Scott Adsit on the state of sitcoms and why New York fears The Second City
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Though Scott Adsit is probably best known for his role as Pete Hornberger on 30 Rock, Chicagoans are duty-bound to point out his origins: The Northbrook-born comedic actor was on Second City’s Mainstage from 1994 until 1998, performing in 1995’s Piñata Full Of Bees, a landmark show for the theater that broke with tradition by interconnecting all the scenes and doing away with having a unifying theme. Bees was also when Tina Fey joined the Mainstage; she would later cast Adsit for his role on her Emmy Award-winning show. For Second City’s 50th-anniversary festivities, Adsit will be co-chairing a panel on Second City and “the state of the sitcom” on Dec. 12, performing in the alumni show on Dec. 12, and on Dec. 13 can be seen in a screening of the documentary Second To None, which chronicles the creation of another beloved mid-‘90s Second City show, Paradigm Lost. Before coming back to town, Adsit talked to The A.V. Club about how Second City is perceived outside of Chicago and why he avoids improv.
The A.V. Club: So, what is the state of the sitcom? Do you feel qualified to weigh in on that?
Scott Adsit: Well, only as a fan really. I think England is way ahead of us. I think 30 Rock is a good example, and Arrested Development and Larry Sanders are all good examples of where it can go. There are well-written shows that are three-camera—most of them are in England, but there are a few here.
AVC: Why is America so reluctant to embrace change in its sitcoms?
SA: I don’t know. Maybe because the people running the show are all fans of sitcoms of the past, and they want to repeat that and they want to recreate what they loved when they were younger? I’m not sure.
AVC: Jumping over to Second City, how does it feel to be marking its 50th year this week?
SA: Well, I’ve been a part of it for about 20 now, so, I feel like one of the old soldiers now—which is odd.
AVC: How connected do you feel to the theater’s origins?
SA: To the origins, I’m a fan, but as an alum I feel very connected to it because it’s where my origins lie. So, I’m much less important to its origins than it is to mine.
AVC: What was the last Second City show you saw there?
SA: Oh boy. I don’t remember, but it was really good!
AVC: How does it compare to when you were performing there?
SA: It was maybe three years ago. [Laughs.] How does it compare? Well, you know, it’s funny, because back in ’95 when we were doing this “revolutionary” show, Piñata Full Of Bees, we were feeling really good about ourselves and alumni were coming and telling us how good they thought it was. But then, you know, you go in the bathroom where all these quotes are written down. Guests or cast members would go back in the bathroom of the Mainstage and just write graffiti on the wall. There’s a quote from George Wendt in there, that says, “Great show” or something like that, class of ’79, and then in parentheses, “when it was good.” That’s probably what everybody thinks. That they do their shows and they feel good about their shows and they come back years later and think, “Well these kids are doing all right; it ain’t what we did.” But I think those kids then move on and come back and do the same thing. So, how does it compare? Not as good as ours, but probably better. I don’t know. I have no idea.
AVC: How does going through Second City’s process of putting together a revue help equip you for working on a sitcom? Does it at all?
SA: Well, it opens you up to anything is viable as an idea. Sometimes in sitcoms you’re handed stuff and you go, “Well, this is illogical. No one would ever do this.” I think the atmosphere of Second City is everything happens, anything can happen, and you just have to justify it and find a way to get there. And, that’s what a sitcom is: wild emotional swings for the sake of being funny.
To deliver an end-line, generally you have to go to the opposite of the emotion you’ve been playing. I mean, I don’t want to get too technical about it, but that’s generally in a sitcom what happens: You’ll be expressing one, very real emotion and then you have to undercut it. Or you have to drop it so that you can be part of someone else’s beat and get their laugh.
AVC: How is Second City perceived in the sitcom industry and “the biz”?
SA: Well, here in New York I’ll say it comes with a lot of respect. People are still impressed with the name Second City. I’ve heard New York actors say Chicago actors intimidate them because apparently we’re the real nitty-gritty actors who’re in a town where being onstage doesn’t necessarily get you anything except your craft. We’ve got a great reputation of having great actors and comedians coming out of Chicago. The perception I have of the perception here in New York is that it’s respect and they’re watching their backs a little bit.
AVC: Do you feel a rapport when performing with other Second City alumni that you don't feel with other non-Second City people, even if you guys didn't come up together?
SA: Well, there's a certain fraternity there, certainly. I think a good improviser is a good improviser, and I think you can recognize them within the first few seconds of being onstage with someone. There is something of a shared history, a family feeling, kind of a shorthand, that you can find with another alum.
AVC: You still perform improv pretty regularly in New York. Do you go and see it, as well?
SA: No, no. Improv is awful. Ten percent of it is fantastic, and it's hard to find the gems. There's a lot of good improv at UCB here. There's a lot of good improv in all three big cities. But I'll watch it and I'll either be frustrated or jealous. So I avoid it.
AVC: Fred Willard said they’re either so good you’re mad or they’re so bad you sweat for them.
SA: It's actually the opposite for me. I'm uncomfortable if they're good and I'm angry if they're bad.
AVC: When did you reach that point when you decided, "You know, I’m good."?
SA: Probably when I was in L.A. I reached the age where I didn't feel the need to be a cheerleader anymore.
AVC: The entire weekend is a benefit for less-famous alumni, and you mentioned that Second City is a bit of a fraternity, but how often do you stay in touch with your fraternity?
SA: I can only speak for myself, but I did a Celebrity Autobiography [a New York show where comedians read aloud from celebrity autobiographies—ed.] a couple of weeks ago with Andrea Martin, and Martin Short came to watch her. Just as a friend. And I think that's pretty great. And Tina has hired me [for 30 Rock]. That's very nice.
I still feel very close to the people I wrote shows with and some of the people I toured with. I feel very close to them, like a family or like college friends who you know and who have seen you at your worst and you spend 14 hours driving a van all piled on top of each other. You get to know the worst and the best of them. And, you know, you chuck some out and you keep some, because even at their worst they're great. That's who I'm still in touch with.
But I'll tell you. Most of the people I worked with were just truly, truly wonderful people. I didn't have a bad experience [at Second City]. A lot of people went through there and felt like they got chewed up and spit out or they were treated poorly by other cast members or by the directors, and that's terrible. And I only had a problem with one or two people the entire time I was there. I had a great time. And I was very popular.