What’s What With … Tom Wilson

Philadelphia native Tom Wilson — you know him as Biff from Back to the Future — brings his clean standup act to Helium Comedy Club this week. He called me from his home in Los Angeles to discuss rooming with Andrew Dice Clay and Yakov Smirnoff, bathing in manure, and not joking about Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s Disease.

What part of the city are you from?
I grew up in Overbrook, 64th and Jefferson. Then, before high school, we moved to Villanova. I went to Radnor High. My family is still all around. The Blue Route kind of decimated my neighborhood, so I have sisters and brothers in Phoenixville, cousins in the Northeast and New Jersey. I fully expect my family to show up at the shows in droves.

And when did you head west?
I left Philly when I was around 22. Moved to New York, studied acting. And if you wanna be an actor, you have to wind up in L.A., so that’s what I did.

Is that when you roomed with Dice Clay?
[Laughs] When I first moved to L.A., Andy Clay, yes. And Yakov Smirnoff was my other roommate. At the same time. All in the same place. I taught them both about America. We were living a situation comedy. I was using a wipeboard for ideas for jokes. When I’d go out, Andy would erase everything. He would take down my 3×5 cards and destroy them. And then he’d draw on my board the most horrifying gynecological stick figures you could ever imagine. And that was his idea of being funny.

You’re kind of a running joke in the Back to the Future movies, always getting covered in manure. Is it much different getting people to laugh with you when they’re used to laughing at you?
It’s very different, but people laughing with you is always better. I had such an experience of people laughing at me in high school. I wasn’t the popular kid. Wasn’t the big man on campus. Just so you understand, I was president of the debate club. I played the tuba. I have asthma. An asthmatic tuba player. Paint the picture.

Does your wife find you funny?
We’ve been married for 23 years, which, out here in L.A., is more like 87 years. We’ve been married for 87 L.A. years. Now and again, I get a laugh out of her. But she knows how my comedy thinking works, so she beats me there. And, you know, she got a math degree from UCLA, so …

What about your kids? Are they embarrassed by you?
No, I think my kids have found me pretty funny the whole time. That period of the teenage years where suddenly Dad is the stupidest guy on the planet, we had that only for a little bit. I was surprised how abbreviated that period really was. And with being on TV, doing SpongeBob voiceovers, the Back to the Future movies, when I have a couple of hip 19-year-olds at my house, it’s like, "Hey. Fellas. I’m cooler than you. And I’m bigger."

I haven’t seen your show, but I’m told you keep it clean. Why is that?
I don’t. I don’t "keep it clean." It’s just clean. It’s just a reflection of who I am. Every comedian is going to be funny in a way that is a reflection of who they are, of the things that make them laugh. That’s just me.

So does clean equal inoffensive?
No, I don’t think inoffensive is right. I don’t do a quote adult show unquote. I do an adult show. No quotes. It’s not Disneyfied. It’s not the official show of the 700 Club. It just happens to be that I don’t drop f-bombs.

Where do you draw the line?
There is no line. I just do what I think is funny. I don’t think, "I’m uncomfortable with that. Maybe people will find that dirty." I just do whatever I think is funny.

So no Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s jokes?

Not funny?
Is it funny to you?

Well, I guess done correctly, it can be funny. I mean, when I see someone who is obviously ill or a kid with cerebral palsy, I feel horrible. But that doesn’t mean that a good retard joke can’t make me laugh.
I guess. But if it’s your friend, if it’s your mother … Obviously jokes can be made about the pain of other people, but I would say that he’s a real person. He’s not just a pixelized icon.

Through Saturday, December 6th, at Helium Comedy Club. Tickets from $10.