Before getting a gig as a cast member on Mr. Show With Bob and David or becoming Pete Hornberger, Liz Lemon’s right-hand man on 30 Rock, Scott Adsit studied improv at Columbia College Chicago and Second City. In the early 90s he spent his days wandering around Roscoe Village with comedy writer Dino Stamatopoulos (Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Moral Orel, Community) and a guitar in tow. The pair would find al fresco restaurants and pretend they worked there, then offer to play original tunes to diners until management eventually kicked them out. They’d then return to Stamatopoulos’s apartment—which Adsit remembers containing only a mattress, Simpsons toys from Burger King, and a bag of potatoes in the fridge—and write. The duo stuck together and moved to LA, where they turned their love for bits into fruitful careers.
Adsit, 51, is fresh off a stint on Veep and provided voicing for the upcoming Big Hero Six TV series, but he’s taking a break to headline the Chicago Improv Festival, taking place at venues across the city from March 27 to April 2. He’ll perform with Susan Messing in her two-person show Messing With a Friend and with the all-female troupe Mama’s Boy, then will receive the Spotlight Award for his contributions to improv.
Adsit’s involvement in improv started early. He grew up in Northbrook and was first introduced to the craft in a junior high drama class; after that he joined the improv troupe at Glenbrook North High School.
“They were allowed and sanctioned by the school to satirize life in high school, including the administration and the rules and whatever else,” Adsit says. “It was a huge eye-opener for me, and I said, ‘If there’s a living in this, this is what I want.'”
In 1998 he moved to LA to make a TV show he cowrote with Stamatopoulos, Stephen Colbert, Robert Smigel, and Michael Stoyanov called Sometimes Live. It starred the five of them, along with Tina Fey, as a group of comedy writers working on a TV show that was kind of like Saturday Night Live (sound familiar?). The pilot didn’t get picked up—though the cast read the script for a live edition of the podcast Skull Juice last year—and so Adsit picked up any acting jobs he could.
The one constant through it all was improv. Whether or not he was able to get a gig onscreen, he was discovering his style onstage at places like iO West—where he did a show with fellow Chicagoan David Pasquesi. (“Before TJ and Dave, it was Adsit and Pasquesi!” he says.) He grew to love two-person improv, which focuses more on the relationships between characters, performing with people such as Robert Dassie and Stephnie Weir. Adsit has always kept his Chicago connections close, and in 2005 Fey reached out to offer him a part in her own behind-the-scenes-of-a-sketch-show show. Of course, this one got picked up, then blew up.
Whenever Adsit returns to the city where he cut his teeth, he says he feels inspired to see so many young improvisers continuing to experiment, no matter how bad it can be.
“I see a lot of really bad improv and it’s hard to sit through, but I also feel a lot of empathy because I know I was that person 20 years ago or even a year ago,” Adsit says. “Sometimes it’s so good I get jealous—I’m fighting an impulse to get in the scene. If I’m just laughing, then it’s great. A great football player loves to watch football be well played.” v