Growing up the youngest of six kids taught Tim Meadows how to work in a group.
Those lessons have served him well, working his way up through Chicago’s improv circuit, into the venerable Second City and right up the ladder to “Saturday Night Live,” where he slipped into his signature character, Leon Phelps, the Ladies Man.
He created the voice and attitude, but credits “SNL” writers Dennis McNicholas and Iowa City native Andrew Steele with creating the scenario of a radio talk-show host who give bad advice on love. Writing the scenes became a team effort.
“We’d sit in the office, and they would ask me questions and I would say answers in the voice of the character, and they would fashion the stuff in television-friendly material. They also came up with the jokes and ideas. I only take credit for the attitude,” Meadows, 56, said by phone from his home in Chicago.
For the most part, the smooth-talking Phelps is a piece of the past, along with his impressions of Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Oprah Winfrey and Erykah Badu, honed over his decade on “SNL.” But if the Penguins Comedy Club crowd wants to see Phelps, Meadows may oblige during his weekend standup shows in the downtown Cedar Rapids venue.
“It just depends on how I feel,” he said. “If the audience is good, I’m more apt to do more audience-pleasing material that they might want to see.”
Otherwise, he leans more toward situational and autobiographical humor.
“I talk about things that are out there, but a lot of the audiences only know me from acting,” he said, “so when I come out, I give an introduction to me, tell a little about myself and talk about a bunch of different things — growing up in Detroit, being a single dad, and I talk about social and political topics.”
Those political waters can be a tricky place to wade right now.
“I find that the audiences are a little bit more verbal and emotional,” he said. “A lot of it is divided along political lines. Both sides are emotional about how they feel, and so that can cause problems sometimes.”
The Detroit native likes to get back to his roots and hit open mics to test-drive new material, and spent about a month in Vancouver last summer doing just that.
“I would only do new material,” he said. “I was really trying to work on not just writing stuff, but just trying to find out if topics were even interesting to an audience. Sometimes I didn’t even have a joke or anything. but I would just have an idea and talk to the audience about it and sort of get a feel for where the discussion on this topic is going. That was really interesting, because it wasn’t always funny. Sometimes it was like me talking with somebody in an audience.”
Sometimes he’ll test-drive a new joke within his show. Chicago open mics are his comfort zone, so he might even shift gears and pull out a notebook of ideas he’s jotted down. Windy City audiences aren’t shocked to see him step up to a mic.
“People know that I live here, so they might see me at Whole Foods that afternoon,” he said. “The thing I love about doing those kinds of shows here in Chicago is because the audiences are really smart, and it makes the work better.”
The shy guy who was never the class clown began finding his voice in seventh grade. One of his teachers saw that he could make people laugh, so one day a week, he was allowed to be the teacher “and do stupid stuff” — as long as the class could accomplish something.
“That was the first time I had an audience,” he said.
As he got older, he discovered a knack for improv.
“I just had an interest in it,” he said. “I was around a lot of people who were very good at doing it, and you get better the more you work with good people.”
He began studying television and radio broadcasting at Wayne State University in Detroit, dropped out for a couple of years, then returned. That’s when he started doing improv at the local Soup Kitchen Saloon. Next stop was Chicago, after one of his friends moved there, discovered the city’s big comedy community and urged him to follow suit.
“I went for a visit the week the Bears won the Super Bowl,” he said. That was in 1986. “I had such a great time. I went to a bunch of improv shows, met all these people who were freaks just like us, and I said, ‘Oh, OK, that’s where I’m moving. Goodbye Detroit.’”
He went back home, saved up every dime, quit his job as an assistant at a transportation engineering firm, and headed for the Windy City that summer. There, he started taking improv classes and working in groups, and when he was about 25, Second City asked him to audition.
“Getting into Second City was like a dream come true,” he said.
He learned how to write, how to act and how to work with a group of people — how to know when you’re the funny one and how to carry the scene as the straight person. Learning how to do group performances, writing on your feet and being able to create things with a comedic eye are all lessons he took to “Saturday Night Live,” where he worked from 1991 to 2000.
“‘SNL’ gave you the tools to really discover your style and your voice, because you have all of these things at your disposal,” he said. “You have other actors, you have the medium of television, you have an audience, you have veteran producers and writers working with you to help guide you. That’s one of the things you develop at ‘SNL’ — you learn what your style is and what it is that you do. It’s the hardest job in show business, hands down, and hands down the most fun job I’ve ever had.”
WHAT: Tim Meadows
WHERE: Penguins Comedy Club, 208 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday (3/10) and Saturday (3/11)
TICKETS: $25 to $27.50, (319) 362-8133 or Penguinscomedyclub.com
ARTIST’S WEBSITE: Tim-meadows.com