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A comedy do-gooder

From Las Vegas’ Second City to NBC’s Emmy-winning 30 Rock, Kay Cannon’s burgeoning career has been anything but by-the-numbers

Julie Seabaugh

(Left): Second City castmates from left to right: Jason Sudeikis, Kay Cannon, Joe Kelly,

Holly Walker, Seamus McCarthy. (Right): Conan O'Brien guest stars on 30 Rock, with Alec Baldwin.

You’re not very Wikipediable. But from what I understand, your timeline includes Chicago, Amsterdam, Vegas and New York.

I’m from the Chicagoland area. In 1998, 1999, I moved to Chicago and started taking classes at Second City. By 2000 I was in Amsterdam doing Boom Chicago. It had only been, like, eight months since I’d started taking classes. I really lucked out. I was at Boom for a year, and I came back to Chicago, and literally the next day they had auditions for Second City Las Vegas. My now-husband but boyfriend at the time [Saturday Night Live’s Jason Sudeikis] was working in Vegas with Second City, so I asked if I could go. I was working in Las Vegas for two years, and then I went to LA, and I did a whole bicoastal thing. We’d already been engaged for a year and together forever; it was three months before we got married, and Jason had just gotten hired to be a writer at SNL. We got married, then for a year and a half I’m still doing the LA-New York thing and then got this job. So for the last year and a half I’ve been here. Oh, and he came to Amsterdam. I signed a year contract and he worked there the last four months. We’ve just kind of been chasing each other around.

What do you remember about your first times performing?

I remember it being very, very scary, in large part because I was performing before I knew what I was doing. And I remember taking shots of Jack Daniel’s before a lot of shows, and then I remember it clicking, getting that kind of “Oh!” Sort of being okay with letting myself fail and being okay with it. I don’t remember being heckled or being booed off the stage. Boom Chicago was actually a great place to go to if you were green, and I was really green. English was not their first language, and performing for Dutch audiences you really learn how to get confidence and go out there and do whatever. You let that confidence lead you. I remember giving myself permission to fail at Boom and failing miserably for a good six to eight months, and then it clicked. Those last four or five months I started to enjoy it a lot more.

Jason was one of the Second City Las Vegas originals, wasn’t he?

He was one of the original cast members. I came six months later. But at that time people only stayed for like three months, and then they’d leave. For some reason myself and Jason and that cast all stayed together for a couple years, and people weren’t leaving anymore. I think that’s really great, because now people come from Chicago and they’re making it their home. And now they’re hiring locals.

They recently started their sixth season, and it’s just as polished as anything you’d see at Second City Chicago.

That’s good to hear, because we worked really hard to make it a good show. It’s harder in Vegas. You don’t have Improv sets, and it’s a different kind of audience.

Is it difficult to figure out where Second City fits in with the city’s entertainment landscape?

It’s very different. We just realized that you have to kind of keep it simple, in a good way. Fast and funny and not too focused on anything too political. I think they have different wants in Vegas; they want to have a different kind of time. And if they don’t know what we’re about, it’s kind of frustrating for them. I liked it a lot because it was really fast and funny, and we just had a really good time. I would laugh so much doing the show. You’d find out what convention was in town, like, “All the sudden we’ve got a lot of audience members who are either a part of or going to the porn convention.” We had a Hooters week there.

Do you still remember the material you were performing at that time?

I wrote this thing called “Dirty Baghdad,” which was based on Dirty Dancing. I was in a burqa, and I fell in love with a soldier, and then we did a dance. It was really silly. We did a take on the Bellagio water show with squirt guns. Second City actually toured with “Dirty Baghdad,” so I always remember that one. We did the first original show there before it was all archived material, so I remember all those, and Jason remembers them, too. It was such a tight cast. I actually remember that entire running order. It’s really imprinted on my brain.

Any backstage stories that particularly stand out?

One time I somehow got locked in the bathroom after the show had started. I was always in the first couple things, and then I’d have five minutes before having to be onstage again, so every night I’d go to the bathroom. Everyone was onstage, and I started laughing, like, “What happens if I don’t get out?” My friend Holly had a little ritual that she would do where she ended up passing the bathroom and got me out of there. There was always lots of stupid backstage stuff. Lots of antics.

Where were you living and what were you doing when you weren’t working?

We were living at the Meridian, at Koval and Flamingo. The cast all lived in the same apartment complex, so it was a kind of a comedy Melrose Place. I didn’t do much of anything when I wasn’t working. We were up until 5, and you’d wake up at 2, lay out and go swimming. I started to take saxophone lessons. I played in high school and felt like I was losing it a little bit because all we did was the show. I forgot the music store I would take them from, but they asked me to do a recital, and I said yes thinking it would be a bunch of adults. I showed up and it was all kids and their parents. I played the Mission: Impossible theme. It was horrible.

We were good friends with the Blue Man guys. We saw it a ton of times. You know where the band is, up above? I would put on the all-black suit and go up there when we were done with our shows. At one point we were doing 10 or 12 a week, I remember being really tired from the shows, and it was so melodic that I actually fell asleep during the show. I snuggled up to a drum and I just fell asleep. But Jason started to practice the actual thing, the drumming. He thought it was a great show, he wanted to be part of it. He worked like a dog every day, and he ended up getting called back and flown to New York. He went blue and everything. And I think it’s great he didn’t get it.

How did the 30 Rock gig come about?

When I was in LA and auditioning for sitcoms, I was getting frustrated. I was getting called back and getting close on things, but I started writing for myself, and my writing partner at the time and I wrote a pilot and put ourselves in it. [30 Rock writer, exec-producer and star] Tina [Fey] read that pilot, and then I wrote a spec of The Office, and she read that and then called me. I had dinner with her, and she said, “We have a possible spot open. How would you feel not performing for a year?” I was like, “Ah, I would be totally okay with that.” She said, “Well, hand in your spec.” I was in New York visiting Jason at the time. I spent all night writing it and making it better, sent it at like 9 in the morning, got on a plane back to LA, got off the plane and heard, “They want to have a meeting with you.” Then a couple weeks went by and Tina called and said, “How would you feel about not performing?” I said I’d be fine. She said, “Well, if I ever had to fire you, would you be okay with that? Would we still be friends?” I said, “I look forward to the day that you fire me.” And then I got hired.

What are some specific moments from the show you can point to and say, “That was me!”?

I will say this: With Tina I wrote the Paul Reubens episode. For that being my first script, I was thrilled. I had this great moment when he blows out the candles, just the joy I felt of putting something on paper and then seeing it happen. I remember sitting back, seeing the cake pulled out and seeing Paul Reubens sitting like he was with all these extras in this giant banquet hall, and I remember adding that to the script, sneaking that in. It was just this little something I put in there and now it’s on! That was a big highlight. When I’m at home with Jason I’m always watching him watch the show. I’ll be like, “That was me!” And he’ll be like, “All right! Enough!”

And then watching him be on the show was really cool, too.

That was a great story arc, him and Liz and Cleveland.

I was getting a manicure and there were these three ladies talking. Someone mentioned Cleveland, and that episode had just aired, so I was waiting for it, and this one woman goes, “Oh, there’s this new show ...” I’m thinking, “Here it comes ...” And she goes, “They went to Cleveland!” It’s not like it was really funny, but I was sitting there thinking, “You’re welcome.”

What can we expect from the second season?

You can expect a lot of guest stars. Jerry Seinfeld is going to be in the first episode. I know there’s a couple more, but I can’t say. We’re going to try to slow down the show a little bit so it’s not as dense as last year. We’re going to let things breathe a little.

Anything else?

Watch 30 Rock! I think it’s for comedy good. Our show and The Office are a different type of sitcom, and I hope that people continue to watch so they continue to grow. It’s interesting; people watch 24 or Lost, which are complicated and hard to follow, and you hope that people would want to do that for comedy, too. Who knows? We just do the best we can.

30 Rock’s second season premieres October 4 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

Julie Seabaugh is a Weekly staff writer.

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