Comedian Jay Mohr has never been one to hold back. Take his 2004 book Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live (Hyperion): in it, he detailed his panic disorder while working as a cast member at SNL, but also dished the dirt on cast members, writers, producers, and guest hosts alike, providing a compelling account of life behind the scenes of the weekly sketch-comedy institution.
Head writer Jim Downey was “sadistic”, castmate Ellen Cleghorne was an “asshole”, Al Franken was “grumpy”, Roseanne was “out of her fucking mind”. Et cetera. But Mohr never felt ostracized after going public with his perceptions.
“In classic Saturday Night Live fashion, I was pretty much ignored,” he told the Straight by phone from San Jose, prior to driving up the coast to play the River Rock Show Theatre in Richmond on Saturday (May 23). “There was no fallout at all. I’ve seen many of the guys since and we’ve all just said hello and it’s just the same.”
Not that it would have mattered.
“I didn’t care. Because I wasn’t really telling company secrets. I was just telling you this is what happened while I was there. No one ever wrote a book about Saturday Night Live that was on Saturday Night Live. It was always journalists asking cast members what happened. So I was a little surprised that I had the opportunity to be the actual first person to write about it that was there.”
Out of print, Mohr doesn’t back down, either. In the book, he relates how executive producer Lorne Michaels chastised him for laughing at Chris Farley all through a particular sketch. That was in the early 1990s, long before Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and crew turned the show into an uncontrolled giggle fest.
“I wonder that all the time, how he became lax with that. Because the red light on the camera would go on and they would just burst out laughing. They made Harvey Korman look like Keely Smith,” he said, referring to the manic Louis Prima’s stone-faced foil. “I don’t know what those guys’ problems were.”
It’s probably fair to assume, then, that he won’t be making an appearance on the new Late Night With Jimmy Fallon?
“Uh, I have no comment on that,” said Mohr. “Have you seen it? Would you go on it?”
Spoken by someone with options. Since leaving SNL, Mohr has had a successful career in movies, television, and radio. A standup comic since he was 15, he created and hosted Last Comic Standing, which had its share of critics but which he defends to this day. He wanted to elevate the great faceless working comedians who killed in clubs but had no national following.
“I think it was great for comedy,” he said. “There was at least two dozen people you’d go see at your local comedy club that you wouldn’t prior to it.”
One thing he doesn’t understand is how Canadian superstar Russell Peters can be so huge with virtually no American television or film credits. Peters is always auditioning for roles south of the border to no avail. That’s still no consolation to the always-working Mohr.
“You know what? He’s playing where the Canucks play and I’m sweating out a 1,000-seat theatre at a casino. I’ll be out on the street with a sandwich board,” he quipped.
Mohr currently stars in the CBS sitcom Gary Unmarried, which certainly helps sell tickets to his live shows. Or does it? “In theory, but then again, Russell Peters outdraws me. If that guy ever gets on a sitcom, he’ll have to play hemispheres.”
He loves acting (“You get to play make-believe”) but wouldn’t give up his night job for anything. Mohr subscribes to Bob Newhart’s edict that a person capable of doing standup has the obligation to do it.
“I think people need to laugh,” he said. “I’ve been told since I was a kid laughter’s the best medicine, so why not go out into the world and play doctor?”
His own Hippocratic oath eschews hack premises. Known for his impersonation of Christopher Walken, among others, Mohr no longer does shtick. Rather, he tells stories, incorporating the voices along the way.
“I have an Al Pacino story, I have a Tracy Morgan story, I have a Norm Macdonald–Adam Sandler story. I have a lot of good stories to go with these impressions. I’m very fortunate to have worked with some very strange people,” he said. “There’s no real ”˜bits’. I think audiences are tired of hearing about airline food and how wacky baggage claim is. Yeah, we get it. What can you give us that’s new?”
With all he has on the go, it’s clear Mohr doesn’t have to give us anything at all. But he does.
“I don’t ever have to do another standup-comedy show again,” he said. “It’s all just because I love it and I have an entirely new act. When I first got into comedy it was to get girls and get drunk. Get laid or fight. Then I got sober and I got married, and I don’t want to fight anybody.”