Q&A: Scott Adsit of '30 Rock'

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?
Stop-motion, yeah.

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?
Northbrook, yeah.

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.