By Kyle Kramer
6:43 PM CDT, June 8, 2012
These days, you might know Scott Adsit best as overworked and under-appreciated producer Pete Hornberger on NBC's “30 Rock,” but, if you're old enough (or just a nerd about these things), you may also remember him from his days performing in iconic mid-’90s Second City shows like “Pinata Full of Bees” and “Paradigm Lost.” We caught up with Adsit during his break from “30 Rock” to reminisce about his days in Chicago, get his thoughts on “30 Rock” and Pete Hornberger's final season and talk about pizza.
You're on off-time with “30 Rock” right now. What are your summer plans? What are you up to?
I'm working on an Adult Swim show called “Moral Orel,” which I did for three years a while ago. We're doing a special now. And we just finished wrapping picture on that, and I'm working on music and sound effects now. Do you know Moral Orel?
Yeah, it's like claymation?
And it was on Adult Swim but it got cancelled, right?
It got cancelled, yeah. It turned into a drama, so they took it off the air. But they still liked it, and three or four years later now they've asked for a special, so we've just finished that.
And where are you working on that? In LA? New York?
Yeah, it's happening at Starburns Industries, a studio in LA. My partner is the guy who plays Starburns on Community.
How did you guys meet?
We met in college. I think in a comedy class. At Columbia, in Chicago. We've known each other since like ’86.
You're from the Chicago area originally, right?
When did you decide you wanted to do comedy? How did you get involved in stuff here in Chicago?
Well I did a lot of theater in high school, and then when I went to college, I went to a liberal arts college in Indiana. But only for a semester because I didn't find anything I was interested in there. So I quit there and I went to Columbia to be a filmmaker, which I'd been dabbling in in high school. And I spent a year or two in the film program at Columbia. And then just to [laughing] stay happy I took some acting classes. Eventually the acting took over from the filmmaking, and I left one department and majored in the other. So I stayed in the theater department and did a lot of plays there. And that got me hooked up with Second City because there were a lot of teachers at Columbia who also taught at Second City. I had seen Second City as a kid and seen just amazing stuff onstage, from like George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky, Mary Gross, people like that, and they really inspired me. I never planned to be a comedian. I don't consider myself one now. But I started making money – being funny, I guess, at Second City.
So do you consider yourself an actor more than a comedian?
Yeah, hopefully I'm an actor who can do whatever's needed. But it's just been a lot of comedy because it's the focus at Second City and that's where I kind of began to get noticed. People just associate me with comedy – not that I mind. I don't mind that at all.
What are some serious roles you've done?
I did a movie a little while ago called “The Music Never Stops.” I played a neurosurgeon who has to explain the news that this kid has a brain tumor and what it's doing to him. That was withJ.K. Simmons.
What about in Chicago? Did you ever do some, like, really arty, pretentious plays while you were in Chicago?
Yeah, it was all before Second City though because Second City took up all my time. But I did a staged version of the Hollywood Ten Trial, the McCarthy hearings, called “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been.” That was very serious and a little pretentious. But it was directed by Anna Shapiro, who's at Steppenwolf. And what else? I did “Three Sisters” and “The Homecoming.”
So you went into comedy at Second City. How long were you there before you were performing mainstage shows?
Let me see. I got hired for Touring Company in, like, '87? And I took some time off and I did “The Homecoming.” I understudied “The Homecoming” at Steppenwolf. And then when I came back to Second City I did the Tour Company for like a year-and-a half or so. So I toured for like two years, and then I did the full ladder. I did Northwest, which doesn't exist anymore, in Rolling Meadows. Did a show there. And then I did three E.T.C.s, and I did four Mainstage [shows]. So I got to Mainstage in ’94.
So you were making money from Second City that whole time? Did you have a day job or anything at that point?
I worked, I think as a clerk at a video store at that time, just trying to make ends meet. Touring didn't really pay the bills as much as you'd want. So yeah, I worked in a video store, I delivered pizzas.
Who did you deliver pizzas for?
I delivered pizzas for Ranalli's, on Lincoln.
They have a picture of you up in the front there now, I'm sure.
[Laughs] If they remember me – they probably do remember me because the manager, Reno, would have to come out and jump my car! I had this broken down old Saturn – no, not a Saturn, a Supra? Anyway, he'd have to come jump my car, in the snow, at least twice a week.
Were you also involved at iO during that period?
I was around back in the days of the Players' Workshop, which preceded the iO, I believe. But I wasn't – I didn't go to either of those places. There was kind of a Berlin Wall between Second City and iO at that time, in the late '80s, early '90s. There was not a lot of cross-breeding there...And then a bunch of Touring Company people were hired out of iO for the first time. It was kind of a detente. They allowed all these iO people to come in, and there was a huge influx of talent like Kevin Dorff and Adam McKay and Brian Stack. All these really brilliant performers were suddenly under Second City's umbrella. And we did this show...that kind of led the way to what Second City would eventually kind of become structure-wise. I was not part of iO. And I was doing eight shows a week, so I would go and play the Armando show on Mondays when I could, but that was my only experience with iO 'til after I was done at Second City.
Well now they have your picture on the wall at iO, so I was wondering...
Well I never took classes there. I performed there quite a bit. I did stuff with [Dave] Pasquesi there. And John Lutz and I performed there. I've done a bunch of evenings there, but no runs.
It seems like the early '90s is when improv began being accepted as an art form. What do you remember of the scene when it wasn't as accepted that improv is something we have in Chicago?
I think it's when longform became more accepted and kind of the norm. As opposed to shortform or gamey kind of improv. There was a lot of like ComedySportz and Second City where there were a lot of games and a lot of short scenes that were just kind of one joke driven. Like a train of cars that were all scenes. Scene, blackout, song, scene. And the iO influence, I think, the Harold and Del Close's influence, bled over to Second City, which legitimizes anything, I think. But it got to us later than it did for others. And we, I think we saw the potential ourselves in the “art” of improv and the fact it could be more emotional and more dimensional than it had been. More than just a magic trick, kind of.
Do you still do much longform improv?
I do a weekly show with John Lutz in New York. And then I do another show called “Gravid Water” in New York, which is a bit of a game. It's really high quality. It's a bunch of Broadway people matched up with improvisers in two-person scenes. And the Broadway people have memorized the scene – from a real play – and they're paired with an improviser who has no prior knowledge of the scene whatsoever. It's like [shortform game] “Playbook,” but without a book.
It seemed like when 30 Rock started, New York was bubbling over, and UCB was becoming this big thing, and then all those people moved out to LA. What's New York like as far as comedy right now?
I think it's still very experimental and moving forward and has some really very high quality people still here in New York. There are a lot of shows at UCB particularly that are experimental and sometimes are grand failures and sometimes are true art. So that's still going on. And Ali Farahnakian has the PIT theater, which he opened up. Which is a beautiful new space and is also looking for the cutting edge. New York is almost as important as Chicago, improv-wise.
Almost. Well that's good that we're still on top here, at least in some peoples' minds. I saw one of the other things that you did while you were was that you had done the voices for a pinball machine. Have you done any other interesting voiceover work?
Well, voiceover-wise, I have these two Adult Swim shows, which are "Moral Orel" and one that's running now called "Mary Shelley's Frankenhole." And that's stop-motion as well, through the same people – different look and different kind of sensibility. Those have done very well for us. They're very popular, and they've won some Emmys. I've done a lot of Adult Swim stuff. I've done guest-starring stuff on Aqua Teen Hunger Force. I did an episode of Colbert Report's cartoon, "Tek Jansen."
Did you ever do any commercial voiceovers or stuff like that when you were in Chicago?
Oh yeah, I did. I did a bunch of commercial voiceovers in Chicago before I left. For Balducci's pizza; I did a whole series. Actually I was making a good living with voiceover before I left.
So you were sort of on top of the pizza market from every step of the industry.
Yeah, I was covering both ends of that scale.
As far as 30 Rock, what should people expect for the last season? What would you like to see?
I'd like Pete to be satisfied in some way. Whether that be emotionally or work-related, sexually. I'd just like him, at the end of the day, to say “I feel good about myself.”
It seems like Pete has become a progressively more tragic character over the arc of 30 Rock.
How do you think that happened? What was the deal there?
[Laughs] You've got me! Maybe the writers have gotten to know me better. No, I think the longer a show's on the air the more – you've got to keep writing or be true to the characters, and either they grow or they don't. It's like –"M*A*S*H" was a great show, but it was on so long and it had such a spectrum of characters that they all grew and became better people and more three dimensional. Eventually they all essentially had the same point of view. They all kind of agreed on everything by the end. Other shows, the dumb people become incredibly dumb by the end; the lustful people become crazy for sex; the people who are lazy are lazy to the nth degree. I think the writers decided on a one or two-word description of Pete and just reinforced it.
What do you envision for yourself after 30 Rock ends?
Well I'll stay in New York and maybe get some plays. Otherwise, I'll just be looking for work.
When you left Chicago originally you moved to LA, right?
I left Chicago in like 1998 or '99, and I was in LA until "30 Rock." So seven or eight years. And was doing guest spots and small parts in movies and commercials – a lot of commercials.
What commercials did you do out in LA?
I did one where I was – a Honda commercial – where I was a man who was raised by wolves. That ran for a long time. Then I did one [laughs] for United Airlines about the check-in kiosks, you know the things you can go and check in by yourself now? They were just rolling those out. And it was about it being a quicker, easier pace at the airport, where you just don't have to worry about anything. And it came out the day before – I think September 10, it premiered. 2001. And so they immediately removed that commercial. That shouldn't help me. I did a Washington Mutual commercial. It was a series of three, but mine stood out because it won the Silver Lion at the Cannes Film Festival. Which I didn't know they had a commercial award. But here's another thing: This Washington Mutual ad was about easy home loans and [how] nothing bothers me. So I get the wrong tooth drilled, and I get a boot on my car, and I get a bowling ball in the nuts, and I laugh it all off because I've got a great home loan – easy home loan. And then, of course, that destroyed America.
You pretty much single-handedly caused the recession, it sounds like.
I got out of doing commercials for the sake of the country.
No pizza commercials out there, though?
Ha, no I did a Pizza Hut commercial.
Do you have any Chicago shoutouts or places you really love in Chicago?
I'm looking forward to eating at Penny's Noodles under the train tracks. And maybe getting some, well, I don't know – Balducci's maybe!
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor.
Just for Laughs Festival - Scott Adsit and Jet Eveleth
When: June 15, midnight
Tickets: $15, justforlaughschicago.com
Just for Laughs Festival - Scott Adsit, John Glaser, Kevin Dorff, TJ Jagodowski, & Dave Pasquesi
When: June 13-14, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (SOLD OUT)
Tickets: $20, justforlaughschicago.com
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