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December 6, 2013

Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time

From Leon Phelps to silver screen, the actor, comedian defined himself

TERRE HAUTE — If you watched the first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 11, 1975, raise your hand.

That gives you something in common with Tim Meadows.

Now, if you hosted a fictitious call-in radio show as the Courvoisier swiffing “Ladies Man” and sex therapist Leon Phelps on SNL in the 1990s, just as Meadows did, well, that’s just freaky. Of course, that distinction belongs to Meadows alone. Comedy became a part of his life as a kid growing up in Detroit and stayed there. Tonight, a Terre Haute audience will experience his sense of humor in a 7 p.m. performance in The Landing at Fort Harrison, with Mike Gardner opening the show.

When Meadows tuned in for SNL’s debut 38 years ago, he already knew the value of being funny. It kept him safe.

“Like a lot of comedians, I developed a sense of humor because I wasn’t a fighter and I sort of stayed out of trouble,” Meadows said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I was sort of different, too, in that I was more into books and television as opposed to hanging out, getting into other things. In my group of friends, I was sort of the funny guy.”

“And given that I was the funny guy in this group of guys in Detroit, they were sort of like my protectors,” Meadows said. “Nobody messed with me because I was friends with these guys.”

At his urging, they all watched a December 1975 episode of SNL, starring comic legend Richard Pryor. Meadows got inspired.

“It was really cool for somebody like me to see that, growing up, because it was like, ‘I can do that. I can be there,’ ” Meadows recalled. “That’s the kind of stuff I wanted to do. It was very clear to me after I saw that show what I wanted to do.”

In 1991, it happened. After earning a broadcasting degree at Wayne State University and doing improv comedy at Detroit’s Soup Kitchen Saloon and Chicago’s Second City, Meadows joined the Not Ready for Prime Time Players of “Saturday Night Live.” As the show churned through the eras of Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley and Will Ferrell, Meadows stayed with the cast until 2000. At the time, his nine-year run was an SNL record, later eclipsed by Darrell Hammond.

Meadows spun his most memorable character, Phelps, into a comedy film later in 2000, “The Ladies Man.” Meadows had worked in a Detroit liquor store, and he drew on the characteristics of customers in creating the character.

“They were guys who didn’t make a lot of money but still had a lot of women and girlfriends. And they would come in every weekend and cash their checks,” he explained. “This one guy had an amazing amount of charm. Even though he was a meat-packer, dressed in bloody overalls, he still would have cute girlfriends, and that just amazed me.”

Two other SNL writers cooked up the idea of having Leon answer calls as a radio show host. “I would sort of answer with that voice, sort of thinking like those guys in Detroit would think,” Meadows said.

He’s done plenty of other projects since then — 15 movies, including “Mean Girls,” “Benchwarmers,” “Semi-Pro” and “Grown Ups,” and TV roles on “The Michael Richards Show,” “Everybody Hates Chris” and “The Bill Engvall Show.” Still, Meadows’ “Ladies Man” bit remains a crowd-pleaser, and he’s more than happy to oblige the fans in his standup shows, which he started doing nearly four years ago.

“That’s my signature character, and I know people are coming to see that, or hoping to see that,” said Meadows, now 52. “I know if I was coming to see me, or somebody from SNL who did characters, I would hope they would do something.”

Clearly, Meadows remembers being on the receiving side of comedy.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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