Tim Meadows has always had a low-key style of comedy. He’s never been a pratfaller or a screamer, and his impressions on Saturday Night Live never involved any great verbal calisthenics. When he left SNL in 2000 after ten seasons, his career seemed low-key as well; apart from his Ladies Man film, he mostly kept busy with a series of supporting roles as deadpan peeved neighbors, doctors, and teachers, in shows ranging from high quality (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Mean Girls) to not-so-high (The Even Stevens Movie, According to Jim). He’s now starring as a frustrated political-science professor on TBS’s new college comedy, Glory Daze, which airs tonight. We talked to the 49-year-old actor to discuss how he made his career choices and were pleasantly surprised by his candor, which was just as low-key as you’d expect.
You were on Saturday Night Live for ten seasons. Did you get the sense at some point that the length of your tenure had turned into a negative?
It surprised me around year eight or nine when people would say — especially in the press — that I’d been on the show for a long time. It was like they were saying, “He won’t leave and go do something else.” It sort of bothered me because I felt like, this is the job I’m working, and this is still a great place to be. So, yeah, I was surprised by the criticism of it.
Do you think the criticism arose because SNL is viewed as a launching pad?
Yeah. But what people don’t understand is that in show business, you don’t get those jobs often. So I didn’t want to give it up until I felt like, (1) I had done everything I could do on the show and, (2) I wasn’t creatively able to contribute. And by the tenth season, I felt that way. I just wasn’t inspired. I was tired. And I was, you know, married. I felt like it was time to move on.
When the first two things you did post-SNL — namely, The Ladies Man and The Michael Richards Show — totally tanked, did you ever think, Holy shit, what’s happening to me?
Yes. Although the Michael Richards thing was different from The Ladies Man, because I had no control over it. The Ladies Man I can live with because it’s my comedy, you know? I’m not ashamed of that movie. But with The Michael Richards Show, the thing that made me feel like I’d made a wrong choice was at the press conference for the show. The pilot they’d showed me was a single-camera show, and then at the press conference they said it was going to be multiple cameras. I just looked at Andy Robin, who was the show-runner, and I was like, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” I just sat back in my chair and I knew: “We’re doomed.”
After the show got canceled, were you worried about where your income was going to come from?
Yeah, I was worried. I mean, I had a lot going on — my first son was born and I moved out to L.A. I was really concerned about how things were going to go.
How has it gone?
You know, I’ve had some ups and downs. I continue to work, which has been good, but it was hard to figure out. At a certain point in my personal life, I went through a divorce and lost some people close to me. I had a period where I had to make a choice: Am I going to continue to do this, or am I going to get a job working at a J.Crew? And I really did just put my head down and said, “I’m going to take whatever jobs I get offered. I’m not going to be judgmental or choosy. I’m just going to work and provide for my family and myself and get through this.”
What do you mean by “choosy”?
Before, when I was on SNL, I would get calls and I’d say, “No, I don’t want to do that because I don’t want to do somebody else’s comedy.” But the thing that’s made it different is having other people that are dependent on me. That’s made making work choices clear-cut. I can’t just turn work down because I don’t think it’s good enough or whatever. Once I decided that, it became so much easier to say, “Yes, I would love to do a couple of guest appearances on the Julia Louis-Dreyfus show.”
So that explains your appearance on According to Jim?
Yes, exactly. I said, I will happily do it. I won’t sell myself short — like, I’m not going to work for SAG minimum. But I will do that show.
You mentioned you’d get calls to do other shows when you were at SNL. What did you turn down? Are we talking about stuff on the level of The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer?
You know what? That’s a very good example. I was up for that [short-lived UPN sitcom about Abraham Lincoln’s butler]. They made the offer and it was a thing where I really had to think, Do I want to leave SNL to do this? The show-runners were pitching it to me like the show was going to be a Doctor Who kind of show — like, this year he’s in [slavery-era America] and the next year he’s going to be in some other time. To me, it was interesting. But what it all came down to was I didn’t want to leave to do a show that I didn’t have any comedic input into. So I passed on it.
That totally could have been your McLean Stevenson moment.
I’m laughing that you say that because Hello, Larry became a punch line after a certain point. So yeah, I felt like I dodged a bullet. And now that things have gotten better, I have the attitude again that I will do the job if it’s something I want to do, because I don’t have to do something just so I have a paycheck coming in anymore. I can make a choice again.