As the character Pete Hornberger on NBC's late, lamented “30 Rock,” Scott Adsit played for seven seasons the relative straight man surrounded by a cast of oddballs and idiosyncratics.
But among true comedy nerds, particularly in Chicago, Adsit was less the put-upon husband than he was an improv demigod — one of the city's most lauded and versatile performers, who came from a Second City class in the '90s that produced Adam McKay (“Anchorman”), Rachel Dratch (“Saturday Night Live”) and “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey.
Adsit, a Northbrook native, returns to town this week to headline the 16th annual Chicago Improv Festival, where he's appearing in several shows and teaching a sold-out workshop for improvisers. The festival culminates Sunday in a “30 Rock” reunion with John Lutz and Kay Cannon, both Chicago improv alumni.
This is an edited transcript of my conversation with Adsit.
Q: Do you still perform improv because of the instant audience feedback, something you don't get on TV?
A: That's a big part of it, but I also like to play with people I like to play with. We don't really get paid for improv, we just enjoy playing together. Generally with acting, the projects (where you get to choose the people you want to work with) are few and far between.
Q: When you were on the Second City mainstage in the mid-'90s, did you think it was possible to make a decent living in comedy? The odds seem so small.
A: I never looked at my future as comedy. Even at Second City, I always thought of it as acting. I knew I was going to be an actor, financially, emotionally, egotistically. I still don't think I'm in comedy.
Q: Playing Pete Hornberger on “30 Rock,” did you gain any insight about playing the straight man?
A: Most of Pete's weirdness happens off camera, and you just hear about it. I learned not to dismiss a straight man as simply a wall that the funny character's throwing a ball against. A straight man has a deep, weird, personal, rich life of his own, and that's what makes a good straight man. He doesn't just react in one way.
Q: There was one moment during the Second City mainstage show “Pinata Full of Bees,” in 1995, that will go down as perhaps the most divisive “performance arty” moment of the company's history. The thing with (then-President Bill) Clinton.
A: A good half of the cast didn't think it was a good idea from the outset. That was an experiment without any hypothesis behind it. It was Adam McKay's idea. I ended a scene and whispered to each of the cast members briefly, so the audience couldn't quite hear. The actors went off stage, and I said in my most sober voice: “I'm sorry, we have to stop the show. The president has been shot. We don't know the details, but there are monitors out in the lobby, and we can watch the coverage. You're welcome to stay.” I got a little teary but not too much. The audience sat motionless; they didn't talk to each other. They sat there stunned. ... Then there was this awkward thing of Adam bringing out the monitor cart. I turned it on, and there was sports bloopers on the monitor. I said, “Oh, I'm sorry, I want to change the channel,” and Adam saying, “Wait, wait, wait!” and laughing at the bloopers. Half of the audience thought it was hysterical, and half of them were really angry. We all started sitting with our backs to the audience, watching sports bloopers and didn't do anything but laugh at the TV for another 10 minutes until the room cleared. That was something we would not repeat.
Chicago Improv Festival runs through Sunday at various venues; tickets and information at chicagoimprovfestival.org. Adsit is appearing in “Messing With a Friend” (Thursday, sold out); “Geeking Out With Scott Adsit and John Lutz” (Saturday); “Beirdo and Jimmy Jet Johnnie” (Saturday); “The Improvised Shakespeare Company” (Sunday, sold out).
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