Writer-performer Scott Adsit appears in a pair of TV shows that seem disparate, but actually have a lot in common: They're both critical successes without big audiences. While NBC's madcap 30 Rock won the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy two years in a row (the second season was released on DVD October 7; creator Tina Fey pleaded for a larger audience during her acceptance speech last month), the increasingly dark, parable-filled, Dino Stamatopoulos-created stop-motion-animated Moral Orel—for which Adsit provides a voice in addition to serving as a writer, co-executive producer and occasional director—is being axed from Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. 30 Rock's third season is slated to première on October 30; Moral Orel's third season kicked off earlier this month. Before its season launched, Adsit talked to The A.V. Club about his role on both programs, Iggy Pop's urine, playing the straight man, and how his work is tearing apart at least one American family.
The A.V. Club: The back of the first-season Moral Orel DVD has an e-mail from Adult Swim Vice President Mike Lazzo three years ago about how much he loves the show. He calls it a "masterpiece of American humor" and one of the best series he's ever seen in his life. Now it's being canceled.
Scott Adsit: By Mike Lazzo.
AVC: What happened?
SA: He felt that it was getting a little too soulful, a little too serious. I think the word he might have used is "depressing." It was not just the silly little puppet show anymore. It was kind of naughty for the insomniac potheads who were the target demographic. It was evolving into something a little more heartfelt. It was developing a soul, essentially.
AVC: That's how Adult Swim sees their audience? As insomniac potheads?
SA: I can't speak for them, but yes.
AVC: Since the show's run was cut short, did you have to adapt its intended trajectory?
SA: Well, our grand scheme was, over five seasons, to evolve these little puppets into the most realistic people on television. We were gonna bring in Orel's [paternal] grandfather, and he would become a resident in the house, and kind of a different voice, because he was someone who you'll see in the episode called "Passing." He's terminal. And it's Orel dealing with the idea of death and afterlife and a different voice—a voice of reason, because his father kind of gave up on God when his mother died.
AVC: It's certainly a polarizing show. William Salyers from the show posted on the Adult Swim message board saying you had a blow-up with your sister and family over Moral Orel. Is that true? What happened?
SA: [Laughs.] I did, yeah. In the first season, we—I made the mistake of showing her and some of her friends the pastry-bag episode, where Orel impregnates a bunch of neighborhood women. And they're all very good Christians. Very not-hypocritical. They do religion right. 'Cause the show is not against religion: It's against mistreating religion or using it for your own ends and convenience and bending the lessons of religion to suit what you already believe. So my sister and her friends are Christians—not exclusively. But she's got a lot of Christian friends, and she's a devout person who goes to church every week. And she's also the coolest person I know. And she's raising her kids really, really well. So she's someone that makes it work and isn't hypocritical.
I showed her the thing, and they were all just kind of silent afterward, and they didn't know what to say. And I was kind of nodding with my eyebrows up, going, "Eh? Eh?" It was a happy party going on until then, and they all kind of shuffled out.
And later I went back to California and had a discussion with my sister on the phone about it, and she just did not like the idea that we were portraying Christians the way we were—as if all Christians were like that. And I was defending the show and saying "This is about hypocrites, it's not about not Christians." And she just did not feel that way at all. She was insulted, and I kept defending the show and that just led to a huge argument.
And usually my sister and I don't argue at all, and we get along just fantastically. So this was a very odd occurrence, and we hung up after the first argument without resolving it. And then we called again the next day to bury the hatchet, and it started up again. And we just were yelling at each other.
AVC: So what you're saying is that Moral Orel is tearing families apart.
SA: [Laughs.] Well one, anyway. No one else is watching it.
So we had three conversations [when] we were yelling at each other. And I think at the end of the third one, I said "My family is more important than the show." And so I told her I'd quit, and I went in the next day and I quit. And [writer and creator] Dino [Stamatopoulos] and [executive producer] Nick [Weidenfeld] tried to convince me not to. And I said "This is family over the show, obviously. I mean, otherwise what are we learning from the show? The show's about how important family should be, and how it's mistreated." So I had to go. [Laughs.]
A few days later, my sister and I just decided she was proud that I was doing something, and that I was on the air, and all that. So she said, "Let's just not talk about it." So that's what we did. We stopped talking about it.
AVC: When Moral Orel started, it was relatively innocent and silly, but the third season is considerably darker. Why did it turn in that direction?
SA: Well, Dino just—that's the way he writes. He eventually has to write what's in his heart. And quite often, the art is guiding him. He has, in his scripts, especially for season three, turned this little puppet show into what I consider to be a true work of art, because it's heartfelt.
He'll write an episode and not know what the hell it's about. It'll flow out of him, and by the time we shoot and edit it, it'll make sense. But he didn't know what it was until he could see it, step back from it, you know?
AVC: Even on commentaries on the first-season DVD, Dino talks about wanting to rename the show Moralton by season five, and focusing on the other townspeople. How much of that vision did you get to carry out?
SA: Yeah, and we do focus on some, what were minor characters in the first and second seasons, and expanding little moments. A sideways glance—we expand that into an entire episode, explain what's behind that sideways glance. So there are characters that show up very briefly in seasons one and two that get entire episodes. It's kind of like The Simpsons; they eventually were expanding it into the entire town beyond the family.
AVC: Where did you see the show going beyond there?
SA: Well, for me—I won't speak for Dino, but I'll say that for me, I wanted to evolve Orel from the innocent guy who wants to believe his authority figures are right about everything they say into a fully evolved human being. We would take him on a journey from what he is in season one, essentially: just kind of informed, self-aware, and skeptical, but happy. But then it would be his journey. And also, I guess that journey would then have an effect on his parents and his brother and his grandfather. And hopefully watch everybody change because that's dynamic and more interesting. For us, anyway.
AVC: Perhaps for the audience as well, if they aren't too sleepy or stoned?
SA: [Laughs.] Exactly. Well, most sitcoms and cartoons, especially, you can rely on, because they go back to square one at the beginning of every episode. We weren't writing that.
AVC: So was America not ready for Moral Orel, or was it just the network executives?
SA: [Laughs.] That would be great to say. I don't know if it's true. I think if America knew about Morel Orel, they might be ready for it. But I think Adult Swim was very good to us, and Lazzo's the one who put the axe down on it, but only because it was depressing him to read the scripts. He got back season three, and he tells us it's his favorite thing he's ever put on Cartoon Network. It just doesn't suit the audience that Adult Swim has. That's why we got cancelled.
AVC: So this is it for Moral Orel? Because they own the rights to it, you can't really continue with it afterward, right?
SA: That's right, yeah. And, well, he did say we might be able to have a couple of movies on the network, like hourlong Moral Orel movies. But I doubt we'll do it. We did put a little bow on it. I mean, there's plenty more stories to tell. But, you know, everything's in storage. We're lazy people. And we're also working on new stuff now, anyway. Dino and I and several other guys are writing a new show that Adult Swim hopes to put on. We'll see if they like it enough to put it on, but they really want to.
AVC: Can you go into it at all, or is it too early?
SA: Ah, I better not.
AVC: Moral Orel originally started as a project with Iggy Pop. Has he surfaced at all to comment on the show?
SA: Oh yeah, that's right. Dino had written a sitcom where Iggy is just Iggy Pop, but he says the lines of the 12-year-old boy in the family. I don't know if he can surface. I'm not sure he's aware of which way the surface is. Yeah, Dino had a meeting with him, and it didn't go well, I think. [Laughs.] He was in an altered state at the time.
AVC: It's tough to imagine Iggy Pop in a meeting.
SA: Yeah, exactly. Dino thought he could, and he was wrong. And so that fell apart. So he kept the script and that became the "Waste" episode. It was going to be Iggy Pop drinking his own urine, or selling it, anyway.
AVC: Which probably wouldn't be a stretch for him.
SA: [Laughs.] Yeah. That's what he said at the meeting. [As Iggy Pop.] "Been there."
AVC: The series premièred with the first-season finale. Why has the running order for the show not been followed for broadcast? The third season's running order is also unusual.
SA: Oh, it got all screwed up from day one. They wanted to première at Christmastime, and we had a Christmas episode already done. We'd established the tone [with earlier episodes], and then the Christmas episode started fucking with the tone. It became a drama with, you know, [John] Cassavetes, and just sad. It was a very sad episode. And that was the first thing that anybody saw, and I think they were intrigued and excited to see a show that was stop-motion and looked different than anything else on the network. And they tuned in in masses, and most of them decided "This is not a show that is funny," and they stopped watching from day one. [Laughs.] I'll say the less-discriminating people tuned in again and started laughing and watched it all the way through, and then watched the Christmas episode again and realized its context and how it could be not just funny, but kind of inspired. [Laughs.] I'm just really proud of Orel, and it is clunky and awkward at times, but in the center of it, it's a very spiritual show. It didn't have any worse ratings than anybody else. Lazzo just didn't think it fit in with everything else.
AVC: Hopping over to 30 Rock, how challenging is it being the straight man on that show?
SA: It takes a little adjusting. I mean, I'm not used to it, and Peter's not always a straight man, but I think that's kind of a role he—if you have to label him something, that would probably be the easiest thing to say.
AVC: It's the role he slips into, opposite the others.
SA: Right. Robert Carlock, who is one of the head writers, said the other day that it's kind of like Pete and [Jack] Donaghy are the only adults in the building—and even Donaghy has his moments. So Pete's kind of the only voice of reason or a fixed point that others can cling to.
AVC: Who's the hardest character to be straight man opposite?
SA: [Laughs.] I think Tracy [Morgan]. It's hard, 'cause he'll swing wildly at his lines. [Laughs.] It'll be different every time, or he'll present it with a rhythm that is inhuman. [Laughs.] I think Tracy is a bit crazy. Certainly, part of Tracy Jordan is based on Tracy Morgan. But Jordan is out of control, and Tracy Morgan is in control. He knows what he's doing. He plays crazy very well. But I think he's happy to be perceived as being a little crazier than he actually is.
AVC: Even the way he delivers a line or pronounces a word can be a punchline, like him saying "inscrutable."
SA: Exactly. And Tina [Fey] and Carlock know what words to throw at Tracy, too.
AVC: What's the philosophy there?
SA: Well, I'm not in the room. I just know when we're doing the table read—it's like they know exactly how to write for Alec [Baldwin], they know exactly how to write for Tina, and for [Jack] McBrayer. They know what will sound funny coming out of those mouths, and Tracy's in that. Maybe I'm not. [Laughs.] No, I am. But they know what will sound grounded coming out of my mouth. So they're artisans, you know. They're craftsmen with words, all the writers in that room. And they hone it specifically for who they know is going to be saying it. And Tracy—there's a lot you can throw at Tracy, and the way it bounces off of him sometimes is a wild ricochet.
AVC: Supposedly his character was named Tracy because, according to some of the DVD commentaries, he has a habit of wandering onto the set and just getting into conversations. Is that true?
SA: Tracy is a busy man. He doesn't have time to wander into scenes that he's not in. Things are pretty well planned out on a single-camera set. Now, Tracy's observations, conversations, and tenuous relationship with reality may inspire Tina and the writers when they write his character, but there is seldom any situation where he'll wander on set and join a scene in progress or do something so outrageous and in-character while at craft services that the director, crew, lighting array, and sound design will all swing their focus over to the snack table to catch his random antics. Not to say that he doesn't occasionally improvise. But when he improvises, he knows he's improvising.
AVC: Although Pete is the most grounded, he has a tendency to blurt things out that he shouldn't, and then he starts talking about how he shouldn't be talking about them.
SA: Yeah, he's a little reckless, because he doesn't know how to handle his passions very well. He's very good at being smart about everyone else's life, and he doesn't really have a focus on his own. He's not all that self-aware in emotional moments.
AVC: How much of that is a stretch for you to portray?
SA: I'm a basket case. [Laughs.] Yeah, you know, I put my foot in my mouth more than I speak properly. So for those moments when Pete is embarrassing himself without knowing it, I just tap into moments when I know I'm embarrassing myself. Which is, you know, 80 percent of my life.
AVC: It seems like a lot of the characters on the show are exaggerations of the actors' perceived personalities. SA: Yeah, I think except for Alec. I mean, Alec is an alpha male who is not afraid of anything, and Donaghy is afraid of things. He's afraid of confrontation, for one. And Alec is as far away from that as you can imagine. Donaghy will get stuff done, but he'll do it in such a way that he doesn't have to confront anyone.
AVC: As your background with Second City attests, you're capable of doing vivid, even crazy characters. Tina Fey has said they're only scratching the surface of what you can do. How constricted do you feel on the show?
SA: Well, sometimes I feel like I'm serving the other characters, which is what improv training is all about.
AVC: Making your scene partner look good?
SA: Yeah. So I guess I have faith that eventually we'll get around to Pete being comedy gold, or at least comedy reliability. The thing is—which is something I'm very aware of—it's a huge cast, and part of the charm of the show is also having these huge guest stars, and there are only so many pages to go around. So I'm grateful that I'm even in there at all. And I'm grateful that I have a function that is occasionally needed, which is just to be the Jiminy Cricket. Or the pathetic man who doesn't really have a handle on happiness yet.
I enjoy doing physical comedy. I'd love, you know, them to throw me some shtick that way. I'd love to do that, if they need physical comedy, if they'd let me display my wares that way. The thing about Pete early on is that Liz [Lemon, Fey's character] would go to him for advice, and he would be the voice of reason. And I think in a sitcom, that might get in the way. Things have to go wrong. So I think that has taken a backseat to making sure things go wrong. So maybe I'd want to be a reason things would go wrong for a while.
AVC: That said, you weren't in the second season as much as the first. The one episode that did feature you more prominently was with a hand-stuck-in-a-vending-machine subplot. Was there a concern that might have veered too close to the Simpsons plotline where Homer suffered the same fate?
SA: I don't know. I'm not aware of that one. That's interesting. I think there was an episode of Sealab 2021 that has the same thing going on.
AVC: Yes, with Captain Murphy.
SA: That's right. Yeah, well you know, Monty Python and The Simpsons have ruined comedy for writers for the rest of our lives.
AVC: There was a South Park episode about that.
SA: That's right, yeah. What did they say? "The Simpsons did it." Yeah. And then Dino and I used to write sketches and short films and things, and it just became impossible, 'cause every idea we had was some variation on something Python had already done in some fashion. So do I feel guilty about doing a bit that was on The Simpsons? No, I think eventually everyone will have done something that was on The Simpsons. They've been on for 20 years.
AVC: Is Rachel Dratch in the third season at all?
SA: No, she's been out. She's been overseas making movies and doing a lot of theater.
AVC: She was billed as a sort of recurring guest star from the outset.
SA: Well, I think she's always welcome. The idea of her recurring—it just kind of fell away. The show maybe became more real than we thought it would be or something. More based in some kind of true reality than we thought it would. And Rachel was kind of—I don't think there was any official meeting where they said to her, "We're not going to be using you." I think she was a guest star who was waiting to see if she'd get called again, and I don't believe they did. I think she and Tina talked about it because they're old friends. I can't say how it resolved itself between them, but I think it was just a matter of, she was not a regular, so there's no contract to break her from. She was a guest star and so there was no new contract in the second season.
AVC: It's not like you have a shortage of other guest stars. Who can you not get?
SA: [Laughs.] Well, we have Oprah [in the third season] so I think if you want to top Oprah, you have to get John Lennon. If he wants an Emmy… [Laughs.]
AVC: The Internet is ablaze with people trying to make sense of Oprah being on the show. Have you filmed it yet? Does it make sense within the context of the show?
SA: Yes, that's done, and it makes perfect sense. I can't say anything about it, only because it will ruin your enjoyment of it. It's a great little episode, and Oprah's right in the middle of it.
AVC: That said, have you ever been surprised by who agrees to appear on the show?
SA: I don't think [Oprah] would have done it the first season.
AVC: But she was referenced in the first season.
SA: I'm sure she was. She usually is. Either that [or] a Star Wars reference in every episode. It wasn't in every episode of season two, though. Tina and Carlock are both huge Star Wars nerds, as am I, and many people on the writing staff, because writers usually work by themselves, in a dark room. They're very lonely people, and there are no better friends than science fiction.
AVC: Well, but it also spreads to Tracy Morgan. Surely you've seen his appearance on Conan O'Brien, where he talks about Darth Vader being a U-Haul driver from Beaufort, South Carolina?
AVC: Looks like there's a lot of Star Wars fans in your camp there, though.
SA: Yeah, I don't think you're going to see any Jar-Jar references, though.
AVC: Do you miss Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip?
SA: There was no real competition there, but we won. I actually auditioned for both shows. There was a point where I was called back for both, and my manager said, "You know, you may have to make a choice here." I went with Tina because I trust Tina. At that point, believe it or not, she was an unknown quantity. She was the girl from Weekend Update, and she was the head writer of SNL, but a lot of people don't like SNL. There was a good chance that we would make a pilot and be done. Whereas [Aaron] Sorkin was coming off The West Wing, and he's one of the best writers in television. So I was torn for about 15 minutes and just said, "Tina's where I wanna be." And I don't think they called me back again.
AVC: What did you audition for there?
SA: One of the writers, someone I wouldn't have gotten anyway, one of those leads.
AVC: Was it the Mark McKinney role?
SA: It could have been, yeah. I remember I had a monologue in my audition about how there's nothing wrong with elitism. "When did elitism become a bad thing?"
AVC: Something like that would never show up on 30 Rock.
SA: [Laughs.] No monologue goes unpunished.
AVC: Has there ever been any blowback from any of NBC people you spoof on the show?
SA: I think people tend to like it. I haven't heard any complaints.
AVC: Is there a hit list of people you want to stick it to?
SA: [Laughs.] Well, I mean, [Al] Roker is always going to be a punchline. I don't think there's a list of people that we want to nail in any way. I'm not in the writer's room, so you're asking the wrong person, but I would say they're writing for the characters. It serves something else. I don't think they ever start off saying, "Okay, how can we get Katie Couric?"
AVC: How is working with Tina different now from working with her at Second City, other than her taking on a boss-like capacity?
SA: Well, we don't see each other as often. We used to spend hours a day and then hours at night together crafting the Second City shows, and then just hanging out afterward. The difference is, back then I didn't miss Tina, 'cause I always saw Tina. Now I see Tina, but she's probably one of the busiest people in New York, and that tells you something. To see her, we fall right back into our friendship, but I just don't see her enough.
AVC: It sounds like you're keeping busy as well.
SA: Yeah, I guess so. I'm no Tina Fey.
AVC: What do Pete and his wife do with the Pop-Tart in their romantic ritual?
SA: We actually shot the beginning of what they do with the Pop-Tarts, and it was cut. [Laughs.] It involves frosting and a hot, mushy center. It was a little dangerous; it was squishy.
AVC: The Pop-Tart?
SA: I'm not gonna get more specific than that. And I really don't think Cinemax would have put it on, so NBC said no.
SA: I know. [Laughs.]
Over at Decider.com, Adsit talks about his old hometown. Check it out.