Jason Sudeikis: The Ultimate Interview | Part 5 - What Lies Behind Us and What Lies Before Us By: Billy Nord
Now, when you got picked up with three episodes left in Saturday Night Live's 2005 season, were you credited as a featured player?
Did you continue to write that week?
Yeah, but they crossed me over immediately. I had to sign a new contract and everything on Monday, to be a cast member.
What does that do to your writing contract? Does it negate it?
It just nulls it out, yeah. Which stinks because I could have used the extra dough. It was going into the summer; cast members don't get paid during the summer. You just get paid for each show.
And the new contract was for five years?
It's seven years. I can go at any point and they can let me go at any point. I mean, I've never once done what I do for the dough, so contracts, shmontracts. I don't pay attention to any of it.
It's amazing, millions of people want what you have right now, millions. And it's not at all about money.
I don't take it for granted whatsoever. There are 200 people who sign up every single eight weeks for Improv Olympic classes in Chicago. It's probably 200 between Improv Olympic, Second City and The Annoyance Theater; there are people constantly moving. Every two months a new session starts. And I don't necessarily think their goal is to be where I am. I get to work at a place that's literally the hardest job I've ever done.
During the season, is it one week off per month?
It averages out about two weeks on, two weeks off.
Two weeks off: during that, time do you find while you're not working that you're filled with nervous energy, thinking about SNL nonstop?
Oh absolutely. Oh, you think about it every conversation you have, someone laughs at something, you write it down. I carry a notebook with me, and I've done that since '97 when I moved to Chicago, I've always had a notebook and pen on me. Whether it is for phone numbers or CD recommendations. Or just lines, jokes. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, outside of living across the country from my wife. It's also the most fulfilling. If it wasn't worth doing... what's that old saying? Know...everything... good? Ah, whatever (laughter) just google it.
I think I've actually read that on a bumper sticker somewhere. So, now you're on the show as a cast member, and you're signed on for seven years. You've accomplished two and have five years to go. Do you continue to write as much as you were when you were strictly a writer?
Yeah. If not, more, because now I get to say the words. It's a little bit daunting; I used to write one scene a week. I'll have my dry spells, I had a couple of weeks this year (past season) where I didn't write anything, where it worked out for me 'cause I'm kind of a utility guy that can play this guy or play that guy.
How were the A-Holes created?
Kris (Kristen Wiig) and I write the A-holes together. Just us chewing gum late one night, we had written about five scenes. We had worked together the last three weeks; we just sort of hit it off, her and I immediately. I just think the world of her, as a person and as a performer. One night, we were just sort of writing late and I remember, it was around the Christmas show, I said "Hey, we should write a scene about a couple trying to buy a tree." And then, popped in the gum to just sort of stay awake. Kristen says that she sort of played that character because she didn't want to be there. I then played a variation of a guy I know exists in the world, you know, he loves her deeply, but is a jerk to other people. Yeah, people like it.
That seems to be one of the most consistently funny, recurring character duets. It doesn't get boring and always seems different.
Yeah, we try to keep it...that's us, that's our doing. We think about it for a while, you know? We take great joy in trying to come up with a scenario and also the title card at the beginning. "You look like a rabbit" that was a line she threw in that I was not that in to. I thought, "What does that even mean?" and then, she went to go type up the scene and stuck it back in there. And Lutz, who helps us with those every now and then, he liked it. I was like "You know, let's keep it in" at that point, I was like - that's my initial thing, it's one of those nice things coming from a sports background, a team background, where I truly believe that other people can, whether you want to or not, allow you to bring things out of yourself you didn't know were there. It's one of the nice things about a Kristen Wiig, a Sally Shipley or a Lorne Michaels, or a Mick Napier. They see things in you that you don't see in yourself. Sometimes they go different ways to get it out of you, but when it comes out, you're usually, for the most part, thankful.
So, Kristen going back and adding that particular line into the scene reminded you of how great it is to work with a team, despite your not understanding it initially?
Yeah, she's the real deal. Those characters, I think it's a 50/50 split by all means.
It truly is one of the best recurring sketches. I can definitely put it up there at the top with the Bill Brasky's. They don't do those any more, do they?
No, Adam McKay wrote those. That was Will and crew.
So, when does a recurring character become stale? Who decides? The writers, the actors or do the producers keep in touch with the views of the general public?
I have no idea. Sometimes, you know, what's stale to us is not necessarily stale to the general populace. The recurring thing is so hard. One of the hardest things about the job is that Wednesday read through, it is such a tough room. I mean, you're talking about a group of people, everybody's got scripts so they're all reading along with you.
Cast and crew?
Cast and crew. You know, there are probably about 50-60 people in there. And it can be some of the biggest, hardest laughs you'd ever heard, or the most frightening, silences. They've seen the best of the best come through there, you know? Thirty-two years that thing has been on. You're talking about fifty sketches a week. And it is a moment, it's something. I don't know when it happens.
So, whether or not a character is brought back is based strictly on the response in read through?
Do you guys try to stay away from public critiques?
You mean websites?
No, I think it's... I try... but ultimately, no. I mean, some people do. I know Kris doesn't, I mean, interview her, but like, I know some people don't read them. I will look at it because I know I don't change my game up because of it. I mean, if there's a website that you knew or a phone number you could call and you would hear messages of people telling their impressions of you, I mean, it's a little bit fascinating. Also, the way I sort of look of it is, my mom's googling me, so I feel a certain obligation to know what is out there.
So, if there's something negative out there you can be better prepared and justify it yourself?
If not justify, then at least sort of be aware of it, so it doesn't hit me. I think it stems back to that Tribune thing, I felt really powerless when he was like "Hey, sorry about the thing" I remember the way that I felt, it's always worse in your own head and I'm a furious person.
You're your own worst critic.
Oh, absolutely. Too much so, I just wanna know. You know, you can't please everyone and that's important to remember. There's part of me that would like to eliminate it completely but - you know, I watch the show every week and there are some things I'd really liked and some things I didn't - but I found it to be pretty profound when Nate Corddry's character on Studio 60 was asked, as he was reading the internet "Why do you care about the internet?" and he said "Because everybody else does." And that's sort of how I feel. You literally see magazine articles where they'll quote blogs now. It's ridiculous. I don't think it's right and it's not they way I would want...
It's new journalism.
It is, absolutely.
It's speaking ones mind without having an editor.
In both tone and responsibility...and sometimes downright spelling. You know, Sudeikis is not an easy name to spell but I know if someone's slagging me or praising me, and they spell my name wrong, then who cares what they say. That's the thing, even though I read the praise, I take 'em both and I just sort of, know it exists...and away it goes. I'm not fooling anybody by acting like I don't think it exists.
Even NBC is getting in touch with new media and the internet. I know there was a lawsuit against Youtube for posting Saturday Night Live videos and posting Conan videos, and then suddenly NBC had their own page on Youtube.
Yeah, you have to change with the times. And a lot of people don't understand why some videos aren't online and some are. A lot of the times it comes down to the music. Ultimately, if they can't get the rights to the music, if they don't own the music, then it can't show up on there.
That's why the State DVD has been postponed.
Yeah, absolutely. They have several scenes in the first season, like the scene with Ben Garrant walking down the street with no pants. It was done to "Cannonball" by The Breeders, now the song used to replace it doesn't pop the same. But, they had the MTV backing back then and now they don't.
The internet is very prominent in comedy. NBC's Saturday Night Live website alone has grown immensely, there's so much content on there now.
Yeah, it's really neat. If you're a fan of the show, if you're a fan of comedy, my god. If that same thing existed when I was a kid, growing up in that world, I would have been all over it. The Second City's website is impressive too. They have podcasts, my wife and I are doing a podcast with Ruby Streak, who's the musical director for the main stage. It's amazing, even right down to the carnal element, I was talking about this the other day, I was walking around selling a bunch of used CDs, as I was telling you (referencing our first phone conversation, a few days before our meeting), like how hard it was for people of my generation to find porno. Now you can literally type the words "white house" in Google image search and you'll come up with some porno site.
It's definitely having an effect on society.
I mean, in regards to the internet's affect on comedy, I get worried about it watering down or creating a lot of false positives out there but funny is funny, and there's more than enough room out there for everybody. It's making comedy niche' and subversive in a good way. Same with porno. You like pregnant ladies over forty? There's a website out there for you. If you like dudes doing commercial parodies only, or stuff about ninjas, you can go and find that specific kind of comedy.
That brings us back to what we discussed in one of our first conversations, we are in a generation where most find it hard to really focus on one thing. We know there's this endless list of options for us out there at any given time.
I wonder if we're done with, and this is all theory for me, I'm just paying attention and sort of going through this crazy life like anyone else, I'm curious if another sitcom like Cheers can last eleven seasons now. If it's only going to be three seasons from now on, like Arrested Development. People love the British Office, I love the British Office, and you realize, it's only fourteen episodes; it's a little bit longer than a mini-series. Would Tupac still be the greatest, baddest-assed rapper in the whole world if he had lived? I don't know. Kurt Cobain? If he had survived, would he now be showing up in Chevrolet commercials?
That brings us to 30 Rock. Now seems like a perfect time for a show like this to exist.
It's so fast-paced, occasionally there being some story lines that extend beyond a single episode. For example, the relationship between Tina Fey's character and yours, Floyd. What was it, seven episodes?
I think it was six episodes.
That was different for that particular show, but it worked.
I felt like those kinds of archs anchor the show in a way that makes it palpable to a generation that doesn't need it fast and funny. Just emotional and funny. I mean I was super-nervous about that story line because I love the show, it means a lot to my family, and I obviously. But I knew, as a fan, that they're doing something that hasn't been done before, and now that I'm in the eye of it, I was nervous people would say "Oh you came and you ruined it with your damn love story" but it was quirky, and pretty heavy duty. She snuck into AA and pretended to be an alcoholic.
For network television, that is pretty dark. It seems like the writers may have focused on things they've never seen on network television, but wanted to.
Yeah, it's possible.
The relationship between Liz Lemon and Floyd had a bit of a realistic feel, which viewers could embrace, and possibly relate to. It's tough to mix the two, fast-paced comedy with reality. I mean, Arrested Development did, which was ground breaking. Do you think 30 Rock has the potential to last beyond three seasons?
I certainly hope so. I mean, not just because of Kay's involvement, and now my involvement.
Could it evolve?
It's got to, man. You know, I was joking about this last night when I was playing Halo online with friends in LA. If you look at that show, I've heard people constantly say "Man, that show is starting to get funny!" I mean, it was always funny. If you love the three leads: Tina, Tracy and Alec, it was funny from jump. But it kept getting better, better and better. If you watch the first season of The Simpsons, everything's drawn like hell, the jokes are nowhere near the quality they were in seasons three, four, five. I mean, even Homer sounds like Walter Matthaeu. Things change, things get better. Every single person gets better. As funny and as great as Jack McBrayer is already, the thing I can tell you about knowing that guy and getting the opportunity to watch him for the last ten years is, believe it or not, he's going to be even funnier. They've only scratched the surface with that guy on that show. He's incredible. It goes the same for Kay, she's gonna be a better writer, just as every single person at that table will be. It's just the evolution of good people doing good work, pushing each other to do good things. People can always get better. And you don't even realize it, sometimes. You have to go back and watch seasons one and two. I really enjoy the show Sex in the City, for a number of reasons. We watched it on DVD right after 9/11, my wife and I, and our friend Karen Graci would stay up to all hours, when we weren't watching CNN, we'd put that show on and have a slice of life. So then you'd watch season five and you see the way they've gotten the characters down. It gets to the point when even the person watching the show for five seasons can start writing episodes or jokes because they know the characters so well. Good art, for me, you have to have the valleys to appreciate the peaks. Sometimes the valleys come early on, sometimes they come in the middle, sometimes it's the third album and the fourth album they come back and really blow your mind. I hope 30 Rock lasts for as long as Tina wants it to last.
During Alec Baldwin's cell phone message incident, a lot of people were claiming the show would no longer exist without his being involved. Of course it can. He's funny, but the show can definitely still exist.
Absolutely. He's an incredibly talented, fascinating man.
Will Floyd be making another appearance next season?
I know I'm on the board. My joke was "I haven't been whacked."
It didn't seem like your story line was resolved.
There were a lot of things unresolved. I don't know anything specific, no scoop over here. I know I'm on the board, you know, when they board the show. Floyd's still up there.
When would you normally find out?
Probably a couple of weeks before you do.
Back to SNL, during its creation stage, it was said Lorne Michaels wanted it to be a writer's show, a place for writers to shine. Writers and cast members are equally important.
Yeah, he still pushes for that. He really wants individual voices to come across. When you see a scene, you could say, "That's a James Anderson scene" or "That's a John Lutz scene" "That's a Colin Jost scene," these are all guys that I work with. There are those of us who know, who could pick them out. I know a Jim Downey scene. It's one of those things, you know? People back home, if they see Kansas mentioned somewhere in a sketch, they automatically think I had something to do with it, which is not always the case.
I have actually read that on your Wikipedia page. You have on occasion incorporated Kansas into a sketch?
A lot of times, here and there. If it takes place in a bar, I'm asked where the bar is and I just say "Kansas City." You know, why not?
The "ten to one sketch" tends to be the most absurd piece on every episode. Is there one specific writer who's normally stuck with that slot, based on their particular brand of humor?
If you're on that TV show, there's no getting stuck with anything. That's the only reason it's competitive, you have some of the funniest people around. We're trying to get the best sketches on the air, that's the only reason it's competitive. We also support the hell out of each other. Will Forte writes some of the most originally brilliant, bizarre and interesting comedy. He and his buddy John Solomon, they get a lot of the "ten to one" stuff on that's hilarious. I have the fortunate opportunity to be there on a Wednesday, where I get to see things that no one else gets to see.
That's got to be amazing. I heard there are just file after file of unused sketches.
Absolutely. I mean some of them should remain in those files, to be quite honest with you. And I'm responsible for at least fifty of those, so far.
When you write something within that building, does it automatically become the property of NBC?
I think so. You've gotta get rid of it. I mean, The Beatles, they wrote so many good songs, and I'm not saying we're The Beatles, but you gotta be able to kill your babies, edit things. The lesson I needed to learn that, believe it or not, I didn't learn during my improv background, was create it and destroy it. Let it exist. You can't try to aim, you just can't. If you try to aim, like I said earlier, it just comes off like you're aiming. You just want to make it. Make what you think is funny and if people respond to it, they respond to it. There's no trick to it. I'd seen David Mamet give a talk at the Goodman Theater in 1998. Me and my buddy Ed Goodman, no relation, went to the theater to watch him speak. People were asking all of these questions, all of these DePaul and Northwestern kids, asking about the plays and whatnot. Then, he sort of hit his breaking point, not in an aggressive way, but in just a sort of matter-of-fact way, Simon Cowell-style. Straight shooting. A student asked, "I wanna be a playwright, do you have any advice?" and he's just like "Look, write your play, get your friends to be in it, find some place to do it. That's all I can tell you. That's all I did."
It's sort of like that Syd Field mentality; the only secret is "work."
Yep, the Paradigms. Paradigm Lost, dude. It all comes around. You just have to do it, you have to make it and be like "Here it is."
You can't expect an easy route, you just have to work.
Sometimes the only way to work is just by doing. That's the thing I battle with often. McKay and Ferrell would write scenes in an hour, because they recognized at some point that they could work eight hours on a scene, read it on Wednesday, and (during the Wednesday read-through) it goes nowhere. Why not just write an hour on a scene, write four scenes and then go home at 7am as opposed to 11am the next morning? I just had had a meeting with Judd Apatow about this movie Joe and I are writing with him, he said, "You gotta write a shitty version of it. Write it down and build it up."
On your off days, you're still doing independent work, writing-wise?
Yeah. Joe, Lutz and I have a movie in the re-write process, which is in development with Lorne's company.
Do you have a deal with Lorne requiring you to produce a certain amount of pictures?
Yes, but the Judd thing went through Joe after he was let go. I'm writing it with Joe. So, yeah, if I had any ideas, they'd go to Lorne first and he'd have to pass on them before I go somewhere else.
Has Lorne ever passed on anything that resulted into hit?
I don't know exactly. But, as they say, that guy has forgotten more comedy than I'll ever know. It's not always about making the right choices; it's about making a choice at a certain point, and then figuring it out. You figure out five, ten years later if it was the wrong one. He did make Tommy Boy, he did make Three Amigos, He did make Wayne's World, and he made Mean Girls. It's one of those things where, does he have regrets? I'm sure. But, that's for your interview with him. That dude's on the comedy Mount Rushmore. There are a lot of people on there but he's created something that's been on the air for 32 years.
Have you watched any of the episodes from the first season now that they've been released on DVD?
I have it on DVD, but haven't watched it, no. I've seen the hits, you know? All of the "Best Of" stuff.
Is there a legacy around the office creating a feeling that you have to fill a certain pair of shoes?
There are pictures everywhere. You feel it.
Jason Sudeikis: The Ultimate Interview | Part 1 - On Strike
Jason Sudeikis: The Ultimate Interview | Part 2 - The Beginning Before The Beginning
Jason Sudeikis: The Ultimate Interview | Part 3 - Out In Vegas They're Killing Time (aka Improv, In Love, En Route)
Jason Sudeikis: The Ultimate Interview | Part 4 - Jason Takes Manhattan