Chicagoans may not recognize Jim Zulevic’s name, but there’s a good chance they know the local actor’s face. For the past few years, Zulevic has written and directed nightly comedy segments for Fox 32, most recently the one with the high-school guidance counselor who advises viewers not to change the channel during The Simpsons. But the native south-sider has been a presence in the city for some time, most notably as a member of Second City, where he teaches and hosts the new Second City Radio program. Although he moved to Los Angeles in 1998 and landed acting jobs (including small parts in Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Nicolas Cage movie Matchstick Men) and a writing gig (with The Jamie Kennedy Experiment) Zulevic moved back to Chicago this year because he missed the city. He’s currently working on a film about Steve Dahl, the local DJ responsible for 1979’s Disco Demolition, which gathered thousands of Chicagoans at Comiskey to destroy disco records—Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk, who grew up in Naperville, is also involved. Zulevic recently spoke to The A.V. Club after screening his recent short, Baby Time Share, at The Chicago Short Comedy Video & Film Festival.
The A.V. Club: You recently moved back after living in L.A. for a few years.
Jim Zulevic: I still have my representation out there. New Yorkers do that a lot. Make sure your L.A. people know exactly what you’re doing. Keep your cell phone [with area code] 323. You rarely see them in person anyway; it’s all on the phone. And you know, Southwest can be pretty cheap.
AVC: But the perception is you have to live there to “make it.”
JZ: It depends on what “making it” is. I was out there, and I did a lot of TV and film work, and luckily I got to be on stuff that I could say, “Yeah, I feel pretty good about that”—not a lot of that, though. It wasn’t like I was doing anything where I was like, “This is a masterpiece”—more like, “This isn’t embarrassing, and I can still maintain some dignity.” I don’t like Los Angeles. I hate having to own a car. I realized it wasn’t worth it to be out there all the time and not have peace of mind. I don’t know if it was disliking Los Angeles or how much I love Chicago. There are certain individuals out there who think it’s just great, but who knows where the hell they came from?
AVC: What’s the status of your Disco Demolition film?
JZ: It’s supposed to be being optioned. I don’t know how long that will take. I didn’t want my agency to handle it. [Laughs.] Maybe I shouldn’t be saying that. I was going to have Odenkirk and Teitel—Bob Teitel, the producer of the Barbershop movies that’s producing this—handle it. I thought if it went to my agent, it would take too long. As it turns out, every agent takes too long. It’s not a fast process; I don’t know why. You find when you’re living out there, you obsess over that stuff, and I’m better off working, doing stuff here, having a life. It is a vacuum out there. It’s a comic plight that all people talk about is the business. When I first moved out there, I thought, “Well, that’s why I’m out there.” I’m not going to talk about the greatest aspects of the city, certainly, so I actually felt some weird comfort from that. You find yourself going out on stuff, and you’re reading this stuff… You can’t believe some of the sitcoms that get greenlit, and you’re just like, “Okay, I might be able to win the prize, but what’s the prize?” Projects out there are treated like livestock. No, that’s not true, because even livestock, somebody can say, “This steer is better than that steer.” But nobody makes judgment calls on any of the material out there. None. Somebody never looks at something and goes, “This is a piece of shit.” It’s astounding to me.
AVC: What was weird about pitching this film?
JZ: I don’t even know if I should go into this story… All right, I will. [Laughs.] It was me, Odenkirk, Bob Teitel, Steve Dahl, Tom Werner, Marcy Carsey, Caryn Mandabach, and a guy who I won’t name. We’re with Donald De Line, who was then president of Paramount, who seems like a gentleman that probably liked disco. Disco Demolition was a dumb thing. It’s not like, “Yeah, man, disco sucks.” It’s just so stupid. That’s why it’s funny! Like Steve Dahl said, “Disco was stupid music, so we wanted to kill it in a stupid way.” [Laughs.]
So this gentleman seemed like he liked disco, but he really wanted to hear our idea. So we stick in the DVD we have of actual footage from WSNS Channel 44 that Bob pieced together, and the guy that I won’t name from Carsey-Werner [Productions] said, “Isn’t fascism fun?” [Laughs.] And I’m looking at him like, “Motherfucker!” I’m checking the other people, because I’m thinking maybe I lost my mind for a second, and everyone’s just watching the screen. Nobody wanted to look away. And I thought, “This guy’s a fucking idiot. He’s trying to help us sell this thing.” It was just so fucked up... He might have been going for a joke, but don’t say “fascism” in reference to Disco Demolition when you’re trying to pitch it to a guy that seems like he likes disco.
Another time, we were talking about who should play Steve Dahl, [who was] 23 or 24 when he did it. They’re throwing out these names to play him… They said Robert Downey Jr., Robin Williams—Robin Williams! The kicker: Will Smith. I’m looking around, and I’m sitting next to Teitel, and I’m looking at him, and he won’t look at me, because if he does, he’ll fucking lose it. Maybe he’s keeping it together because he’s heard these conversations before. Maybe when he pitched Barbershop, and it says it takes place in a black neighborhood, maybe they were trying to cast Owen Wilson. Who knows?
AVC: How do you make it through those pitch meetings?
JZ: It’s different all the time. I remember when I first had to do it, and I didn’t realize that I was pitching. The concept of pitching to me, it hadn’t even crossed my mind. I thought maybe I would share an idea with somebody, instead of throwing it at them. It came from my background in improv; “I’m going to share my idea with you.” And I’m in there, and I’m like, “Oh, this is that awful thing I’ve seen in movies about movies!” Now I’ve pitched a few things, but it’s sorta like when you’re in rehearsal; you’re putting up a show at Second City, and you’re bringing ideas in, but you’re just not prefacing it with, “Okay, this may be queer,” or “This may be stupid.” It’d be great if you could go into the studio and go, “Okay, this might be just fucking retarded, but…”
AVC: You mentioned Second City. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about working there?
JZ: That it’s treated as a stepping stone. People work for years before being hired at Second City because they like the work, they like to improvise, they like to prep their own sketch shows. They’re not looking necessarily to go to Saturday Night Live. I think that people would still like to somehow have control over what they’re doing, which you don’t really get elsewhere. The guys from Motorola who are there after eating at Gibson’s, they’re like, “So when are you going on to blah blah blah?” You’re not looking at it that way. You’re just worried about Mainstage, pacing yourself, and not burning out from the schedule. Whenever an audition for anything comes up, whether it’s SNL or whatever else that happens to come along—even a piece of crap like Blue Collar TV—people will still go on the audition because they’re actors. Even if you think it’s going to be a crappy project, or it’s an ongoing crappy project, you think, “Well, maybe I can shade it some way.” It’s a very sweet notion, and it sort of keeps you going through auditions.