Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Tim Meadows, who's essentially synonymous with Saturday Night Live: His decade-long tenure at the sketch-comedy show made him one of the longest-running cast members there. Aside from appearing in a number of films based on Saturday Night Live sketches, the Michigan-born comedian has memorably popped up in everything from The Colbert Report and Curb Your Enthusiasm to The Office and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. The second season of his TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show is slated to première June 12.
The Ladies Man (2000)—"Leon Phelps"
The A.V. Club: You've reprised the character a number of times since you left Saturday Night Live. You must really enjoy performing as him.
Tim Meadows: Well, it's not really that I enjoy doing it. It's a go-to thing for me. It's something that everybody knows. Even if I didn't want to do it, people would ask me to do it, or do it for me. It happens every day.
AVC: How does a sketch get selected to become a movie?
TM: Well, with ours, it was a bit of—we were sort of reluctant to do it. It was [written by] Dennis McNicholas and Andrew Steele and myself, who wrote the character and created it together. We were of the same mind that we didn't want to burn out the character, once we realized people liked it. So we would only do it once every four shows, and never back-to-back.
When Lorne [Michaels] came to us and said "They're interested in doing a movie," we said we should do it, because you don't get that opportunity a lot. We didn't go to them and ask them to do a movie, they came to us. So we just decided to really expand the world. We realized we didn't just have to do radio-show sketches; we could explore his world.
AVC: You've said in interviews there were many changes you would have made to the movie, if you'd had the power.
TM: There are a lot of things I'd do differently, but I didn't have the power to do the things we wanted to do. Sometimes it was the studio's decision. I don't want to take anything away from the people that worked on the movie. It would have been edited a little differently.
Originally, we wanted to have a mixed relationship [in the movie], which I don't think [the studio] was crazy about. And the other thing is, I wish we could have given Will Ferrell complete control over everything on his side of the movie. 'Cause we were both kind of new to it, so we both didn't know we could improvise and do whatever we want: "This is our movie." We were sort of like, "Well, let's stick to this script, and improvise a little bit, but basically, let's just do what we've gotta do."
AVC: How involved were you in the writing process?
TM: Very much.
AVC: But there were still things you wanted to change?
TM: Yeah. I mean, it's hard, looking back. The studio would ask us for certain things, for marketing reasons or for the story. Like, we had a scene with David Wells, the pitcher. He was a fan of the character. We ended up having to write a thing for him, and it turned out okay, but I don't think it totally made it into the movie.
AVC: For now, it's the last character-driven Saturday Night Live movie. Why do you think they haven't returned to that well?
TM: I don't know.
Saturday Night Live (1991-2000)—Various characters
TM: My favorite memory from SNL is, I used to write promos for the show, where the host and the musical guest talk for basically 10 seconds. At first, I was just a writer, but then me and [David] Spade were in charge of producing the promos and writing them. One week I was doing it, and Spade, for whatever reason, wasn't there. It was Paul McCartney and Alec Baldwin [on the show]. So I got to go up and sit in Lorne's office and read my promos, or have those guys read my promos to me. Paul McCartney was reading the promos quietly and making two piles. Then he goes, "I'll do these. I don't want to do these." And I go "Oh, okay." Every one he read, I'd written. So I said, "I wrote those." And he goes, "Nice job, young man. Nice job." [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you ever get intimidated by the constant stream of celebrities coming through?
TM: No, not intimidated. Overwhelmed. Like, to see Mick Jagger or Tina Turner performing, somebody I saw when I was a kid? Those moments are surreal.
AVC: What do you remember about your first day there?
TM: Well, the first day I went there, I went to see Mike Myers. I was just a guest. Tom Hanks was performing, and it was the week they did the Five-Timer's Club. Actually, I think that was the week I went for my meeting with Lorne. I was in Lorne's office, and Tom Hanks came up there, and Lorne introduced me. I was like, "Wow, Tom Hanks!" [Laughs.]
They brought in the sketch, and Conan O'Brien, whom I'd met briefly, came in to read. He wrote it with Robert Smigel and [Bob] Odenkirk, I believe. And they came in and read it. And somebody wasn't there to read one of the roles, so Lorne asked me to read it in the room. So it was me, Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, Paul Simon, Conan, Robert, Bob Odenkirk, and Lorne Michaels. And this was my first time; I didn't even know I had the job.
AVC: That's surreal.
TM: It was some of my favorite people, like Steve Martin, who was one of my gods. Earlier in the day, I had met Tom Hanks down on the floor at [Studio] 8H, and then later, I saw him again in Lorne's office, and he said, "Hey, Tim, you're moving up pretty quick in show business!"
AVC: How do you think the show has changed since you left?
TM: I don't think it's much different. The people and the times are different. Occasionally it's a great show; occasionally it can be soft in some places. I've never seen a horrible show that I thought was god-awful. I've seen sketches that I thought, "Well, this is not great." But we had that too.
AVC: Well, by it's nature it's tough to—
TM: To be consistent. And comedy is kind of subjective. Not everybody agrees on what's funny, obviously.
I think they're good. I think when that cast is good, they're as good as any cast that's been there. They do great impressions, they have great political comedy, they have really funny characters, and they have the digital shorts, which are great. They have a cool, conceptual comedy that they do with some of those videos, and some of the sketches. They look like they're having fun, and they look comfortable. I like that.
AVC: Whose idea was it to sort of make a gag out of how long you've been on the show? Did that bother you?
TM: No, it didn't bother me. Well, I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me. There were times when people would make a joke in read-through without asking my permission. I think [writer] Steve Higgins probably was the one who started it. I'm not sure. I may have even started it. But I kind of remember Steve doing that a little bit. I didn't like it when people did it without asking me if it was okay. I wasn't sensitive about it, but I didn't want it to become this out-of-control thing where it became this sad joke that I was on the show so long. Darrell Hammond has been on the show for 12 years, and they don't make jokes about him being on the show forever.
AVC: Why do you think that is?
TM: I think because I said it was okay. That's the only reason I can think of. And I think maybe because I was one of the first people to stay for a long period of time. Kevin Nealon did, then I was the second one. I don't know why they don't [make fun of that].
AVC: Is it a double standard?
TM: No, I think I'm probably more a part of the cast then Darrell is a part of that cast. He's sort of a home-run hitter on that show. I don't know. Maybe people didn't like me.
AVC: Should comic actors should still strive to be on SNL?
TM: Yeah. It is the best training for a first show-business job. There's no job like that. The other thing is, coming from SNL, you totally get spoiled about having control over your sketches. When you leave there, unless you're producing or writing, you never have as much power as you did there. You learn how to produce and direct, you learn how to work with actors, and you learn how to work with writers. You learn how to talk to people to get things you want done. You learn to compromise to get something done. If Friends had been my first sitcom, I don't think I'd have had that kind of—you just show up, learn your lines. That's not to say those guys don't have any directing stuff or producing stuff, I'm sure they all do. They're obviously more successful than me. But I think as a first job, it's a great job to have.
AVC: Jay Mohr wrote a nasty account of his time there: Gasping For Airtime. Have you read it?
TM: I have it, but I have not read it. I heard that it was mainly about him going through panic attacks. I remember that pretty vividly, because we were both going through the same thing. We talked about it at one time, and I don't know what he did. I don't know if he saw someone or got medication.
AVC: Are panic attacks pretty typical for SNL newcomers?
TM: I don't know if it's something that everybody goes through. I know I was going through the same thing he was going through. Mine would start when I would get on the train to go to work. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. I would end up getting off the train before I got to work, and walking until I felt better.
Then I talked to my doctor, and he said the thing to remember about panic attacks is that nothing is going to happen. You feel like you're going to have a heart attack or can't catch your breath, but it's just your mind. Once he told me that, I was able to deal with it better. I stopped taking the train to work, and I started taking cabs or walking. After a certain point it didn't bother me any more.
The Michael Richards Show (2000)—"Kevin Blakeley"
TM: [Laughs.] Well, that was a very disappointing experience in my life. The great thing about that year is, my first son, Isaiah, was born. We moved out to Los Angeles for [the show]. But everything about it was the worst experience; to go from SNL to go to that.
AVC: You were basically right back at NBC.
TM: Right back at NBC. To go from working at a show where you had hands-on creativity to working on a show where you were working with somewhat of a dictator.
AVC: And who would that be?
TM: [Laughs.] I'm not naming names. He has since apologized to me. We ran into each other on the street, and he apologized. This was before his big comedy stand-up breakdown.
AVC: Did you see that breakdown coming?
TM: I did not see that coming. I don't think he saw it coming. I think he lost his temper.
AVC: If you watch the video from the club, it looks like he starts off trying to do something funny and "edgy," but it tailspins.
TM: I do this too when I get onstage. Sometimes I'll go down a path, and I'll just pray that something's going to come to get me out of this path that I'm on. You just try to talk your way out of it until you get the laugh. "All right, I'm out of there, now I can change the subject." And I think that's what he was doing. He was ramping up—he was angry, but he was ramping up and trying to be edgy, and he probably was thinking, "I'm gonna scare these people. I'm gonna make them feel uncomfortable, be edgy, make them see something we used to do back in the '70s, back when I was doing comedy." And then he probably couldn't dig his way out of that hole.
AVC: Do you have any good memories from that show?
TM: [Laughs.] Working with [writers] Spike Feresten, Andy [Robin], and Gregg [Kavet]. Those guys were fun, the cast was fun. Playing golf with [cast members] William Devane and Bill Cobbs. Those are the only pleasant memories.
AVC: A lot of people involved with that show were pretty frustrated—even the guest stars. First it was pegged as starring Michael Richards, but he wouldn't be playing a Kramer-like character. But the network decided his character should essentially be Kramer.
TM: They wanted it to be. When Andy showed me the pilot when we first started meeting, it was a single-camera [show]. It was very funny. I thought, "This is the way for Michael to do it. Don't be on a four-camera sitcom like you just came from. This will look different, and people won't see you as Kramer."
Then we were at a press conference. They said "The show's going to be a four-camera sitcom like Seinfeld." It was on a dais in front of press. I looked down the row at Andy, and I was like, "What?" And he said, "Yeah, we just found out it's going to be four-camera." I went, "We're doomed. We are doomed." And I was right. I was totally right. I love those guys; Spike is a good friend. And he knows, we've talked about this, I've done his show. I can't even tell you how low a point that was. I moved my family out there to do this show.
The Office (2005)—"Christian"
AVC: According to your episode's commentary, they had no idea what to expect from you. How did you get the role?
TM: I didn't have to audition. NBC showed [Steve] Carell a list of people they were thinking about, and he saw my name, and he goes, "Yeah, get Tim." They called and asked me to do it, and then I said no.
TM: Because it was one day of work, and it really wasn't the kind of money I'm sort of used to getting for those kind of roles. So I was like, "Nah. I love the show, but I can't sell myself short just because it's NBC." My manager was actually out of town. This is really kind of weird, but my manager's assistant said, "I don't know a lot about show business, but I think you should do this." And I went "All right, yeah, it's just one day."
AVC: Well, it was the second season, and the show hadn't completely caught on yet.
TM: No, I don't think it had either. I think the first season was only a few episodes. So I went and did it, and I had a great time. [Co-creator] Greg Daniels was very cool, he was a really nice director. We improvised a little, but not a whole lot. The writing was really good.
AVC: Again, on the commentary, they praise your ability to just "stare ahead blankly." What do they mean?
TM: [Laughs.] In the beginning of the scene in Chili's—I always try to think of ways to get into character right before we shoot, and I was thinking about this guy. He lives in Scranton, and he works for the city, but he's not even—he's a mid-level to lower-level city manager of some kind. I just thought he must be really unhappy with his life, but whenever he has to do business, he can pull himself back into it. So at the very beginning of the scene, I just sat there and I would stare straight ahead. [Demonstrates staring ahead blankly.]
AVC: You are very good at that.
TM: I did this until I felt horrible. Then they would come in and I would just go, "Oh, hey guys! Nothing, I wasn't thinking of anything." That was sort of what I was playing.
AVC: Do you feel a rapport working with other Second City actors like Steve Carell, even if you weren't part of the troupe there at the same time?
TM: Definitely, yeah. With Carell, we'd improvised before together, because we both did this show in Washington State at the Kennedy Center. I've known him for a long time.
The Colbert Report (2006)—"P.K. Winsome"
TM: Colbert is just well-written. My second [appearance], I helped write—the thing about Michael Richards' [racist remarks]. It was my idea, and then they came back with other jokes that were really great. With Colbert, it's very simple, because it's well-written, and you're just reading prompters. But I haven't been back to do it since the second time. I really want to. They were talking about maybe doing something for the Democratic or Republican Conventions.
TV Funhouse (2001)—"Stedman"
TM: TV Funhouse was the most intimidating work I've ever done. I have such an admiration and respect and reverence for Robert Smigel, even though he's my friend. I felt like I could never do his writing justice. Whenever I've seen that or heard it, I've always wished I could get another chance to do it again. He was happy with it, but I always felt like, "Just give me another take, I can make this better."
Mean Girls (2004)—"Mr. Duvall"
TM: It was a really fun shoot to be on. It was the first time I had worked on something where I was the oldest person on the set, for the most part. It was the first time I really felt like an older dude. One night, I took the cast to see Chris Rock, who was performing in Toronto—I got everybody tickets, and we all met there, and I felt like a group leader or something, because it was all the girls and myself.
AVC: Like a chaperone?
TM: Yeah, I felt like I was a chaperone. I was making sure everybody had their seats and their tickets, and there was a little panic, because everybody had tickets but me. Lindsay [Lohan] was trying to get her publicist to get me a ticket, and I just called Chris, and I just came in and sat in the back with the sound people, and watched it from there.
AVC: How was working with Tina Fey on Mean Girls different from working with her on SNL?
TM: It's a little bit different in that everything was already well-written, so it didn't need much changing. But even as far as Tina, even at SNL, I always thought she was one of the best writers there. I had known her since she was in Chicago, so it was kinda cool to see what's happened to her.
AVC: What do you think of 30 Rock?
TM: I love it. It's definitely an exaggeration [of what goes on at a show like SNL.] When I watch it, I really don't see SNL, other than the fact that it's a variety show. None of the characters really remind me of anyone who worked on the show or anything.
AVC: There aren't any amalgamations of different people from the show?
TM: A little. Maybe the Alec Baldwin character is a combination of Lorne and [Saturday Night Live supervisor Jeff] Zucker. But as far as the cast and the writers and stuff, those characters, you sort of see on a lot of different staffs. So I couldn't say somebody reminded me of some writer.
AVC: In Mean Girls, you're very good at playing a sort of quiet rage that's just bubbling up under the surface, like in the "Anphrony" scene in the beginning.
TM: Even when I read the part—[Fey] wrote it for me specifically, so she knew how to write for me. It was pretty obvious. But when I started acting in the movie, I sort of took—one thing I did was watch Meatballs with Bill Murray, because I wanted the guy to be sort of a cool teacher. But then as I read the script more and I sort of saw what he was, I think he was a cool teacher at one time who was tired of his job and wanted more.
My approach seriously was to play it dramatically, to play it straight. I didn't want him to be happy. There was even one point—the first scene I shot was the Spring Fling, the dance at the end of the movie, and I'm interrupting her while she's giving her speech. I wanted to do it like I wasn't happy, or that I was kind of angry. [Mean Girls Director] Mark Waters was telling me to do it with a smile. He was right. It was funnier that way. But my whole approach to that movie was really trying to play it as real as I could. I think that made it funnier, because sometimes it's just funnier when you're playing something real rather than for laughs.
AVC: And playing closer to your chest?
TM: Yeah, like that speech in the gym was totally angry. He was totally pissed off and full of it, to have his air taken out by the girls when he realizes that he can't have these conversations with young women. So he appeals to Tina to take over.
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2007)— "Hal"
TM: [Laughs.] Well, it's weird, because every job I get is because I know people. Jeff Garlin, I've known for 20-something years, and I also knew [writer] Dave Mandel from SNL. I've met Larry [David] a few times. It was a weird day when I went in to audition, because I knew everybody in the room.
AVC: How do you audition on a show without a script?
TM: They basically give you a strip of paper that has a scenario on it, and you just improvise it with Larry.
But I went in for the audition and it went well, and then when I was on my way out, I ran into Judd Apatow and Nick [Stoller], and we started talking. That led to Walk Hard, because Judd was like, "Oh, I got this movie with a part in it you'd be great for." And I was like, "Wow, this is a really great day. I just nailed an audition for Larry, and this happens too!"
AVC: Considering your background in improv, how does Larry measure up?
TM: He's good. He's really good. The thing that's fun—or a compliment, I should say—is that he would laugh during our scene. So I would do different things each take. Like, the one in the bathroom, we did probably 10 different versions of that scene. When we were talking, he would discover something else. The whole thing where he goes, "If I apologize to your wife, I have to go by and see her. I can't call her on the phone. Deaf people are the only [handicapped people] where you have to actually see them to apologize." That was all improvised from one of the takes that we did.
AVC: Did you guys swap any SNL war stories?
TM: No, not really.
AVC: He was barely there.
TM: Yeah. He went back and wrote when [Jerry] Seinfeld hosted once. I think that was the first time I actually met him.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)—"Sam"
AVC: On the Internet, some people are saying your performance yielded the most persuasive argument yet for the legalization of marijuana. Do you have any reaction to that?
TM: No, not really. [Laughs.] But, again, it was the most fun I've ever had on a day-to-day basis on a job I've ever worked on. I got to spend the whole day with Matt Besser and Chris Parnell, and I've known both of those guys, but we never really socialized that much. Then after that movie, they both became two of my closest friends. But, yeah, we improvised a lot. That whole breakup scene in that movie was improvised.
[John C. Reilly] is great. That was another reason I was happy to take the movie, because I've been a big fan of John's for a long time. I met him a few years ago when I was at SNL, and we hit it off immediately.
AVC: You both came up through Chicago.
TM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I used to give him shit about it, because we were in Chicago at the same time. I used to say, "Yeah, what play did you do? What was that play that you did?" And he'd go, "Yeah, it was, uh, On The Waterfront." I'd go, "Yeah, that's great. Did you write that?" And then he'd go, "No, I didn't write it." I'd go, "Oh yeah, I did my revue at Second City. I wrote my revue!" [Laughs.]
The Bill Engvall Show (2007-)— "Paul DuFrayne"
TM: I've learned to be very appreciative of these kinds of opportunities. After leaving SNL, I learned—it's like the NBA. They say the young guys don't know how hard it is to get to a championship. They think if they do it once, they can do it again. In show business, you don't know how hard it is to get a sitcom to be on for more than five episodes, no matter how good it is.
AVC: It's getting harder.
TM: It's getting harder and harder. Yeah. So I'm very grateful this opportunity came. And I'm happy to be in a position [where] they trust me to make my part better, or improve on the stuff they give me. Even though it's a family comedy and it's not exactly what I came up watching, or even what I watch now, I can still be happy with the stuff that I do.
AVC: Some people say the show's beneath you.
TM: It's easy for people to say that. That's their opinion, and everybody has them. That's fine. But those people don't have to put food on my table or clothes on my kids' backs.
I would love to only be doing David Mamet movies, but that's not the career I have. I'm a journeyman. I work. If you need a good doorway made, then you call Tim Meadows. If you need someone to come in and make a character that's not really funny in the script, or if you need somebody to improvise on the set and make it better, then I'm your man.