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As The Girlie Show’s beleaguered producer Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock, Scott Adsit is the master of beaten-down sighs and somehow managing to be even more pathetic than Liz Lemon. In real life, though, he’s been friends and coworkers with Tina Fey for years, as the two met during their mutual time at Second City. Adsit’s taken that improv training to heart and still does monthly shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in New York City. He’ll bring all of that “yes, and”-ing to Chicago for three shows during Just For Laughs, including two with fellow local comedy scene alums Kevin Dorff and Jon Glaser June 14. The A.V. Club talked to him about Second City, Moral Orel, and his pal Community writer and actor Dino Stamatopoulos.
The A.V. Club: Every article about you begins with you being on the Second City Mainstage, but even getting there is a process that can take years. How did you work your way up through local improv scene?
Scott Adsit: Well, there’s a ladder at Second City that I hit every rung on. I did the training center, then I was hired for the touring company, and then I did Second City Northwest in Rolling Meadows, which is dead now, and then the E.T.C. stage, and then the Mainstage. So it was like an eight-year process.
AVC: What made you decide when you were a kid that you wanted to do comedy?
SA: Well, part of it was going to Second City when I was a kid and seeing a magic show, which I thought was amazing, to watch these really skilled people doing what they did. But then I always wanted to be an actor, not a comedian, because I didn’t really have material. I might’ve been witty, but I didn’t have a shtick. So, I never considered myself a comedian.
I went to film school at Columbia and did that for a couple years, and really thought I was going to be a filmmaker, and then I kind of drifted over to the acting side after that. I’d been an actor in high school, and when I got to college, it was all about film. Then I drifted and ended up doing very kind of serious plays at Columbia, and in that process, someone that was one of the teachers invited me to come to Second City; I think Sheldon [Patinkin] said I should go to Second City and take classes. So I did that, and from that I got hired. Then, suddenly, I was a comedian.
AVC: Or a funny actor.
SA: Yeah, a funny actor. I’m not a comedian, per se.
AVC: How much did growing up in Chicago affect that path? You were obviously conscious of its comedic history, having been to Second City.
SA: It seemed like it was part of the landscape of Chicago that these great comedians came out of Second City and that they built Saturday Night Live on largely. Everyone knew names and stories and where they were from and their sensibilities, which were very familiar. So yeah, I was aware of Chicago having a great comedy history, and I grew up watching SNL and Monty Python incessantly—like really nerdy, nerdy memorization of Monty Python records and stuff. I think most of my tastes were British, as far as comedy went, when I was growing up. Channel 11 had a great lineup of British comedy, and I would watch all of it, again and again. It was like Teletubbies, I would just [adopts a Teletubby voice] “Again!” and watch it over and over.
AVC: At the time, that’s what was available and palatable, too.
SA: And that appealed to me, yeah. There was a lot of comedy; Three’s Company was on then, you know? While there were some very skilled actors on that show, the writing was not that great, and the theme song was one of the most annoying things I’ve ever heard in my life. So, my own sensibilities—I think it made me feel smarter, to be laughing at British people.
AVC: What was your acting experience like in Chicago?
SA: I got an agent when I needed one, when I had a contract negotiation for the first time. I was doing the Second City E.T.C., and I got invited to audition for the last season, it turns out, of In Living Color. So there was a contract I needed to sign before they hired me. The last stage of the process of auditioning is signing a contract guaranteeing that you’ll work with them if they hire you. So I had to have that negotiated by Suzanne’s A-Plus, which I eventually brought Tina [Fey] into—that was her first agent in Chicago. But I didn’t get hired for that show.
AVC: You did voices for a pinball machine and acted in a video that’s shown, to this day, in DUI classes. How did those jobs come about?
SA: Actually, Second City acted more as an agent than my agent at the time. Second City, for the pinball thing, they came to me and Kevin Dorff to write the dialogue for this pinball machine called Medieval Madness. So we wrote all the dialogue here, then the creators and Kevin Dorff and myself and Tina did the voices of various medieval people.
AVC: That must be some game.
SA: It’s one of the highest-rated pinball machines ever made.
SA: Yes, and most sought-after. If you go on eBay, they sell replacement parts for it. You can buy the machine, but there’s also a whole page of replacement parts that people have fashioned themselves. They’ve found a business in replacing the parts of just this specific machine. I actually bought—I think before I got 30 Rock, before I had money, really—I sent away to Germany and spent a lot of money for an occasionally working actor, and had this pinball machine shipped from the only place I could find it in working order, Germany. I had it sent to my sister’s house because I had an apartment that would not be big enough for a pinball machine at all.
AVC: Is it still there?
SA: It’s still there, and she has had to replace some parts—thank God there’s an industry for that—but it still works, and it’s really a great game, I have to admit. I didn’t have anything to do with how gravity works in it, but it’s an amazing game.
AVC: When you left Chicago, was it because you got a job elsewhere or because you wanted to strike out on your own?
SA: No, I was timid; I waited until I got hired. In fact, it was at the end of the process of creating a Second City show. I think we had two weeks until our scheduled opening, and I got a call from my friend Dino Stamatopoulos to write a show for Barry Levinson, with him head-writing and with me and a guy named Mike who was also from Columbia, and Stephen Colbert, who I knew from Second City. The four of us wrote this kind of variety show. It was an hour-long comedy for ABC. Barry Levinson was in charge and Robert Morton, who used to do Letterman, was the producer. It was backstage of a show like SNL; it was an hour-long comedy with single-camera, and it was about all the personalities at a live sketch show. It was all characters based on SNL people. So we wrote what we thought we thought was a pretty good show and it didn’t get picked up. Then I just stayed in L.A. and then waited another eight years until I got that show in a different form.
AVC: How did you and Dino meet and start working together?
SA: We met, I think, in comedy workshop and started performing together a bit. We did a play or two together—he’s a good actor. He won’t say he is, but he is. You become very close in that kind of community, especially a community within a college community; you know, you’re in a play within a slightly larger community. So we became kind of close, and then we also ended up spending a lot of time together after college because we were very bored at night. My girlfriend was working until 4 in the morning tending bar, and he was alone, so we would spend all our nights together and wander around Chicago. Some nights he’d bring his guitar and sing songs that he’d written, or we’d written, to people eating al fresco. We would tell them—well, we wouldn’t lie to anyone, but we’d insinuate that we worked for the restaurant and ask if they had any requests. Then they’d request something, and we’d play whatever we’d written.
AVC: You have these long-running relationships with people like Dino and Tina Fey. How have you maintained those?
SA: Well, by the grace of the Greeks, I’ve had work. Dino is a very loyal person, and he likes who he likes and wants them around. He’s been in the position to be hiring people a couple times, and he’s gracious enough to think of me, which is great. We also get along very well. We’re very much kind of opposite people, but we work well together. Tina and I worked almost like partners at Second City, I thought. We did a lot of two-person scenes together, and eventually we had too many “Scott and Tina” scenes and we had to take them out of the show ’cause there was an imbalance going on. Tina and I love each other. She went off to write SNL and I stayed behind, and she just climbed the ladder so quickly there, and then she was “Tina Fey.”
AVC: Do you watch Community?
SA: Not enough.
AVC: Do you think 30 Rock at all paved the way for shows like Community?
SA: I think it made Thursday night a viable option for the network again. We brought people who were looking to actually pay attention to shows. We trusted the audience; I think that’s the difference. We trusted them to keep up with us and challenged them to try to watch it without having to rewind and catch that last joke. I think The Office did that as well. The Office trusts you to try to understand the emotional subtext, and 30 Rock challenges you to keep up with the references and the highbrow humor coupled with the really intelligent silliness.
AVC: Next season is the last for 30 Rock, correct?
SA: Absolutely, yeah. It is. We’re doing 13 shows, and then that’ll be it.
AVC: Are you nervous? Are you sad?
SA: Obviously I’m sad, because this is the best job I’ve ever had—apart from Second City, which is a lot of fun. It’s a life-changing job I’ve had. So I’m not looking forward to being set adrift, but hopefully there will be something on the horizon.
AVC: You are bringing Moral Orel back as a special, but there’s talk that it might come back as a full series. Is that happening?
SA: We don’t know yet. If the network wants a series out of it, or if we have the energy to do it—if it does happen, I might be in charge of it; I might showrun it. But I’d have to be in L.A. to do it, so I don’t know if I want to move yet.
AVC: Are you surprised with the way that show’s popularity has grown since it first aired?
SA: I think we anticipated that, but I haven’t seen the evidence of that. The aren’t any Moral Orel T-shirts walking around.
AVC: Well, there probably are, but they’re bootlegs.
SA: Yeah, they’re homemade.
AVC: Do you consider yourself more of an actor now, or more of an improviser?
SA: I think it’s all the same animal for me. There are actors who sing, and there are actors who direct, and I also improvise. That’s one thing I do as part of my acting. I don’t really separate the two.
AVC: What keeps you doing live improv shows? You could easily just go home and go to sleep after 30 Rock is done for the day.
SA: Because it makes me feel clever. [Laughs.] I really enjoy creating something with someone else and just letting it explode or simmer or delight a live audience. There’s nothing better than a live audience; I’m sure you’ve heard that a million times. There’s nothing more pure and beautiful than making an audience laugh or cry or whatever, and on a good night, both.
AVC: You did Mr. Show, you did Second City, you did Tenacious D, you’ve done 30 Rock—These are some pretty important productions in the grand scheme of how comedy has developed in recent years. Do you ever think about the magnitude of it all?
SA: Yeah, I do appreciate it. I know that it’s a very small percentage—like two percent—of actors are actually making a living doing it. I feel very lucky for having been in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people and having a little bit of skill, but I haven’t actually made my mark; I’ve made a dent. I’ve proven that really talented people like to have me around, but I haven’t quite made my mark yet.
AVC: How much of your success do you think is attributed to Second City? Do you think everything you learned you learned from there?
SA: I think that reinforced my love of performing, and I think it opened a lot of doors for me and put me in a room with a lot of really talented people that then has paid off afterwards. But I think I attribute a lot of my skill to my high school learning—I had some great acting teachers in high school—and to my college people as well. But then, Second City did teach me a lot about just doing work and enjoying it, finding the joy in it.
AVC: That’s something that people always say about Chicago, comedy-wise, that you get the opportunity to work every single night, and you just get to experiment and not worry about agents sitting there watching you.
SA: Yeah, you can redefine yourself every night and find your voice.
AVC: You’re doing a show with Kevin Dorff—
SA: And Jon Glaser.
AVC: And a show with Jet Eveleth.
SA: That’s right. We’re doing a midnight show with Jet on Friday, who I’ve done I think three shows with so far, and we get along very well. We didn’t really know each other until last year at Just For Laughs, when she introduced herself to me after a show I did. When she came to New York, she invited me to do a play with her, so we did a two-person. We’ve done that a few times now, so I invited her to do it this time.
And then the other show, from what I hear through my agent is going to be me, and Dorff, and Glaser; then T.J. And Dave are joining us as well. So that’s a powerhouse.