The Straight Man
Credit: Photograph by Jake Chessum

A few nights ago – just as he had on 138 previous Saturdays – Jason Sudeikis stood onstage at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center and waved goodnight to the Saturday Night Live audience. The 36-year-old cast member had been in only one real sketch that night – logging a minute-long cameo as an employee at an Alaskan fish cannery, getting big laughs as the kind of arch, knowing straight man he's perfected in his nine years with the show. But it was a bittersweet night, nonetheless. Because as SNL's 37th season drew to a close, so did Sudeikis' contract – and the way things were looking, there was a real possibility he wouldn't be back.

"This is the first time I've had a contract end at Saturday Night Live," Sudeikis says, sitting down to lunch at a restaurant in Manhattan's West Village. "I'm kind of in the trees." Normally, he'd be at a script meeting right now, or maybe across town shooting a guest spot on 30 Rock. But with no work obligations, and his bombshell-actress girlfriend Olivia Wilde away in Maryland filming a movie, he's instead trying to figure out how to be unemployed for the first time in years. "It'll be. . . . Gosh, I don't know," he says. "We'll see."

Since he joined the cast full time in 2005, Sudeikis has become one of its most consistent players. A comedic Everyman, Sudeikis can carry a sketch by himself (Joe Biden), deliver a solid backup (the cop in the Scared Straight! parodies), or steal the scene without even uttering a line (his red-tracksuited dancer on fake talk show What Up With That?).

The Saturday Night Live season runs from September to May – Sudeikis likes to call it "the school year." For the past few years, he's filled his breaks with more and more work, like a kid who spends his summers running from tennis lessons to math camp. Chances are good that you saw him in at least one project last year, whether it was Hall Pass, as a henpecked husband masturbating to Styx in his Honda minivan, or Horrible Bosses, as a buttoned-down accountant plotting to murder Colin Farrell, or Eastbound & Down, as Danny McBride's coked-up, washed-out, fist-bumping pal. This summer, he snagged his biggest film role yet, alongside Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in the political fartfest The Campaign.

Sudeikis says he loves doing movies, but he admits that shooting The Campaign during the SNL season was hard. "It sucks having to go away," he says. "You miss the camaraderie, the inside jokes. I'd never missed a read-through in nine years, and I had to miss one. That stinks." He says there's a lot about the show he'd be sad to leave: the stellar crew ("The fact that our hair and makeup people don't win Emmys every single year is baffling to me"), his friends in the cast. But there's also stuff he wouldn't miss, like the frustration of laboring over a sketch till six in the morning for three days straight, only to see it get cut in Saturday-evening dress. "It takes a lot out of you," he says of the SNL grind. "We start from scratch every week. If you allow yourself to enjoy only the product and not the process, I don't know if it's worth it. You could dump all your heart and soul into it and get nothing in return."

Like most people who've been at a job for nearly a decade, Sudeikis has mixed feelings about SNL. "It's an amazing job and a horrible job," he says. "You really do serve the show." But sitting in the booth with a half-empty beer, he definitely sounds like he's moving on. "It's just like playing in a community college," he says. "Everybody knows they're not going to be there forever. Even the coach wants to go to a D-I school." And every time the show comes up, he talks about it in the past tense.

Leaving SNL is always a risky proposition. Give up a steady, hallowed, 22-week-a-year gig in the greatest city in the world on the off chance that it might lead to some movie work? As Seth Meyers might say: Really? There are arguments to be made for either side. On the one hand, Belushi, Aykroyd, Murray, Murphy, Carvey, Myers, Sandler, Ferrell. On the other hand, Chris Kattan.

Still, no matter how much he may want to move on to the next level, leaving the show will be hard. "I've left places before," he says. "I left Second City, I've left schools, I've left relationships. This is very, very different." He says his mom can always tell how he feels about the show by looking at his face during the closing credits, a.k.a. "the goodnights" – and during the last goodnights, Sudeikis looked like he was wiping away tears. "Goodbyes are tough," he says.