LOS ANGELES – Success hasn’t gone to Colton Dunn’s head — or his taste buds.
The 39-year-old actor, who stars as wheelchair-bound sarcasm specialist Garrett McNeill on NBC’s “Superstore,” makes it a point to always pop by Leeann Chin whenever he’s back home in St. Paul.
“I’ve been to China and had delicious Chinese food,” he said while providing a tour of his Target-inspired set. “But I still come back and want some of those oyster wings.”
Dunn picked up more than culinary cravings during his Minnesota childhood. He is the latest of a club of thriving actors in Hollywood who cut their teeth on the Twin Cities comedy improv scene, joining the likes of Rich Sommer (“Mad Men”), Cedric Yarbrough (“Speechless”), Melissa Peterman (“Baby Daddy”) and stand-up Nick Swardson, a certified member of Adam Sandler’s Rat Pack.
In fact, it was Dunn who inspired Swardson to join Minneapolis’ student branch of ComedySportz, a national organization in which teams compete for laughs, when they were classmates at St. Paul Central High School.
“Colton essentially got me into comedy,” said Swardson, whose April 28 show at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel has already sold out. “Watching him do improv really inspired me. Pretty soon, we were doing comedy together nonstop. But he was the catalyst.”
Dunn, who was born in Normal, Ill., but moved to St. Paul as a toddler, grew up dreaming of being an astronaut, maybe even an NBA player. But his desire to be the class clown trumped other ambitions.
“I remember him playing basketball when he was 5 or 6 years old, skipping back and forth across the court, trying to make people laugh instead of playing aggressively,” said his mother, Kari Dunn Buron, a world-renowned specialist on autism education. “I never felt he had that same competitive drive other kids had. Until comedy.”
Dunn gravitated to Central’s theater program and ComedySportz, sometimes at the expense of his formal education.
“It was hard for someone at that time to explain to me why I should go to physics class,” he said. “I just didn’t care. I only wanted to be in the comedy world.”
Dunn was a standout from the beginning. He and Swardson persuaded the school administration to let them perform during graduation ceremonies. (Cookie Monster’s theme song became “C Is for Central.”) ComedySportz accepted him into its professional lineup.
“Even though he was young, he had no problem connecting with audiences,” said Jill Bernard, who performed with Dunn in the mid-’90s and is now director of education for Huge Improv Theater in Minneapolis. “He had charisma. And he wasn’t afraid to be goofy. Audiences loved him.”
Dunn started taking classes at the University of Minnesota, but dropped out after a year and boarded a Greyhound to New York with little more than a duffel bag and an invitation to crash on a family friend’s couch.
Mom was devastated.
“I’m an academic, so in my world, it’s curtains if you don’t have a degree,” she said. “But I had to be quiet and let him go. I always taught him that if you’re passionate about something, don’t sell yourself short.”
She didn’t have to panic for long. Dunn soon got semi-steady work on the New York comedy scene. In 2002, he earned a two-year apprenticeship in Amsterdam at Boom Chicago, a comedy troupe whose alums include Seth Meyers and Jason Sudeikis. It was there that Dunn met Jordan Peele and started a friendship that led to writing gigs at “Mad TV” and, later, “Key & Peele.”
When he returned to the States, he moved to L.A., where writing remained his top priority. But about three years ago, the urge to act became stronger and he started auditioning for TV series. “Superstore,” an ensemble comedy that’s not afraid to let its cast play fast and loose with the dialogue, was a perfect fit.
“ComedySportz is a clean show, which means you can’t always go for the easiest, low-hanging fruit. You’ve got to go in a different direction,” Dunn said. “That helps a lot, especially when you’re doing a network show.”
Lauren Ash, who plays the show’s militant assistant manager, said Dunn does more improvising than anyone else in the cast, which includes Emmy winner America Ferrera and “Kids in the Hall” veteran Mark McKinney. He’s also the leader when it comes to giving castmates a hard time, particularly Ben Feldman, who is often the target of Dunn’s jokes on social media. In one recent tweet, he suggested that a new cast photograph made Feldman look like rock star Dave Navarro’s coke dealer.
“He’s determined to see how much Ben can take before he jumps off a bridge,” said Ash, whose own training includes time at Second City Chicago. “He loves aggressive bits. He’ll take a joke and commit to it for months. I admire that.”
Fellow actor Nico Santos agrees that Dunn is the show’s offset “button pusher,” but that at the same time he’s been a big brother to younger actors like himself.
“This is my first big acting job, so I was pretty nervous shooting the pilot,” Santos said. “But he was really good about taking me aside and telling me everything was going to be OK.”
The actors will have plenty more opportunities to bond and bicker. NBC recently announced that the show will return next season. During the summer hiatus, Dunn plans to spend time in New York with his 1-year-old daughter and shoot a sequel to his 2015 film “Lazer Team.” He also hopes to return to the Twin Cities around Christmastime to perform at Huge Theater’s annual fundraiser.
Just make sure the green room is stocked with oyster wings.