(Heather Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
When I offered Tim Meadows some of my Cajun gravy-topped corncakes, he politely said no, twice in fact.
“I’m on a diet,” said the trim-looking comedian. Sporting a goatee, Meadows dug into his bowl of oatmeal instead.
Meadows, 47, whose tenure on “Saturday Night Live” lasted through the show’s rebuilding in the ‘90s, is eating lunch at an old stomping ground: Nookies. It’s the diner up the street from The Second City, where Meadows honed his sketch comedy chops some 20 years ago.
Nookies isn’t too far from a home in Lincoln Park he is renting. Twenty-three years after arriving here from Detroit to pursue a career in comedy, and 18 years after leaving Chicago for “Saturday Night Live,” Meadows is calling Chicago home once more. It’s a move necessitated by family circumstance - Meadows’ 6- and 8-year-old sons live with their mother here.
But his return also has brought Meadows back to his improvised-comedy roots, the form that gave him 10 seasons on “SNL,” film roles, a part on TBS’ breakthrough “The Bill Engvall Show” and now a second home. (He keeps a place in Los Angeles.) His Sunday night iO stage show, “Uncle’s Brother,” with Second City Mainstage performers Joe Canale and Brad Morris, has performed to sold-out audiences.
“It was like things being reconfirmed again,” said Meadows, perhaps best known for his “SNL” character “The Ladies Man.” “It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, this is how I got to where I was and where I am.’”
The thing about Tim Meadows is that he never made a comeback. The guy never went away.
This is the ugly notion about show biz: If you reach a modicum of success, then decide to stop what you’re doing - and you’re not immediately on another hit TV show or your name isn’t printed in all caps on movie posters - people in the industry assume you’re not relevant.
But for Meadows, the offers never dried up. He starred in the film version of “The Ladies Man” (even though it was critically panned), got cast on two NBC sitcoms (short-lived), and made appearances on “The Office” and “The Colbert Report.” In Hollywood terms, Meadows was considered one of the lucky ones.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t work at all,” he said. “But nothing was making me happy. Work wasn’t making me happy.”
Coupled with the deaths of his father and uncle, and his mother suffering a stroke, Meadows went into what he described as a “rough period.” This was around 2005, and that’s when Dave Pasquesi, an old friend of Meadows and current star of iO’s “TJ and Dave,” encouraged his pal “Timmy” to return to improvisation, his first love. Meadows remembered Pasquesi telling him: “Whatever you do, don’t withdraw.”
By this time, Meadows was divorced and living in Los Angeles; his sons were living with their mother in Chicago, and he had plenty of free time.
“So I started improvising just to socialize and get out of my head,” Meadows said. “It made me feel better about myself. Then I realized, this is what I do.”
He returned to the art form he studied under Del Close, the late professor emeritus of improv comedy at iO and Second City. Meadows began performing at iO West and with the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles.
But something surprised Meadows. As he remembered, the first half dozen shows he performed in were awful.
“I was trying to be funny onstage,” he recalls. “I would try to do characters and drive the scene. It was the biggest mistake - I was doing everything a beginning improviser would do.”
Meadows hadn’t performed improv on a regular basis for nearly 15 years. “Saturday Night Live,” after all, is scripted.
Meadows had to relearn the basic tenets of improvisation - agreeing to your onstage partner’s choices, allowing the scene to unfold naturally, listening. This took about a month. And soon it was like riding a bicycle; he was doing more by doing less.
“Tim’s the kind of guy who measures his words,” said Second City Mainstage alumnus and former roommate Richard Laible. “Instead of doing 10 funny things, he waited to do that one funniest thing.”
One-on-one, Meadows displays traits common to comedians: low-key, inward-looking - miles away from his “Ladies Man” character, the lisping Lothario with a penchant for Courvoisier.
Meadows talked about a three-year span when he commuted between Los Angeles and Chicago to visit his sons, Isaiah and Julian. On one of those visits, he arrived in Chicago, saw his sons and realized the two boys looked different. They had grown. Their hair was longer and they had learned new words. They saw him and said, “Mommy ... I mean, Daddy.”
“They had to readjust to me being in another part of their lives,” he said. “And that was it. I just didn’t want their memory of me (to be) staying in hotels two weeks at a time.”
So Dad decided to move back to Chicago.
Meadows had been stopping by The Second City during his commuting between Los Angeles and Chicago. There’s a tradition of alumni returning to the stage and performing during the post-show improv set. It was during these guest spots that Meadows met Canale and Morris, both cast members of “America: All Better!” on the Mainstage. In October, Meadows asked the two if they’d be interested in something more regular.
“It’s probably the best validation I’ve ever gotten in my career,” Morris said. “Some people don’t improvise after they’ve made it. So for him to say, I feel safe with you, you guys make me laugh ... it’s a thrill.”
Meadows approached Charna Halpern, whom Meadows studied under at iO when he first arrived in Chicago in 1986. She gave the trio a high-profile 11 p.m. Sunday slot.
On the night of the first show, Morris and Canale were late because of a double show at The Second City. Rather than canceling, Meadows went up on stage alone and talked for five minutes. It was a Craig Ferguson-esque monologue - he was riffing to the audience about the goings-on in his life, taking questions, until his two co-stars arrived.
This solo preamble worked so well, it has become a formal part of “Uncle’s Brother.” Meadows comes out, stage center, and chats for several minutes based on ideas he jots on a notepad during the week. He spoke once about meeting Tim Burton for an audition and being asked to jump around while wearing a monkey mask (a true story, Meadows said). Afterward, Canale and Morris come out and the three improvise for 45 minutes.
“I’m blown away by his patience and quickness of mind,” Morris said of Meadows’ improvisational style. “He’s as committed to the weird, bizarre choices as anyone I’ve ever seen. And that’s infectious.”
Said Canale: “Once you get past the fact that you recognize him, he’s about as down to earth and regular as can be. We probably talk more about our ex-wives than we do about improv.”
Pasquesi, who recently performed with Meadows in his “TJ and Dave” show, said, “The nice thing about improvising in Chicago, rather than in L.A., is that you’re here with improvisers who are here to improvise. The feeling I got was I’m back up here with Timmy. Though some things may have changed, the things I admired were intact.”
This rhythm works for Meadows now. He’s performing at iO weekly, and he’s in talks to do the show at the Annoyance Theatre. In March, he flies back to film the third season of “The Bill Engvall Show.” He’ll fly back to Chicago on weekends to see his kids.
I told Meadows that I had asked Mick Napier, his iO teammate in the ‘80s, about the secrets of being funny. Napier said to relive your life again. Draw from all those new reference points.
Meadows grinned, and said, “It would have been great to not experience a career slowdown. But there would have been other things that affect you in your comedy. If it wasn’t your career, the birth of your kids, turning 40, it would have been something else.
“I take all the things that happened to me, and I use them in other ways. Accountants can’t put their anger into finishing a report. So I think I got the right gig for the type of person I am.”
Tim Meadows performs in “Uncle’s Brother” on Sunday nights at 10:30 p.m. through February. iO is located at 3541 N. Clark St., Chicago. 773-880-0199. Tickets are $10.