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Tom Shillue recalls simpler times

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The comedian’s new book is “Mean Dads For a Better America”

Whether as a stand-up comedian, one of the barbershop quartet Ragtime Gals on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” or as the host of “Red Eye” on Fox News, Tom Shillue has carved a career out of making people laugh while providing his take on current events and popular culture.

In Shillue’s new book “Mean Dads For a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood” (Harper Collins), he looks back at his own 1970s Boston-area childhood, and the values he formed while growing up in a large Irish-Catholic family helmed by an old-school American father.

Dow: When I saw the title of your book, I laughed and completely understand what you’re referring to. We’re from the same era. My father was a classic, no-nonsense guy, but a great provider and protector. Whenever me or my siblings would injure ourselves, Dad would say “It will feel good when it stops hurting.”

Shillue: (laughs) You can’t argue with that logic! It might be a New England thing. I talk to people all over the country but whenever I talk to someone from New England, the minute they hear the title of the book, they know what I’m talking about. Some people hear the title “Mean Dads” and they think “Are you talking about abusive dads?” No. There are mean dads and there are abusive dads. My dad may have reached for his belt, but he never pulled it out.

Dow: Same here. He put a hand on me only once, but I deserved it. I tossed driveway pebbles at my little sister’s head. We were about eight and five respectively.

Shillue: Why did you throw gravel at her?

Dow: She stomped on my Stretch Armstrong doll in the driveway. Have you ever tried to get gravel out of the skin of a Stretch Armstrong?

Shillue: It’s impossible! (laughs) When my brother and I talk about our Dad now, we call him Darth Vader because he used to wake us up with his breathing. On Saturday mornings we’d hear his breath and as soon as we opened our eyes, he’d say “Get in the cahhhh.” He was kind of like Darth Vader with a Boston accent.

My parents had five kids and he would give Mom a break on Saturdays. We’d pile into the car and go on these long drives. We didn’t know where we were going and were afraid to ask him because we were afraid of him. I tell my daughters that now and they say “What are you talking about? Grandpa Shillue? He’s so nice.” I say “You didn’t know him when you were a kid!”

Dow: Have you found yourself gradually morphing into your Dad at certain times?

Shillue: I like to borrow from him. In the modern era, we can’t be a mean dad. If I reached for my belt, my kids would laugh at me. I have no credibility with them.  If one of my kids says that another kid is picking on them, I’ll say “Go back and work it out.” I want them to learn to work it out themselves. When we were kids, we didn’t have parents hovering over us all the time. If there was a bully, we had to deal with them. I’m known around my Bronx neighborhood as the work it out guy.

Dow: Have you been able to trace the origin of the culture-shift that spawned helicopter parents - the people who micromanage every aspect of their child’s existence?

Shillue: I think it has something to do with the oversaturation of media. Life was more dangerous in the 1970s when I was growing up. Our mentality is reversed. We’re more protective of our kids but they are much safer now. Remember when seat belts were optional when we were kids? We slid all over the place with every turn but it worked out. My parents would send us out to play and we’d come home with a broken arm. The thing is, it was a more dangerous world but it made us more resilient.

Remember the big “Stranger Danger” scare in the 80’s? It was this idea that a predator was lurking on every corner. People retreated into their homes, behind fences and in gated communities. When I was a kid, we all played outside. There were dangers, of course, but neighbors looked out for each other. Neighbors would even discipline kids who weren’t their own. I remember waiting for my dad to come home so I could tell him that Mr. Sullivan yelled at me. His response was “What did you do wrong?”

Dow: You started out in comedy with Jim Gaffigan and the two of you have frequently toured together. When your wives are away and you and Jim have a free Saturday night, what does that look like? What do you do?

Shillue: It looks like a steakhouse because that’s what it is. Jim only wants to sit in a steakhouse and eat steak. We have the greatest tours. Sometimes, if it’s just a few gigs, Jim and I will go out together. He’ll schedule tours around summer and school vacations so that his wife and kids can come with him. Sometimes I’ll take my family. So it will be Jim, his wife, and five kids, me and my wife and two kids. Those are such great times – doing what we love and having our families with us.

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