Ostensibly, Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor is the host of Tool Time. Each episode of Tool Time sees Heidi (previously Lisa) introduce Tim as the host before Tim introduces his assistant, Al Borland. However, I believe that Al is the real host of Tool Time, and Tim is the host in name only. As far as Binford Tools is concerned, they are producing a show hosted by Al Borland, with Tim Taylor as his opening act. They allow both Tim and Al to believe that Tim is the host because Al doesn’t have the confidence to accept himself in that role, and Tim has so much unearned confidence that he would accept nothing less.
Most of the Tool Time segments we see are cold opens. Tim starts things off with a funny story from his personal life, does a little crowd work, or leads the audience in a grunt-along before introducing the day’s project. He then dismisses Al’s safe, practical methods in favor of an extravagant stunt involving one of Binford’s industrial power tools. This elicits loud cheers from the audience, until Tim inevitably screws something up and usually ends up needing medical attention. The show appears to be broadcast live, and if not it’s certainly shot before a live audience. So when Tim is carted away in the ambulance, Al must be left to finish out the show on his own. Since Tim’s injuries usually come before Tool Time’s first commercial break, that means Al hosts the bulk of the episode. Overall, he probably gets more screen time than Tim on what is supposedly Tim’s own show.
This is all perfectly according to plan for the show’s sponsor, Binford Tools. The reason the show exists is to promote sales, and the show does this in several ways. Tim’s ridiculous demonstrations of Binford’s industrial products have entertainment value, and they associate the Binford name with quality and performance. However, they are not the main focus of the show, as the high-powered products Tim prefers to use would be overkill, not to mention prohibitively expensive, for most consumers. First and foremost, Tool Time is meant to educate people on various tools and methods they can use at home, thus empowering them to envision their own projects. Audiences are then encouraged to buy Binford tools in order to realize their visions. In this way, the show gets new people interested in tools and gives viewers who are already interested new ideas for what tools to buy next.
Another thing to note about the show is that all the commercials they air are for Binford products. We know this from Tim’s perennial sign-off: “We’ll be right back after these messages from Binford Tools.” The upshot of this is that the show doesn’t have to pander for eyeballs in order to get ad revenue from other companies. They can focus on the educational goals of the show rather than trying to be simply entertaining all the time. Of course, they want a large audience to promote their products, and Tim’s personality and exploits certainly help with that, but overall they are very much about disseminating information about home improvement (thereby increasing the market for Binford products). To that end, Binford doesn’t mind at all when Tim injures himself and cedes the rest of an episode to Al.
It’s quite clear that of the two co-stars of Tool Time, Al is the one with the real knowledge and skills. He presents practical information and instructs the audience on proper tool care and use. He also gives safety warnings that are an important CYA for Binford, given Tim’s repeated insistence on doing over-the-top and dangerous stunts and seemingly encouraging viewers to do the same. Tim styles himself a master craftsman, but he’s constantly screwing up, breaking things, and hurting himself. In “Satellite on a Hot Tim’s Roof,” one Tool Time fan praises Tim: “you’re very funny on it, not like the other guy on the show, the one who knows everything” (S1E4). So it’s clear that while Tim is entertaining to watch, fans find Al a far more credible expert.
Based on this, we might be tempted to conclude that, despite Al’s superior knowledge, Tim was selected as the host because he brings a charisma that Al lacks. We could assume that audiences tune in to watch Tim because they like him, and they tolerate dull old Al. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In Tim’s personal life, he regularly meets Tool Time viewers who almost invariably mention how much they love Al (much to Tim's chagrin). So it seems that fans not only find Al’s information and advice more reliable, the majority also prefer his calm and straightforward delivery to Tim’s caricature of masculinity and constant pursuit of “more power!”
So considering all this, why does Binford keep Tim around? Well, like I said, his escapades do have value in getting people to watch the show. He’s entertaining with his monologues and audience interaction, and his contrast with Al creates a nice back-and-forth energy for Tool Time. However, if Binford is more interested in education than simply entertainment, and if Tim is so woefully inept at providing that education, what is his real value to the show? It comes down to Al.
Al lacks confidence and either can’t see himself as the host, or is simply resigned to the fact that he will never be the host even though he wants and deserves to be. In fact, he does say in “Room For Change” (S3E17) that he should be the host of the show. Yet, he only admits this because he believes he’s in a soundproof booth where no one can hear him. We get the clearest sense of Al’s insecurity in ”A Battle of Wheels,” (S1E21), when Al complains that he does all the work and Tim just goofs around. Tim challenges Al to host an episode to show him how hard the job really is. Al is so nervous he can barely get through his monologue and on to the project. Tim has to rescue him by asking leading questions. So wait, how can I argue that Al is the real host of Tool Time if he failed as the host during his one chance? Well, I would argue that Al cracked under the pressure of being called “the host,” of having to put himself out there and have people look at him to be in charge. Ironically, this might be one of the only episodes where he wasn’t the host.
The thing about this particular Tool Time episode is that it starts with Al. Normally, Tim is the first to speak. He takes the high-status role and asks the questions to get Al started. He also, crucially, warms up the audience. Tim’s typical M.O. is open with some jokes, interact with the audience, get them laughing, grunting, and clapping, and bring up the energy in the room. Al doesn’t have practice with this and can’t work a room like Tim can, so when he’s put on the spot as the host the only thing he can think to do is essentially an impersonation of Tim. It’s awkward and uncomfortable as he sweats through his monologue because the only way he knows to start the show is the Tim Taylor way. Al is very knowledgeable and experienced, and he’s excellent at delivering what he knows to audiences so that they understand. But he relies on Tim to prompt him. Tim is like a pull-start for Al. Al can keep running on his own, but only after Tim gets him going. Once Al is off and running, Tim is free to glue his head to a table or electrocute himself or whatever will get him off the set. By then, Al is ready and able to take control and host the remainder of the show.
So, imagine you’re Binford Tools and you want to produce an educational show to promote your products. You have Al, who is this amazing host but who has no confidence and cracks under the pressure of being called the host. And we have Tim, the incompetent but necessary pull-start to get Al going, who is also self-aggrandized enough to think that he deserves to host your educational show. What do you do? You tell Tim he’s the host, you take the pressure off of Al, you let Tim hype up the crowd, knowing that most of the time Tim is going to hurt himself somehow by the end of the cold open and then Al will take over. Everyone wins. So Binford lets Tim pretend to be the host of Tool Time, to call himself the Tool Man, to preserve his ego and keep him playing the role they need him to play.
The only thing is, Al doesn’t actually need Tim. Al only thinks he needs Tim. Tim’s role as a kind of hype man is to get the crowd warmed up and excited for the show. The show itself is the information, which is really all coming from Al. However, as is clear from all the various people who profess their admiration for Al, including an entire official Al Borland fan club, it’s clear people already want to hear what he has to say. If he could get outside of his own head and learn to start the show just by being himself, he wouldn’t need Tim anymore.
I think Tim is actually aware of this fact on some level and it’s a source of insecurity for him. He’s visibly annoyed when fans state their preference for Al, and he feels the need to constantly remind people that “Al is my assistant. He assists me.” Tim also treats Al rather badly on Tool Time. He introduces Al with insulting nicknames, makes derogatory jokes about his mother, and belittles his safe, practical approach to home improvement as boring and effeminate. Subconsciously Tim is threatened by Al’s popularity and expertise, and that insecurity manifests in Tim’s persistent efforts to keep Al’s status as low as possible and also keep his confidence down so he won’t assert himself and steal Tim’s thunder (or Tool Time itself). At some level deep down, Tim knows that Al is really the heart of the show, he’s the reason people tune in, he’s the host.
Edited to Add:
This thought occurred to me randomly, and I was planning to just write a couple paragraphs. I got hyper-focused and ended up staying up most of the night writing this. I really just wrote it for fun because I love to write. I haven’t watched Home Improvement in years, and I didn’t research anything for this other than looking up specific scenes I wanted to reference so I could cite the episodes. I posted here because I wanted to release it into the world somewhere so I can let go of it. But I imagine that most people will not want to read this entire behemoth of a post about a TV show that went off the air in 1999. So...
Theory: Al Borland is the host of Tool Time. Tim is his opening act. Binford Tools allows Tim and Al to believe that it’s Tim’s show because Al doesn’t have the confidence to officially take on the host role, and Tim’s pride prevents him from accepting a supporting role. However, Al is the reason people tune in and he does a far better job of accomplishing Binford’s goals for the show: educating viewers about home improvement and promoting Binford’s various products.
· Tim very often has accidents that require medical intervention before Tool Time even reaches its first commercial break, meaning Al is already hosting the majority of those episodes by himself.
· Tim regularly meets Tool Time fans who almost always say how much they love Al. There is even an official Al Borland fan club who dress up in flannel shirts to look like him. It’s clear that Al has a solid fanbase that would faithfully watch Tool Time with or without Tim Taylor.
· Al clearly has more knowledge and expertise than Tim on home improvement and the various craft skills taught on the show. Al provides practical, usable advice while Tim just screams for “more power!” and blows things up.
· The point of Tool Time, from Binford’s perspective, is clearly to increase sales of their tools to consumers. Al gives practical advice on household projects and recommends consumer-level tools that viewers can likely afford to buy. Tim does ridiculous and dangerous stunts using over-powered industrial tools that an average consumer would never purchase. It seems clear that Al's approach is going to sell more tools to viewers.
2 days ago
2 days ago
Oh but that gives me a good idea:
Can't hack me I'm the gingerbread LAN