Early in his career, Jason Sudeikis met me for barbecue near his parents’ home in suburban Kansas City to talk about his improbable journey from college dropout to SNL. A poor student of epic proportions, Sudeikis had to take remedial English just to get his high school diploma. Then he was kicked off the basketball team of the community college in Kansas that had recruited him, because he was failing all his classes. All of them!
Finally, he started to apply himself. A little boost from his famous uncle, and Sudeikis was on his way. After my story was published, he became a featured on-camera performer on the show, and the rest is history.
This story originally appeared October 22, 2005, in the Kansas City Star and later I included it in my anthology Tasteland. — AB
Ever since Jason Sudeikis joined the writing staff of “Saturday Night Live” two years ago, the Shawnee Mission West grad has heard the question many times: How do you get to “SNL”?
“I don’t know,” Sudeikis tells them. “I could tell you how I got there, but four other people would tell you totally different stories.”
But it’s likely that Sudeikis, who now appears on the show in sketches, would have one of the more interesting stories.
Like most “SNL”-ers, he toiled for years on the improv circuit, starting with ComedySportz (now Comedy City) in Kansas City before moving on to the renowned Second City company, first in Chicago, then Las Vegas.
While most of the writers for late-night TV shows graduated from elite four-year schools, Sudeikis attended Fort Scott Community College on a basketball scholarship. And not only did he drop out, but he also was kicked off the team. For having bad grades.
“I failed English,” he said. “I’ve written professionally for two years. I can laugh about it now, but it drove my teachers and parents cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. We were talking about it last night. My dad asked, ‘What would you do when you went to school?’ I dunno. Just laughing, having a good time. I attended all the discussions. I just didn’t read the material.”
Now he writes the material. In the first two weeks of “SNL” this season, he’s authored and appeared in a sketch featuring “Napoleon Dynamite” star and “SNL” guest host Jon Heder. Sudeikis also has played Sen. Bill Frist and “Nightline” anchor Terry Moran, among other characters.
Working on a turkey-and-beef combo at Gates Bar-B-Q in Leawood last weekend near his parents’ home in Overland Park, Sudeikis tried to recall the years before his ambition kicked in and he decided to try show business.
“I was a hyper-procrastinator, to the point of not doing anything,” Sudeikis said.
He laughs at this. He does not exactly match the tortured-comic description. He’s 6-foot-1, handsome and easygoing. Married to fellow improv comic Kay Cannon and having just turned 30, Sudeikis is looking at a great future.
“Some of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten were, ‘You look comfortable. You look like nothing ever bothers you.’ My friend Andy Samberg, one of the new cast members, said, ‘Aren’t you ever nervous?’ And I said, ‘No. People don’t like to look at people who are nervous.'”
A good insight. But Sudeikis comes by his nonchalance honestly.
His first two years of high school were at Rockhurst, where his habit of ignoring homework began in earnest. Not that his folks didn’t try.
“The grades thing – my parents were super (ticked) at me,” he said. “My dad (Dan Sudeikis) played the heavy. He would drive me down 95th Street to school, yelling at me.”
Sudeikis hadn’t imagined himself in a comedy career until Rockhurst classmate Cam Lynch took him to a performance at ComedySportz. The club, now known as Comedy City, in the River Market area, staged improvisational comedy competitions.
After transferring to Shawnee Mission West, Sudeikis joined the basketball team and, now bitten by the comedy bug, the drama team as well. He started attending workshops at ComedySportz. What he didn’t do was homework. He took remedial English just to get his diploma.
During his second semester at Fort Scott, he was declared academically ineligible to play basketball. So he tried out for a play at school, got the lead and was given a $500 stipend. Now he had two scholarships. And he was still flunking out.
Sudeikis was driving up to Kansas City from Fort Scott every weekend to take classes at ComedySportz. He also wanted to perform but kept forgetting to fill out the little slip every week telling ComedySportz management what nights he’d be available.
“I was just irresponsible,” he admitted. “Now I was failing comedy.”
Then the hammer fell. After he returned to school and played what he called “the best basketball of my life,” Fort Scott killed his hoop dreams on his 20th birthday.
“I was redshirted, which basically means they’re cutting me because they’re worried about my grades,” Sudeikis said. “I had, like, 36 hours of ‘F’ … at not necessarily the toughest school.”
The love for the game started to evaporate, and Sudeikis started filling out his slips at the club. There was one last bit of glory at Fort Scott, when he landed a major part in “The Fantasticks.” For that he credits his mother, Kathy Sudeikis, the oft-quoted president of the American Society of Travel Agents.
“In my car we always listened to show tunes,” Kathy Sudeikis said. “In his dad’s car it was rock ‘n’ roll.”
At age 22, Jason Sudeikis finally started to apply himself. He and a group of improv pals from the club began performing at Java Break in Lawrence. Out of that emerged a sketch group with the name Der Monkenpickle (“juvenile, but it sounded funny”).
Between that and ComedySportz, Sudeikis had hundreds of performances under his belt by the time he and others in their group moved to Chicago.
He found work with the Second City National Touring Company, Improv Olympic and the Annoyance Theater. He spent four months abroad in Amsterdam with the group Boom Chicago. And he was one of the founding members of Second City Las Vegas in 2001.
It was there in June 2003 that his Uncle George came to see the show. Sudeikis’ uncle is George Wendt, the former “Cheers” star and Second City alumnus, who up to that point had played no role in his nephew’s career. But this time Uncle George brought some friends, including Larry Joe Campbell, who plays Andy on ABC’s “According to Jim.”
“George and Larry had the same manager,” Sudeikis said. “It’s not George’s way to go in and say, ‘Hey, you should go check out my nephew.’ But he brought Larry out, and it was a good show, and Larry said, ‘Have you ever thought of auditioning for “SNL”?'”
Sudeikis put together a tape and got it into the hands of the show’s talent coordinator. He was quickly hired as a writer for the 2003-2004 season.
Twenty weeks a year he all but lives inside the offices of “Saturday Night Live” in Rockefeller Center, going through the same trials as hundreds of “SNL” writers and performers have the last 30 years. The Monday get-together with the guest host (this week: Catherine Zeta-Jones) to pitch comedy ideas. The Tuesday night writing marathon, which starts in mid-afternoon and doesn’t end until dawn Wednesday.
The “table read” later that day, where the freshly scribbled scripts are tested before the host, executive producer Lorne Michaels and a roomful of other staffers. Learning that evening which of his scripts have made the cut. And then the 72-hour sprint to the finish: rewrites, set design, blocking, rehearsal, show time.
This spring Sudeikis was upgraded to an on-camera role, and early results suggest he’s well on his way to becoming a top-tier, or repertory, player on “SNL.” He’s even auditioned for the “Weekend Update” job. But he declares himself “just lucky to be in the building” and claims to think about his future about as much as he’s thought about how he got here, which is to say, not very much.
In fact, Sudeikis says he’s still a hyper-procrastinator. Only now, he said, “there’s no time to procrastinate.”