In the 16 years since Tim Meadows wrapped his decade-long run on “Saturday Night Live,” he has become the kind of actor who seems to show up everywhere. Film and television is better for it, and he currently costars on the Fox comedy “Son of Zorn,” a live-action sitcom featuring a clueless-if-steroidal animated character (Zorn, voiced by Jason Sudeikis) who moves to Southern California to reconnect with his teenage son, ex-wife and her fiance — that latter of whom is played by Meadows.
For Meadows, it’s been an opportunity to play a character who is funny precisely because he is so kind and even-keeled in the face of Zorn’s over-the-top idiocy. This is Meadows’ sweet spot in comedy, when he is able to tap into characters who take life’s infuriating moments in stride while maintaining a weirdly optimistic worldview.
He lives most of the time in Chicago, which is where his ex-wife and two teenage sons live. It’s also where he spent many a night on stage early in his career at iO Theater and Second City. Meadows has a place near Los Angeles as well, “so I go back and forth,” he said. “I’m here when I’m not working on either stand-up or TV shows in LA.”
When he arrived for our interview at a North Side diner, he was carrying a partially finished crossword puzzle.
“I do them if I need to relax or have time to kill,” he said. “The thing that’s funny is that you’ll be doing it and then you’ll get stuck. Like, I can’t answer any of these squares. So you put it down. And then you pick it up later and it’s like, Oh, yeah, I know that one! How does that happen? The same clue that I’ve read a thousand times and couldn’t figure out and then suddenly later on you do.”
The following is an edited transcript of our conversation:
How do you shoot a sitcom where there’s a character who is not actually there when you’re filming?
We have a stand-in for Zorn because he’s the only animated part of the show, although there are some other things he brings in that are animated, like a bird or weapons.
So we rehearse the scene and block it with an actor, a guy named Dan Lippert, who is this really funny UCB actor in L.A. who is, like, 6-foot-6. He does Zorn’s lines. And if we have any improv, we can improvise with him. So during rehearsal, if Zorn moves around, we see where Dan is going. Then we shoot the scene without Dan on the set. He stands behind the camera and he’ll do the Zorn lines and we just pretend that he’s there. We set eye-marks so we know where to look.
Shooting inside it’s easier because it’s just a set, so you can find things easier for your eye line. But the thing you want to make sure you do is not look past him.
And then Jason Sudeikis comes in later and records the voice of Zorn?
Yeah. Dan is a really funny guy, so if he gave them some gold then they will use that (idea). And then what Jason sees is the footage we shot with a primitive animated version of Zorn. And because that’s such a primitive drawing, he can improvise a little because the character isn’t finished being drawn.
You’re originally from Detroit. How did you find your way to Chicago and the improv scene there?
I always thought it would be cool to be an actor or a comedian, but that wasn’t something I could express to the people I hung out with in Detroit. They would have been like, “What?” So I kept it a secret from my friends that I was doing improv, because when I took classes (in Detroit), that was the first time I had ever been around all white people before.
What was that like?
If anything, that prepared me for the world. For America. And working in general. If you work in something where there’s not a lot of African Americans, then you have to prepare yourself to cope with it.
But it also made me a much more open person. It also changed my view of white people. I realized we’re equal — nobody’s better than anybody else. It cemented it for me. Because I would think, those guys have issues and problems just like we have issues and problems. They’ve got cultural things that I don’t understand, but I don’t have to hate it or think it’s weird.
Those guys I started doing improv with in Detroit are my oldest, closest friends. And one of them, he moved to Chicago. He got hired by Second City’s touring company, so he was the Christopher Columbus. He was like, “Hey, there’s a whole new world over here, you should get out here.”
You’re also a recurring character in a few shows on the air right now. Do your kids watch any of them?
They love “Bob’s Burgers.” It was one of the first shows I thought we could watch together that I’m in. The first time I showed it to them my character, Mike the mailman, came in, did a scene, and then leaves. And I look at my kids and nothing. So I said, “Did you know who that was?” And they were like, “No.” Ugh! Rewind! They didn’t even recognize my voice.
For me, “Bob’s Burgers” is the easiest job I’ve ever had because I can record it here from a studio in Chicago, it’s usually only two or three pages and then that’s it, I go home! It takes 10 minutes, 20 minutes at the most.
Do your kids ever pull up your old stuff from “SNL”?
I don’t know, they never really ask about it. They’ve met a lot of my friends, so they’ve become fans. They didn’t even know who Adam Sandler was, and then I did the “Grown Ups” movie and I took my kids to the set, so they got to meet all those guys in that movie (Chris Rock, David Spade, etc.) And then later they went back and watched some stuff and were like, “Holy cow! ‘Happy Gilmore’ is really funny!” I was glad they liked my friends’ comedy (laughs), it was a big relief!
“Son of Zorn” airs 7:30 p.m. Sundays on Fox.
Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles TimesThe Second City Jason Sudeikis David Spade Adam Sandler Upright Citizens Brigade ImprovOlympic