Currently, Meadows can be seen within the ensemble of NBC’s “Marry Me,” where he plays one of Casey Wilson’s two dads (his significant other played by Dan Bucatinsky). Meadows chatted with Indiewire during the most recent Television Critics Association press tour, where he discussed his new series, his semi-recent decision to take a shot at stand-up, his favorite “SNL” sketch (even if got virtually no laughs) and how improv legend Del Close changed his life by telling him to get out.
So how did you find your way into the “Marry Me” ensemble? Did they come looking for you, or were you actively looking for something?
Yeah, I mean, my agents are every year actively looking for something. [Laughs.] But I started doing stand-up, so I’ve been touring a lot, so this year I was actually telling them that I didn’t want to do anything. I just felt like I just should try to get better at doing stand-up, and it’s going really well, so, y’know, I didn’t want to do anything. Which meant that I was gonna get a job.
I guess my manager submitted me for that part, and then they asked me if I could come in and read for them, but I was touring, and I couldn’t get away to do it. So I told them I couldn’t do it, and David Caspe asked if we could talk on the phone, so we talked on the phone and we hit it off, joking around and everything. I was a big fan of “Happy Endings,” so I knew I was in good hands. So I told him I’d love to do it if he wanted me, and… that was it, basically.
So far, apparently, your character’s name is only confirmed as Kevin. Just… Kevin. Exactly how developed is he?
Well, he’s more developed than you’d think, based on that. [Laughs.] But you’re right, I don’t even know his last name. I was, like, “What is his last name? I don’t even know! I’ve got to read the script again…”
Well, technically he’s listed Kevin One.
And Dan Bucatinsky is Kevin Two, yeah. So it’s only developed as far as… What I know is what you’ve seen, basically. I mean, we haven’t had meetings where we were, like, developing the characters or anything. But they obviously saw me and Dan together on the set, and we hit it off really well and had a really good chemistry, even with scenes that weren’t in the pilot that you may have seen. We did a lot of stuff together, and we were very collaborative with each other, and I think those guys picked up on that.
So they’ve said that they’re going to have them in the show more and develop them more, but right now, they’re just two gay dads, they’re very happily married, and I think they fight like any other married couple. One of the things David said was that they were attracted to each other because they’re exactly alike, except that they’re different races. But they dress alike, they have the same sort of attitude about things… They’re very much the same, and they’re probably very dramatic, which is where Casey [Wilson’s] character probably developed a lot of her flamboyance, where everything has to be a spectacular moment.
I can’t recall: have you played gay before?
[Laughs.] I have played gay before, yes. I played one gay character in the Fran Drescher show (“Living with Fran”). I did a few episodes where I was her neighbor. But it was not… It was just a jokey sort of gay character, and I really didn’t even try to, like, develop him or come up with anything. It was just a case where they’d call me up every once in a while and ask me to do an episode. But I feel more confident about this. I mean, I really like David, and I trust his writing.
So you just kind of play the character, in other words.
Yeah. Although for me, I do have to base it on something. I still have to find the character. It’s, like, who is this dude, and where have I seen this guy before? So I sat around watching things, and I started to sort of base him on a couple of news people that I’ve seen on television, and…I don’t know, they might be gay or they might not be gay. [Laughs.] But I’m just sort of basing this character on their on-camera personas, so I’ve got something to go off of.
The pilot drew a great deal of its comedy from making people incredibly uncomfortable, or at least the proposal scene did. Do you get the impression that that’s going to be the case as the series goes on?
Well, I think that was just one moment in the pilot, and something they’re not necessarily going to revisit a lot. It’s like the question of – because of her two dads – whether she’s black or white, who was the sperm donor. I don’t really know where that stuff is going. But I don’t think that’s the sort of stuff that we’d play upon a lot. But we’ll both have to see what’s going to happen with that, right? [Laughs.]
It seems like there’s a great deal of potential for character-driven comedy.
Yeah, the actors do seem to be real grounded character people. That’s another reason I’m extremely interested in seeing where things go.
You mentioned that you’re doing stand-up now, but how did you find your way into comedy in the first place?
How? I studied at ImprovOlympic and Second City in Chicago, and that was where “SNL” found me. So that’s how I got interested. I was a big fan of Second City, Monty Python and “SNL” when I was in junior high and high school, and… I wanted to be like one of those guys, you know? And stand-up, I always liked it, but I didn’t do it until about five years ago. That’s when I first started doing it. I just wanted to have a way to work on ideas. I’d have comedic ideas, and I’d be, like, “I don’t want to go get a film crew and go film this, so how can I do something with this?” So I decided that I’d just start getting up on stage and talking and find out if I had anything funny, and then I just kept working on it, writing it and honing it and getting better at it.
Was it terrifying at first?
Yeah, it was really scary. The first weekend that I did a show where I had to headline, I called a friend of mine — Brad Morris, who’s also a comedian and a writer — and I said, “Can you come and just hang out? And if I can’t do it, then you come up on stage, and we’ll improvise together, because I don’t know if I can do 45 or 50 minutes of just me talking.” Even though I had about 35 minutes, I was, like, “I can’t do this.” And then he said, “Nope. I’m not coming.” [Laughs.] He said, “You can do this. You can do it. I’ve seen you do it, so… you can do it.” And that was a real big kick in the pants. He said, “Call me tomorrow if you can’t do it. If you fail tonight, I’ll come in tomorrow and we’ll do it.” And it was a great moment, because I was going, “Yeah, you know what, I’m on my own now. I can’t depend on anyone else. This is all me.”
Given that you worked at ImprovOlympic and Second City, did you have any close encounters with Del Close?
Yeah! Del was one of my teachers!
Do you have a scary Del Close story? It seems like everyone has a story about how he terrified them, as well as one where he taught them a valuable lesson.
I have a combination, one where he was scary but which is also an example of what a great man he was. He did this show called “Honor Finnegan Saves the Universe,” and it was performed at the ImprovOlympic, and he told Charna Halpern that he wanted certain actors to be at this rehearsal, and she told me that I was one of them. So I was sitting in the rehearsal with all these other people, and then he looked around the room and he said, “What are you doing here?” Talking to me. And I go, “Oh, they told me I was supposed to be here.” He said, “No! Get out of here! You’re not supposed to be in here!” And I got up and I left the room, and I was really embarrassed. Nobody said anything.
A couple of days later, I was at the bar, I’d just done a Harold and it was really good, and Del came up to me, and he goes, “Look, I didn’t want you in this show because I don’t really have anything for you, but the next show I direct, I want you to be in it.” And I said, “Oh, okay. Thanks, Del!” And he barely ever talked to me! But the next show he directed was for Second City, and I was in the touring company, but when he took the job as the director, he told them he was only going to take it if he could hire the cast that he wanted for his main-stage cast…and it was me, Chris Farley, David Pasquesi, Joel Murray, Joe Liss, Holly Wortell and Judy Scott. Those people were the people he picked to be in this cast.
So he kept his promise to me: he said, “The next show I direct, I want to hire you for,” and that was the next show he directed. So he changed my whole fucking career based on that…and it all started with him yelling at me to get out. [Laughs.] The last time I talked to him, I reminded him of that story, and we both started crying. I was talking to him on the phone, and we just started crying. I told him, “Del, I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me. You changed my life in more ways than one.” He was great.
You mentioned having done a Harold. When I interviewed Neil Flynn — another of Del’s former cohorts — I asked him if he could still do a good Harold, and he looked vaguely horrified at the thought. Could you still pull off a Harold if pressed?
Yeah. I could, yeah. I mean, I still improvise, though, so I’m not… I’m a little rusty, but not that rusty. My big problem is going from stand-up to improv, because they’re such different parts of the brain that it can be a little difficult. But, yeah, I could still do a Harold.
In regards to “SNL,” you said you came to it via Second City — but how did you come to audition?
I didn’t actually audition. They came to see me performing at Second City. Jim Downey, Lorne Michaels, Marci Klein, and Mike Shoemaker, they kept coming out over the period of a year and watching our shows. So they saw me in two different shows at Second City, and…they actually were bringing me in for a writing job. I met with Lorne and we just talked, and they hired me as a writer, but then when I got my contract, it also said “featured player.” So I said, “Oh, so I’m also on the show?” They said, “Yeah, they want you as a featured player, too.” Which was great. I was really surprised that I didn’t have to audition. I was lucky I didn’t have to audition. I don’t think I would’ve gotten the job! [Laughs.] I really don’t!
If they were coming to see the show that often, then did you figure out at some point that you were under consideration?
No, because I thought that they were coming to see Chris Farley, so I didn’t really think about it. And they had just hired Chris Rock, so I didn’t really think that I was somebody who was in the mix. I just thought I’d missed my opportunity, because they’d already hired an African-American actor. But I never thought I was being considered. I was happy for Chris, though, that he was getting the attention.
So you really thought, “Well, they’ve already got one African-American, so they won’t hire another”?
I did! Because… I don’t remember there being two on the show before then! [Laughs.] But then they did. They brought me on after Chris, and then they brought on Ellen Cleghorne after that.
Was there a sketch or character from your years of “SNL” that you wish had gotten more attention?
Well, one of my favorites was “Captain Jim and Pedro,” which was this sketch that we did a couple of times with me and Adam Sandler. The funniest one we did was with Kelsey Grammer, which was hysterical… and it didn’t get a single laugh in the whole studio. But people at home liked the sketch. It was one of those we call a “10 to one,” where it’s 10 minutes ‘til one o’clock and it’s the last sketch of the night. And we wrote it as a 10-to-one sketch, and then Lorne moved it up in the show because I think because he liked it. But it, uh, got 10-to-one laughs…which is, like, people just sitting there and watching it. [Laughs.]
What was the general premise?
Well, I came up with the idea when I couldn’t sleep one night, and I was flipping through the TV and I saw on the Spanish-language channel… There was this black-and-white movie, and there was a captain of a ship, and he was Latino, but he was a very stoic guy. And then all of a sudden this, like, stereotypical Mexican character came in, with a straw hat, and he was [Does a very broad accent.] speaking like thees, and he’s, like, “I don’ know whas going on, Capteen!” And I just sat up in bed, and I was, like, “What the fuck is that?” [Laughs.] It was just the craziest combination of characters I’d ever seen. Because it was like he was a guy from a desert, but he’s on a ship!
So when I got to work the next day, I told Adam about it, and he had done this voice that was like a Speedy Gonzales character, and I said, “I had this idea for these two guys who got shipwrecked on an island,” and me and him, we just started riffing about it, where I’d be, like, “Uh, Pedro, I don’t want you to mention those monkeys you saw dead on the island,” and he’d go, “I don’t know notheeng about no monkeys!” [Laughs.] And then we just started building this crazy back story where my character was slowly killing the monkeys on the island, but I wasn’t saying it to Pedro, and Pedro was pretending that he didn’t know anything about the monkeys disappearing. So that’s the thing that we were riffing, and we went and told Jim Downey about it…and the best thing in the world is to make Jim Downey laugh at an idea. So we were doing it for him, where we were just improvising in this room, and he was just… He laughed silently. He doesn’t laugh loud – he closes his mouth – but he was just holding his stomach, and then he goes, “I’m writing this.”
So he wrote it with Tim Herlihy, one of Adam’s friends, and it was just one of my favorite things to do, because it was really just for the four of us… and we laughed our asses off at it. And I also loved it because, you know, people always ask you how you get your ideas, and that’s an easy one to explain: I couldn’t sleep, I was watching television, and there it was!
You’ve spent virtually your entire career as an ensemble kind of guy and worked with some of the best comedians in the business, but on the flip side, “The Ladies’ Man” was really the one opportunity you’ve had to headline a film, and you’ve never had “The Tim Meadows Show” or anything like that.
No, I haven’t.
Is that something you actively seek, or are you happy in an ensemble setting?
I’m happy working in general. But I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and Bernie Brillstein, who was my manager and a great, smart man, his motto was, “You never know.” And you really don’t. You never know what’s going to be successful, you never know what’s going to fail, and there’s never a guarantee. All you can do is do the work. So it’s not my choice or my decision to be what I am. If you could make yourself a big star, everybody would do it. There’s a mystery to it all. But as far as being happy with my work, I’m really happy with where I am. Because I feel like I’m in control. No matter what, I can go out and perform any weekend I want, and I don’t have to wait around for a TV job or a movie job. And I do like being in an ensemble. I like not having the pressure or the weight of it being up to me for it to be successful or not. I do like sort of sharing in that workload. But if you’ve got a “Tim Meadows Show” on the horizon, let me know. [Laughs.]