In the mid-’90s, Scott Adsit performed sketch comedy at Second City before departing for L.A. to cowrite a show for Barry Levinson about the behind-the-scenes lives of a sketch-comedy ensemble not unlike that of SNL. When that failed, he auditioned for Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show about the behind-the-scenes lives of a sketch-comedy ensemble not unlike that of SNL. Meanwhile, he read for a part on Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, a show about… You see how it goes for the Northbrook native.
Speaking by phone, Adsit, 44, describes himself as a bit of a class clown growing up; at Glenbrook North High School, he improvised with a student group called the Immediate Conception. After attending DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, for just one semester, Adsit returned to Chicago, where he pursued acting at Columbia College. Sheldon Patinkin, then head of its acting department, nudged him toward the Second City; in 1987, Adsit was hired by the touring company.
Adsit left an indelible stamp on a spate of e.t.c and Mainstage revues, including Paradigm Lost and the genre-busting 80th revue, Piñata Full of Bees, in which he performed with Rachel Dratch, Jon Glaser and Adam McKay. Piñata, a critical smash, was long-form in format, a hat tip to competitor iO, and meditated on themes of conformity and suburban complacency while eschewing Second City’s standard blackout formula. In one of the show’s most memorable moments, Adsit played a dim-witted CEO who tells his low-level HR director, “I could crush you like a cloud.” “We had just done this retrospective [that] felt kind of creaky,” Adsit says, “so we just went in the opposite direction. We didn’t know if it would succeed at all.”
In 1998, Adsit’s college buddy Dino Stamatopoulos (MADtv, Mr. Show) lured him out to L.A. to work with him on a Levinson pilot about the backstage lives of sketch-comedy performers. Though the pilot went nowhere, Adsit and Stamatopoulos continued to work together on Moral Orel, a stop-motion animation parody of ’50s- and ’60s-style sitcoms that ran on Adult Swim from 2005–08. (Currently, they’re developing Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole, another Adult Swim animation effort, in which Frankenstein and his family are visited by people throughout history; it debuts next year.) Adsit became an L.A. fixture, working in commercials, performing frequently at iO West and appearing in bit parts on sitcoms (like Friends).
And in 2005, the phone rang. “Tina called and said, ‘I’m working on a show, and there’s a part I’m writing with you in mind, so keep your schedule open next year,’ ” Adsit says. “So I did.” But in a serendipitous twist, Sorkin wanted him for his new show, Studio 60, a sort of dramatic 30 Rock. Adsit had a decision to make.
“My manager said, ‘There’s a good possibility you’re going to be offered both of these, so which are you going to go with? You have to tell me now,’ ” Adsit recalls. “I said, ‘Tina is the lady from “Weekend Update” that riles a lot of people, and Aaron Sorkin just finished The West Wing; he’s the golden boy.’ ” Adsit picked his onetime Second City chum. “I had to go with somebody I know and respect. I went with Tina.”
On 30 Rock, Adsit portrays Pete Hornberger, a lovable if hapless sidekick to Fey’s Liz Lemon. His screen time, unfortunately, is often slight. “I would love to say that that’s all going to change, but it’s a huge cast with a lot of funny people and Pete serves a function,” Adsit says. “The fact that I’m in there at all is fantastic. [Tina] wrote it with me in mind, so I owe her my life.”
Episodes of 30 Rock are available at nbc.com and hulu.com.