A few days ago, former “Saturday Night Live” star Tim Meadows was chatting with us by cellphone, casually conversing about the latest iteration of his long comedy career. The interview lasted exactly 29 minutes, 34 seconds.
Which is exactly 29 minutes, 34 seconds longer than Kevin Hart had available in that same window of time. What was keeping Hart so busy? Hard to tell, but we can guess: The man is making and promoting movies (his latest: “Get Hard,” co-starring Will Ferrell; read our review), running a company (Hartbeat Productions), accepting honors (most recently a bronzed popcorn box as Comedic Genius at the MTV Movie Awards) and crisscrossing the country with his “What Now?” stand-up tour.
That latter gig brings Hart to Buffalo on Friday for a pair of shows (7 p.m., which is sold out, and 10:30 p.m.) in First Niagara Center.
Meadows, meanwhile, will be one block away at Helium Comedy Club, performing five shows from Thursday through Saturday.
It makes for a poignant metaphor: Hart, 35, will be performing for more than 30,000 in a single night. Meadows, 54, will be performing for hundreds each evening. Hart is hot, a buzz machine and mogul-in-the-making. Meadows is exceptionally cool, a man whose celebrity is slightly understated and allows you to identify with him a little bit more. (Or, in the case of the intimate Helium club show, get a little closer.)
“I’ve never seen myself as this successful guy who has totally made it or anything,” said Meadows. “I’m just like a working actor and comedian.”
But don’t be tricked by crowd sizes, celeb levels or Meadows’ disinclination to brag. Examine the man’s body of work – from being one of the longest-tenured “Saturday Night Live” cast members to playing the principal in the teen classic “Mean Girls” – and you’ll see that he’s deeply embedded in pop culture psyche.
Maybe even more so than Hart – for now.
Pulse on Hart is rising
In his 2011 biographical movie “Laugh At My Pain,” Hart reminisced about being 15 years old and watching Eddie Murphy. He was enticed by the atmosphere, the connection with the crowd, and even Murphy’s stylish leather.
Hart recalled his thoughts: “I want that response, I want that attention, I want that love. I want to make people laugh the way this man made people laugh.”
Hart began doing stand-up at the storied and now-closed club the Laff House in his hometown of Philadelphia. He began working the New York City circuit as well and was discovered via tape by Dave Becky, who manages many of the big comedians on the scene today.
By the early 2000s, he started adding movie gigs to his résumé, moving steadily upward in screen time and box office success. (Check out his roles in 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and 2010’s “Little Fockers” to see some of his pre-superstar work.) A pair of comedy tours – “Laugh At My Pain” (2011) and “Let Me Explain” (2013) – helped push him to the top of the funny-bone business, and the awards and accolades started pouring in.
Today, Hart is ubiquitous. He hosted the Justin Bieber roast on Comedy Central. He plays himself in BET’s “Real Husbands of Hollywood.” There are movies, the tour and his company’s projects in production. “This is the beginning of the peak of his career,” says pop culture expert Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.
Through it all, Hart keeps himself relatable. When accepting the MTV Comedic Genius award last Sunday, he brought his two young kids on stage and acknowledged both his fiancée and his ex-wife. He talks openly about growing up in the Philly inner city, raised by his late mother, who didn’t permit Hart’s drug-addicted father to proceed beyond the second step of the stoop outside their home. “My mom turned my dad into the definition of a true stepdad,” Hart said in “Laugh At My Pain.”
“He’s one of those guys who talks about himself and his life and tells great stories,” says James Kurdziel, a stand-up comic and program director at 103.3 The Edge. “He’s anecdotal, he’s honest.”
To be in the Meadows
That description is a good fit for Meadows, too. He’s been one of the most consistently funny, versatile and enduring performers of the last 20 years.
The Michigan native broke in with Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe before joining the “SNL” cast in 1991. When he left in 2000, he was the longest-tenured cast member at the time and famous for a variety of characters, including Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Tiger Woods and the lispy, randy “Ladies Man.”
His stand-up act includes a couple of characters (“Ladies Man” is one), probes into his personal life as the divorced dad of two sons ages 12 and 14, and is high on audience interaction. “Comedians and performers of every genre worship that guy because he’s brilliant,” Kurdziel said.
Meadows began doing stand-up only five years ago as a creative outlet and a flexible source of income between movie and TV gigs. (He’s currently part of NBC’s “Marry Me” cast.) “I’d have ideas, things would happen, and I’d go, ‘Oh, that would be funny!’ I didn’t have an outlet,” Meadows said. “The money aspect was also nice. It was nice to be able to make money and work when I wanted to work.”
But don’t expect Meadows to be longingly gazing at the crowds heading for Hart’s show Friday night. “I don’t envy anybody else’s success,” he said. “I’ve never felt like I need to get my piece of the pie. I’ve always just felt like, ‘There’s pie? Oh great. I’ll have some.’ ”
This weekend, comedy fans will have some indulgent choices. They can squeeze into the Hart crowd, they can lounge at Helium up close with Meadows, or if they’re looking to do a couple of nights out, they could catch both.
Kurdziel is choosing Meadows, and here’s why: “If you talk to comedians or performers, I guarantee you the idea of being in a small room with Tim Meadows is appealing to them. They know.”
When: 7 (sold out) and 10:30 p.m. Friday
Where: First Niagara Center
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Helium Comedy Club, 30 Mississippi St.