Jason Sudeikis is proof that jocks can be funny. He was a good enough high school point guard to get a basketball scholarship to Fort Scott Community College in the basketball-mad state of Kansas, but along the way he got sidetracked by comedy. While still at high school he got involved with an improv show called ComedySportz; in 2013 Sudeikis told ESPN that it was “the perfect mix between sports and comedy,” and was his bridge into performing. His college playing career was short-lived, in part because he wound up focusing more on the theater.
Acting might have been his destiny, but if you do something long enough and at a high enough level during your formative years it’ll stick with you forever. Basketball’s always been a part of Sudeikis’s life, and that connection to sports popped up often during his time on Saturday Night Live. From “Roundball Rock” , to challenging Lebron to a game, to playing various different sports announcers, for years Sudeikis was SNL’s go-to man for sports sketches.
Sudeikis is digging into that background for his latest gig, as the host and commentator for TBS’s comedy competition show Tournament of Laughs. Sudeikis presides as the show’s resident Ernie Johnson Jr., setting up each clip and acting, as he told Paste, like “a traffic cop, going from one thing to the next.”
If you haven’t seen Tournament of Laughs, imagine something like Comedy Central’s Roast Battle, only reconfigured for the pandemic age, and without the actual roasting. A diverse lineup of comedians—including Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Natasha Leggero, Moshe Kasher, Cameron Esposito, Jim Norton, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and more—square off one on one with videos they write and shoot remotely on their own time; viewers vote on each matchup, and the winner moves on to the next round. It’s both a steady source of new comedy videos from some pretty prominent names, and also a fascinating glimpse at what their homes look like. And it helps out Black Lives Matter and the United Nations Foundation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, to whom the show’s producers made charitable donations.
At the center of it all is Sudeikis doing his best SportsCenter impression. Although he and longtime collaborator Corey Rittmaster write some of his material, Sudeikis describes himself as “a hired gun” on the show. “I did a guest spot on this show with Kevin Hart called What the Fit, where we both trained to become nights at Medieval Times. One of the producers liked the way I handled my business then.” They were looking for a comedian to play a fake sportscaster role—something Sudeikis mentions he “stepped into numerous times when [he] worked at Saturday Night Live”—and apparently his turn as a Medieval Times knight made a great impression on them.
It also helps that it’s a paying gig at a time when there’s nothing else happening in the entertainment world. “Nobody in my household, including my kids, have been bringing in any dough,” Sudeikis points out, “so it seemed like a good way to make a little money, help other folks make money, and give away a little money to charitable causes. It made sense.”
The Kansas City native counts the Royals announcers he grew up listening to among his influences as a fake comedy sportscaster, and singles one specific current ESPN star as a fashion inspiration. “America’s Sweetheart Scott Van Pelt is sort of our model for the way I would dress,” he says. “A nice pocket square and nice suit, sitting there letting the suit give me an air of gravitas that I don’t normally carry with me.
“The ESPN announcers that Will Forte and I did [on Saturday Night Live] were just based on a generic guy who had a roller coaster of a voice, goes down low and then goes up really high. I don’t know who—it might’ve been partially based on somebody back home in Kansas City. The name escapes me, somebody who might’ve called games for the Royals or whatnot.”
Perhaps one reason Sudeikis finds himself parodying sportscasters so often is because he realizes he very easily could’ve wound up being a professional sportscaster if things had worked out differently. “If things had gone in a different direction, had I graduated from college, maybe this is a job I would be doing in some capacity,” he tells Paste. “News anchor, or something.”
Instead he wound up pursuing comedy, honing his craft and making his name on Saturday Night Live. Sudeikis sees some similarities between working on that show and Tournament of Laughs, where the winners have to come up with a new video idea every week. “[Tournament of Laughs] reminds me of my youth at SNL,” he says. “Sometimes you even forget that show was on television. By the time people were talking about the last one you were on to the next one, and there’s a similar energy here. Which is not too dissimilar to a sports gig.”
Tournament of Laughs airs on TBS on Sundays at 10 p.m. ET. The second half of “The Mean and Lean 16” premieres this weekend.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.