Gary Kroeger on the road less traveled: Chicago to SNL to LA to Iowa

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Saturday Night Live alum Gary Kroeger grew up and went to high school in Iowa, but his formative years as an actor were in Chicago. Kroeger enrolled as a theater major at Northwestern University, in Evanston, in 1975. He spent the time between graduating in 1979 and his SNL debut in 1982 immersed in Chicago’s flourishing theater and improv scene.

Making it to Broadway was his childhood dream, but in Chicago, “I fell in with bunch of funny people like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Brad Hall” and others. He joined the Practical Theatre Company, and SNL recruited four of its members—Hall, Kroeger, Louis-Dreyfus, and Paul Barrosse—in 1982.

When his stint there ended in 1985, Kroeger moved to Los Angeles and pursued multiple career tracks—he owned a restaurant, for example, in addition to acting. In 2003, he moved back to his hometown of Cedar Falls, Iowa, to raise his two sons. “In the Midwest, survival is easier, so you can focus on other values, like raising your family. And I really craved that,” he says

Kroeger is the creative director of Mudd Advertising in Cedar Falls. He recently started a new agency, Outlier Creative Solutions, and he’s helping create a new restaurant based on the one he owned in the L.A. area, Figaro Figaro, which had singing waiters.

Looking back, Kroger sees the imprint of his Chicago years on his entire career path. It “gave me the ability to make decisions and take responsibility for them,” he says. “I don’t labor decisions. I just make them if I’m passionate about them."

Kroeger blogs at Gary Has Issues. Read one of his most popular posts, about attending SNL’s 40th anniversary party and taping, here. Excerpts from a recent Storied Chicago interview with him:

On Chicago in the 1970s

The Practical Theatre Company, 1982: Kroeger is on the left. 

The Practical Theatre Company, 1982: Kroeger is on the left. 

SNL started the same year I started college (1975), so it was this weird little late-night show on Saturdays that kept us all from going out on dates on Saturday nights. It didn’t occur to me in a million years that it would ever be any part of my destiny. Never occurred to me at all.

We thought of Second City as a theatrical venue, not a comedic venue. It was a place where really good actors improvised on stage, and created scenes on stage that were funny, but were funny because they were so well performed. That’s how I thought of it. So we become junkies for Second City and everything to do with it.

In Chicago, there were a bunch of comedy clubs popping up all over downtown and the suburbs. So there were all these opportunities for some little renegade group of college kids to have performance venues. Laugh Track [an improv group he started with friends from Northwestern] was really part of the explosion of the improv groups. We would try to perform every night if we could. We had a little hour and a half show with intermission that we would take anywhere. We would perform at lunch hour in downtown Chicago, by the Picasso sculpture, just to have a chance to perform. People would be eating their lunch and we would yell out: Give us a first line and a last line. I think there few people who thought it was wonderful, and a lot of people who thought it was annoying.

Second City had been honing its craft for a couple of decades already by the mid-1970s, and SNL would essentially be cherry-picked from Second City. We realized then, we’re at the epicenter—everyone was looking for a way to do that. Improvisation just took off. It was just infectious. It was a little bit of a fad, maybe. But it was what everybody was learning to do.

Creating a Chicago identity

The feeling I had was that it was about the craft. I didn’t feel anyone was looking at it as a stepping stone to a TV series or even a film career, necessarily. When we were in Chicago, and seeing each other’s shows, and hearing about each other’s shows, it felt like it was about the craft and creating a Chicago identity, and a Chicago theater scene that felt different than New York. We felt that we were going to be guerilla, and take bigger chances. There was a sense that we wanted to do something that wasn’t as commercial. I still have that in my heart. We really felt like artists. That was my takeaway—that I have the capacity to be an artist. And, to be honest with you, I’ve only realized that in glimpses in my professional career.

The Practical Theatre Company, 1980. Kroeger is at the top left. 

The Practical Theatre Company, 1980. Kroeger is at the top left. 

I miss that crucible that was Chicago. I credit my Chicago experience with giving me the confidence to take risks. In L.A., I decided I wanted a restaurant, so I just took everything I made and put it into it. And I found the experience of owning it to be like putting on a show every night. And it all does go back to Chicago. We felt that when we were doing theater, pounding boards into a storefront and creating a 44-seat theater, that we could do anything we thought of. That really was really what came out of the experience.

Love is all you need

I’m 60 years old, so I’ve kind of learned that whatever happened, happened. I don’t really regret anything. I took some jobs that I never should have taken. But in each case, there was a reason that I made the decision I made. Whatever it was.

Look, I turned down an episode of Seinfeld. Not because I didn’t like Seinfeld, but because I had a chance to make bigger money doing another show called Archie: To Riverdale and Back Again (1990). In hindsight, Seinfeld would have been a better guest spot. But at the time, I needed the money. I would have gladly done Seinfeld. It was Julia. It was Larry David. These were my friends. But I made a money choice.

I can look at a series of things like that, going back to Chicago, and realize that I probably made the wrong choice. But at the time, there was a reason. So I don’t look back with regrets. Did I think I would be a bigger star? Maybe. Have more money? Probably. But at the same time, I have a good life. A challenging life. I love people and they love me. So I’m not sure what more I need.