Laugh Tracks

Throughout the ups and downs of his comedy career, Detroit-bred comedian Tim Meadows has stayed upbeat
Tim Meadows
Photo: Justin Lubin

When the delightfully upbeat family sitcom The Bill Engvall Show returns to cable’s TBS for its second season this month, Tim Meadows will reprise his role as Paul DuFrayne, best friend since high school of Engvall’s character, Denver-area family counselor Bill Pearson.

This is not an unfamiliar role for Highland Park-born Meadows. In February’s big-screen basketball farce Semi-Pro, filmed in part in Detroit and Flint, Meadows played Cornelius Banks, lifelong buddy of Flint Tropics player-owner Jackie Moon (Will Ferrell) whose comradeship is rewarded with a gunshot to the arm. (“Hey,” Meadows defends, “I thought that scene was pretty funny.”) In 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, he was Sam, the hip musician chum who introduces naïve singer Dewey (John C. Reilly) to marijuana and other drugs.

“Well, you know, I guess that’s what I’m like in real life,” says Meadows, 47. “I’m everybody’s best friend.”

Yet it was the bosom buddies he made during his most memorable gig, nine and a half years as a cast regular on Saturday Night Live (a record for continuous service on the late-night series until Darrell Hammond broke the mark), that have sustained him during the frenetic ups and downs of a comedic entertainer’s career.

His SNL tenure featured withering, spot-on impressions of African-American celebrities from Sammy Davis Jr. to Oprah Winfrey and original sketch characters topped by Leon Phelps, the smarmy DJ self-proclaimed “The Ladies’ Man” that spun off into a 2000 feature film. “I could have stayed forever, but I knew I had to go,” Meadows says of the show. “I didn’t want to wear out my welcome.

“I could easily write sketches for other people, because that’s one of the things that got me hired. But in the last seasons there, it was more about writing for yourself, and it just got to the point where I couldn’t come up with something for myself week after week that I felt I hadn’t done already, something new and fresh. So it was time for me to go. Besides, with SNL the younger people are what keeps the show alive.”

After leaving Saturday Night Live in 2000, Meadows moved to Los Angeles and quickly landed a regular role on The Michael Richards Show — a can’t-miss job alongside the ex-Seinfeld stalwart, until NBC canceled it weeks later.

“It was the first time I was not working steadily in my whole career,” he recalls. “My first kid was born and I was out of work. It was not comfortable at all.” He bounced around Hollywood’s back lots, taking parts on such TV series as Leap of Faith and The Office before a showcase turn as the school principal in the hit 2004 movie Mean Girls — written by former SNL head writer-comedian Tina Fey — “really made people remember I was still out here,” Meadows says. “I’ve known Tina for a long time; she’s a good writer and she knows how to write for me.”

Meadows believes he can be a gift to The Bill Engvall Show, especially after coming to realize what most of the entertainment world already seems to know: that blue-collar comic Engvall is a genuinely nice guy. “I’m really excited about going back because over the first season I got to know Bill and the cast, and I think the relationship I have with Bill you’ll probably see more on camera between our characters,” he says. “Between him and Ted Danson, they’re the two nicest guys I, The Colbert’ve met in show business.”

Meadows learned his lessons in friendship early after his family moved to Detroit, where he attended schools that roll off his tongue today like sweet memories. “Pershing High, Farwell Junior High, and Mason Elementary School,” he recalls. “I grew up in Conant Gardens, the Seven Mile and Conant area. At that time, it was a racially mixed neighborhood, a lot of Polish and African-American families there. I had friends I went to elementary school with and graduated from high school with, and they were white as well as black. We played in bands together all the way through school.”

Dropping out of Wayne State after two years studying radio-TV broadcasting, he joined an improvisational comedy troupe at the old Soup Kitchen Saloon in Detroit as a steppingstone to Chicago’s Second City, where he wrote stage productions with the late Chris Farley.

Now a divorced father of two sons, 7-year-old Isaiah (named for Isiah Thomas) and Julian, 5, Meadows also can be seen as a frequent guest on The Colbert Report and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. He’s fresh back from New Zealand, where he completed a new “kids sci-fi, alien invasion-type” movie called They Came From Upstairs. The movie is set in Michigan, which should give pause to the backers of the state’s new film-incentives bill.

“Yeah, it looks nothing like Michigan,” Meadows says with a laugh. “It’s got palm trees and people with accents. Then again, I don’t miss the blizzard warnings, the frozen rain, ice on the telephone wires – you know, the good old days.”