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Alan Thicke spoke to us about his legacy and being a TV dad a few months before his death

"You alternate between being an icon and a punchline."

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Alan Thicke rose to fame in the 1980s, first in Canada, then in the US.
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Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Truth be told, I wasn’t going to interview Alan Thicke when the opportunity arose back in August. I wasn’t sure what I would ask him, and I didn’t know that I would be able to come up with questions about Unusually Thicke, the faux-reality show he was promoting at the time.

And yet Growing Pains, on which Thicke played would-be hip dad Jason Seaver, was my favorite show when I was a kid, and I had always felt a real affection for Thicke, who was simultaneously warm and loving, and dry and sarcastic. Even when the writing for his show wasn’t great — and it often wasn’t — he could put a little spin on his jokes and make them funnier than they might have been on the page.

Trained as a comedian, Thicke came to the United States from Canada in the 1980s, then launched a famously bad talk show called Thicke of the Night. But he persevered from there, and he landed the Growing Pains role shortly after Night went off the air. The sitcom ran for seven seasons, and after it ended in 1992, Thicke spent the rest of his career playing small, oddball parts in a variety of projects — often as an exaggerated version of himself.

Thus, I ultimately did decide to interview Thicke, and in the wake of his recent and untimely death (due to a heart attack), I went back and looked over that interview again. It’s a fitting tribute to both his work and his life.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You're really good at playing yourself. That's something not everybody can do, so you get asked to do it quite a bit. What’s the secret to playing yourself?

It's having a sense of humor about yourself. A certain level of self-deprecation is important, especially since I'm playing myself in a lot of comedies where I'm the punchline, so to embrace yourself as the punchline is what makes it work.

After you've been in the business for a while, and I've been in it for a long while, you alternate between being an icon and a punchline. You have to embrace both with a sense of humor. If you don't see a little self-deprecation in being an icon, then you're really going to be in trouble. They will get you good.

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Alan Thicke reunites with his TV kids from Growing Pains.
Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

A lot of actors aren’t comfortable being the punchline. Obviously, you’re from the world of comedy, so you’re maybe more comfortable than some, but how did you learn to embrace that side of yourself?

I had one experience that left me no choice. I hosted a show called Thicke of the Night against Johnny Carson years ago, and we were such a big fat turd and laid such a big egg that if I didn't have a sense of humor about myself coming out of that, I would have just dug a deeper hole for myself. I was smart enough to be able to sit back and say, “Yeah, wow, some of that [show] was really shit and you got what you deserve.”

That set the tone for me in a lot of ways. There's even a bit of that in the Jason Seaver character in Growing Pains where the guy's a little dorky and a little over the top in places, but [Thicke of the Night] was a turning point for me. Until then, you read your own press clippings.

I had a successful show in Canada, and you read about how sexy you are and how funny you are, and then you come down here and, yeah, there's a lot of sexy, funny guys. It's a very competitive business, and [the press] like to write three stories. They get you on the way up, and they get you on the way down, and they get the comeback.

The other thing that helped me a lot was being a producer for 10 years, and seeing and working for big stars, and watching their behavior and what worked and what didn't and knowing what you like about some people and what you hope you'll never duplicate.

What was one of the biggest things you learned from working as a producer?

I learned [how to deal with people] from watching others that I was working for [set] bad examples. That's one of the key things you can learn, and it's good for your longevity. If you have two actors up for the same job and one's a dick and one's easy to work with, that [latter] guy gets the job. All things being equal in a very competitive world, go for the guy you can have a little fun with.

When you’re in that celebrity cycle you mentioned earlier, when’s the easiest time to give in to the tendency to be a dick?

People who are in jobs way above their skill level and especially think they really belong there, I find that frustrating. If you're in a job, do it, be appropriate for it, or find another job.

Our country, we populate the service industry where we used to populate manufacturing and industrial. Now, there are a lot of people who don't maybe have the people skills to get the job done well. Insensitive people are the ones that you tend to be temperamental about.

Stupidity, you can deal with. That might be a God-given quality. But insensitivity and not being nice to people, I don't like that.

Growing Pains
Alan Thicke and his TV wife Joanna Kerns, in the early days of Growing Pains.
ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

What do you see as the fundamental difference between the Canadian sense of humor and the American sense of humor?

Canadians — and there have been many funny ones over the years — we were bred on a combination of English humor and American humor, and they are quite different. We ended up with a bit of a blend. The English can be broadly farcically physical and nonsensical and also very understated and dry. Americans, on the other hand, can be highly intellectual or really dorky. Canadians, we were influenced by both. In the ’50s and ’60s, we were getting both of those channels.

If you think of [Canadian comedians] like Jim Carrey and Martin Short or even Howie Mandel, a lot of their comedy came from just balls-out performance comedy. If you've seen Jim Carrey or Martin go on Letterman, they take every chance.

There's nothing safe about it, which is contradictory to the Canadian personality, because we're sorry about everything. Maybe that's from living a buttoned-down life. Suddenly, you give them a little spotlight and bam, no holds barred.

When you were starting out, who did you think was really funny?

Bob Newhart, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Jonathan Winters — the guys in that generation. Pure, head-on joke tellers like Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers. I was always a Johnny Carson fan, too. One of the thrills of the business is, as your career goes on, you get to work with some of these people or you get to be on their show.

What do you think makes something funny?

The key is always the surprise. You didn't expect someone to say that. You didn't expect them to do that. I don't mean pie in the face surprise. There can be just a turn of phrase, the way somebody says something. You've got to keep the audience on their toes.

Growing Pains
The cast of Growing Pains in the show’s final season.
ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

It’s been awhile since Growing Pains left the air. What do you see as its legacy and impact in your own life?

I'm proud of it. It stood for things that I'd like to stand for.

Jason Seaver was the kind of parent that I would aspire to be if I had 12 writers following me around, and I like that there's a whole generation of people that still come up to me and say, "You raised me. You're my dad, I grew up on you." I'll say, "Well, I hope you turned out all right."

I believe that we've all had pop cultural influences like that growing up. I'm proud to be part of somebody's growth, somebody's memory of nights at home watching TV. I hope that's the legacy.

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