'We would spend an hour writing one joke'

Scott Adsit and Hannibal Buress on 30 Rock

Alec Baldwin quitting 30 Rock could spell the end of the award-winning US sitcom.

That’s the view of Scott Adsit, who plays producer Pete Hornberger. Baldwin’s contract has expired and neither he nor creator Tina Fey have confirmed whether he will return as network boss Jack Donaghy when production resumes on the show’s sixth season, delayed while Fey gave birth last month, and slated to broadcast early next year.

‘There’s a big danger of jumping the shark if Alec leaves,’ admits Adsit, who performed alongside Baldwin’s ghostly projection in the Edinburgh Fringe production 3D Hamlet: A Lost Generation. ‘I don’t know, he keeps saying he’ll leave. I hope he doesn’t. Maybe we could bring in Steve Carell.’

Both Jack and Pete, loose cannon Tracy Jordan, selfless page Kenneth Parcell and Fey’s own character, neurotic head writer Liz Lemon, were written specifically for the actors playing them and based on Fey’s own experience on Saturday Night Live. But no one, save for Adsit’s longtime friend, from ‘before she could fire me’, foresaw Fey and Baldwin ‘having such balanced chemistry. And I think Alec probably expected to work a lot less than he does on the show.

‘I knew immediately he would be really funny because he was always so great hosting SNL. And he’s always said that if he’d had his druthers he’d have been on SNL when he made his name.’

A former writer with a recurring cameo as a homeless man, Hannibal Buress’s fondest memory of 30 Rock is alpha male Jack barking a line that he wrote at a hapless teacher: ‘Quiet chalk hands, a real man is talking!’

Headhunted by Fey while working at SNL, the stand-up, who was nominated for best newcomer in the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards, dismisses the notion that Jack is based upon Lorne Michaels, executive producer of both shows: ‘That’s definitely exaggerated, we never dealt with the network presidents that much.’

‘Jack initially represented the corporate presence in a creative process much more than Lorne,’ confirms Adsit, who appeared in David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s cult HBO sketch series Mr Show and witnessed firsthand a network killing off its funniest comedy with neglect. ‘He’s very much a creative artist at SNL and Donaghy is the opposite of that kind of person.’

Nevertheless, for Buress, who’s since left 30 Rock to focus on stand-up, dialogue like ‘“you coming to the after party?” and the “after-after party?” and the “after-after-after party?”’was “definitely based on SNL. There’s always one party when the show ends at a swanky restaurant, then another at a less nice place, a bar or club, and it goes from 4am to 8am in the morning.'

Like Fey, several of the writing team, as well as the writers and comics playing writers on the show, graduated from SNL and before that, Chicago’s Second City improv troupe. With alumni including Carell, Joan Rivers, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Mike Myers and Stephen Colbert, Adsit calls it ‘Mecca for funny actors, because before it became franchised, going to Chicago was what you’d do. We’d get the cream of the country’s crop’. Another Chicagoan, Buress discovered that working on 30 Rock was more intensive but ‘way more collaborative’ than SNL.

‘In the room, everybody is just pitching jokes, everyone’s trying to make it better and saying stuff until it gets a big laugh that’s undeniable,’ he recalls. ‘There were times where we spent over an hour on one joke.'

Fey contributes a couple of scripts per season, including the fifth season’s premiere and one-off live episode, retaining final say on every line.

‘I knew her when I was a fan, and then she became my boss, so it was good to watch and learn from her,’ Buress reflects. ‘At SNL, we’d do a pitch meeting every Monday, the writers and the cast, Lorne Michaels and the host, everyone throwing in ideas. I would usually do well because I would treat it like a small stand-up gig that I could do in a minute. But I was aware that whenever Tina was the host, because she’d been head writer before, she could see through a bullshit pitch. That made me nervous and I remember stumbling through it when she was there.’

Adsit recently shot a pilot with Dave Gorman and Greg Proops for BBC America, a hidden camera panel show called Moral Dilemma, has appeared in Friends, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Malcolm in the Middle, and is part of an improv double-act with 30 Rock’s John Lutz in New York. He graduated from Second City in 1994 – and four years later ABC would commission him, his regular writing partner and future Mr Show producer Dino Stamatopoulos, Colbert and Michael Stoyanov to create a behind-the-scenes TV comedy based on a Saturday Night Live-style sketch show.

‘It was essentially 30 Rock but it didn’t fly,’ Adsit explains. ‘It had a good script but [director] Barry Levinson wanted it to be more sketch than backstage and that wasn’t what we’d signed up for.’

Mindful perhaps of the success of Garry Shandling’s chat show parody The Larry Sanders Show, the backstage SNL spoof has been a recurrent pitch for US networks, with Ellen DeGeneres attached to one such project. In the same week he auditioned to play Pete, Adsit tested for Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, NBC’s comedy-drama set behind the scenes of an SNL-type show. But he ultimately ‘chose to go with my friend because I liked working with her and knew the show would be better’.

This was unquestionably a gamble after Sorkin’s huge success with The West Wing but Studio 60 was cancelled within a year. And despite wishing Pete, 30 Rock’s straightest character ‘had more to do’, Adsit adheres to the Second City edict of always making your partner look good.

“It’s an honour to work with funny people and frustrating as hell not to be one of them,’ he deadpans. ‘I love working with Tina because we have a camaraderie and shorthand with each other. We know what’s funny about the other and how to play off each other when we get the chance.

‘She’s very smart and that comes across. She can assess a room very quickly and know the personalities in it and the situations, it’s almost psychic the way she can interpret what’s going on. I admire her work ethic but also her easy access to her wit, she’s just a naturally funny person. And I admire the fact that she’s built this entire organism from when she was this woman from SNL who no one was particularly interested in. She built this as an underdog and now she’s the big dog. And that’s inspiring.’

Currently making a second season of Adult Swim’s animated comedy Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole with Stamatopoulos, Adsit maintains that 30 Rock also deserves credit for being ‘just about the most topical sitcom I’ve ever seen too, it’s going to age really quickly’.

The show will undoubtedly reference the recent controversy around Morgan’s homophobic comments in a stand-up set, in which the comic suggested he would ‘pull out a knife and stab’ his son if he discovered he was gay reckons Buress. But ‘it’ll be a flashback or something, an aside’.

‘It won’t be a plot because it’s old news by the time we’re on the air again in January. Why bring it up?’ Adsit concurs.

Despite relatively modest ratings, 30 Rock’s popularity with the comedy cognoscenti has led to guest appearances from the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, Kelsey Grammer and Will Arnett, as well as Matt Damon, Robert De Niro and even Condoleezza Rice.

‘To their credit, the writers never started with a guest star and found a way to put them in,’ Adsit reveals. ‘They always wrote the script then asked, “Who would be good for this?”Apart from Oprah maybe. And she played Oprah.’

‘Aaron Sorkin was a special one, that was stunt casting a bit,’ confesses Buress of an episode that lightly mocked Studio 60. “But we auditioned a bunch of men to play Kim Jong-il and yet somehow it ended up being Margaret Cho. Serve the jokes. The joke is king. And there’s equal opportunity for anybody to top a gag.’

Despite this celebrity pulling power and ongoing uncertainty surrounding Baldwin, Adsit reiterates that ‘the writers are the stars because they hone that thing to a very fine point. Each script is pristine and it’s because they’ve worked so hard on it. It strikes a fine balance between silly and smart, in the same way Python could be silly and smart in the same joke. All that stems from Tina’s pilot and her sensibilities, it filters down to everybody else.’

Interviews by Jay Richardson

Published: 12 Sep 2011

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