Jason Sudeikis has been out in public for all of five minutes, and he’s already getting bum-rushed. We’re sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, watching a Thursday-afternoon crowd that’s perfectly, improbably New York – a cosmopolitan merry-go-round of giddy jazz guitarists, skateboard-tricking truants and hand-holding multi-culti couples. The hazy calm is interrupted when a shock-haired, hockey-toothed homeless gentleman descends upon Sudeikis and begins stomping his feet while hooting a Texas-football fight song.
“No, no, no,” says the Kansas-raised Sudeikis with total calm, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. “I’m a KU fan.”
“What’s K2?” the man asks.
“No, K-U. Kansas.”
The man considers this for a second. “Kansas City,” he says. “There’s this new drug called catnip. It’s called K2, for ‘cat.’ It’s similar to herbis cannabis.”
After our visitor takes his leave, stage-not-quite-right, Sudeikis just shrugs. “I want him to get us some catnip,” he says, it seems only half-jokingly. That Sudeikis so easily rolls with the weird isn’t exactly surprising.
For the past seven years, the 36-year-old Saturday Night Live star has been the show’s go-to Likable Dude, playing the sorts of approachably laid-back characters who are seemingly up for anything – his Mitt Romney is an amiable dolt, and even when he plays the devil, he seems devil-may-care. At the same time, Sudeikis’ creations often barely keep their raging frustrations or nuttiness at bay, whether he’s playing a slightly peevish Jesus or a gregariously cuckoo Vice President Joe Biden. They’re all guys “who say bad things with a smile,” Sudeikis notes. “They’re being smartasses, but trying to be gentlemen about it at the same time.”
Sudeikis’ own smarm-to-charm ratio tips heavily toward the latter. In person, he comes across as funny but never showoffy, tucking his one-liners into small asides. And though he’s got the brohemian look down cold today – Ray-Bans, olive khakis, a light-blue sweatshirt and unlaced Nikes – his comedy-nerd roots are frequently evident, whether he’s effusing about an obscure mid-Nineties sketch show in Chicago or recounting an old New Yorker article about the venerated Harvard Lampoon president and Simpsons writer George Meyer.
May 19th marked the end of Sudeikis’ seventh full season as an SNL performer. He has his biggest movie role to date coming this summer – he’s a political consultant in The Campaign, starring alongside Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, who play warring Southern politicians. In early April, it was reported that he (along with Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg) won’t return to SNL now that their contracts are up. If Sudeikis does leave, he knows what he’ll miss most about the show: “The potential,” he says. “Every week, they’re relaunching the show. That’s what I love about sketch comedy: A sketch is five minutes, then it goes dark, and there’s the potential for something else. And I’ll miss the people. The people, the process, the parties – those are the three p’s I’ll miss the most.”
Sudeikis’ egalitarian appeal might have something to do with growing up in Kansas, where he was consumed with comedy and sports – both highly competitive, ultimately collaborative pursuits, the kind that force you to play well with others. And while he was a decent enough athlete, playing point guard for his high school basketball team, comedy eventually won out, thanks in part to his exposure to a very non-Kansan comedian. “My dad took me to see Beverly Hills Cop in the theater,” Sudeikis recalls. “So from 1984 to 1992, I was a black kid, straight up. Like, full-on into black culture. I watched In Living Color and Arsenio Hall, but Eddie Murphy was a huge influence. I don’t think anybody’s been as cool or as funny since.”
Going on television and making people laugh “seemed like the coolest job in the world,” he says. And it was also, oddly, a family business: Sudeikis’ uncle is George Wendt, who played portly, beer-loving accountant Norm Peterson on Cheers and was married to the actress Bernadette Birkett, a regular on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. The pair introduced Sudeikis to Second City, the famed Chicago comedy theater that trained original SNL cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and later Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Sudeikis moved to Chicago in 1997 and performed with various improv and sketch troupes before moving west to help open a Second City branch in Las Vegas.
That’s where things got weird: Sudeikis grew tired of sketch and improv, often having more fun driving around stoned on his Vespa, blasting Jurassic 5 albums in his helmet. He got re-energized about performing by becoming a Blue Man Groupie, hanging out backstage and watching the wordless percussion-performance show as much as he could. He took up drumming, and even auditioned for a spot as part of the show. “I don’t think I had the right look for it,” he says. “Maybe it would have helped if I worked out more – or at all.”
By 2003, Sudeikis had enough comedy chops to land a writing slot on SNL. There were parts of the gig he loved – sitting around the rewrite table on Thursdays, acting out a character Fred Armisen or Maya Rudolph might play – but, like many a frustrated SNL writer before him, he weathered painful dry spells, going weeks without a single sketch he’d written making the cut for the show. He lived in a barely furnished apartment in midtown (call girl Ashley Dupré, whose relations with Gov. Eliot Spitzer are the stuff of New York political-scandal legend, was his neighbor) and waited to be sent home packing. “I remember calling my manager,” Sudeikis says, “and being like, ‘I should have stayed in Las Vegas.’ I didn’t think I was helping the show. There was a little bit of ‘Impostor Syndrome,’ I think it’s called, where you worry, ‘They’re gonna find me out.'”
But after making a few brief SNL appearances, Sudeikis was tapped for a featured-performance slot on the show in 2005. While most of his co-stars were adept at creating screwball recurring characters, or at crafting viral video hits, Sudeikis slowly, quietly established himself as a first-chair utility player in the mode of Phil Hartman or Kevin Nealon, capable of portraying a yuppie asshole or a doofus break dancer, all with an appealingly loosey-goosey ease. “There’s something very freeing about the way he performs,” says co-star Wiig, who frequently plays Sudeikis’ spouse. “You can tell that he’s in the moment, that he hasn’t rehearsed exactly how he’s going to say every word. When you watch him, you’re reminded that it’s a live show. And it’s very exciting to perform with him, because you don’t always know what you’re going to get.”
That unpredictable nature may be why Sudeikis has been in such high demand over the past few years, maintaining a steady side gig as an actual prime-time player on 30 Rock (playing Liz Lemon’s onetime flame) and Eastbound & Down, and appearing in last year’s genial-horndog trifecta of Hall Pass, A Good Old Fashioned Orgy and the surprise hit Horrible Bosses, playing the cad to Jason Bateman’s buttoned-up straight man. All that extra visibility has had an unexpected tilt: After divorcing 30 Rock writer Kay Cannon in 2010, Sudeikis was quickly gossip-hounded about a relationship with Mad Men beauty January Jones, and his current relationship with Cowboys & Aliens star Olivia Wilde means getting occasionally pap-blocked while leaving a restaurant.
“They’re never following me,” he says, with a mixture of indignation and acceptance. “They follow people I care about, and they make those people’s lives a little trickier, a little tougher. I don’t have much love for that. But I also know they’re doing their job. I’m not doing anything all that interesting, and I assume that they’ll eventually figure that out.”
We head out of the park, back toward Sudeikis’ West Village apartment, navigating our way through a gantlet of jubilantly crowing homeless guys that includes our Texas-boosting buddy, who never did bring us any catnip. Sudeikis is due back uptown at the SNL studio in a few hours.
He keeps a leisurely gait, enjoying a few hours of calm before work. “I don’t know what it would be like to live here without SNL,” he says as we walk through the Village’s twisty streets. “My relationships have changed. My locations have changed. Oddly, the job has been the only consistent thing in my life.”
This story is from the Big Issue of Rolling Stone.