price. 'Where'd you get it? How did you come up with that?' "
Next: What Tim Allen likes to do in his spare time. »