Jay Mohr on Burning SNL Bridges: ‘All I Want Out of Life Is More At-Bats’
The versatile comedian looks back on the 25 years since he debuted on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and what lies ahead.
In its quarter-century as a minor league ballpark, Hadlock Field, home to the Double-A affiliate Portland Sea Dogs, has seen its share of journeymen take the mound. In 2012, Rich Hill pitched an inning of relief at Hadlock as part of his six-year quest to land back on a major league starting rotation.
Dwight Gooden, once a teenage phenom, threw a few innings here in the final years of his career.
However, few of the stadium’s hurlers can say they’ve hosted a nationally televised comedy competition. Or been nominated for a Teen Choice Award.
During a drizzly Memorial Day weekend, former Saturday Night Live cast member Jay Mohr jogs to the mound for the ceremonial first pitch. Brad Paisley plays on the sound system as roughly 5,000 fans gingerly seek their seats before the start of today’s doubleheader. Mohr pauses and retreats back to the first baseline. He’s forgotten the ball.
Mohr is on day two of a coastal New England comedy tour that began in Massachusetts, continuing to the Old Port before a final stop in Bar Harbor. It’s his first visit to Portland, Maine, since he was 19 years old, when he appeared as a rising stand-up at the since-closed T-Birds nightclub.
In the almost 25 years since his debut on SNL, Mohr has quietly endured as one of the most dependable comic-turned-actors around. Outside his perch as a stand-up and podcaster, he’s amassed an enviable—and surprisingly versatile—filmography.
The history of comedians “going serious” is a prestigious list of who’s who in comedy: Robin Williams, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey. Big names making occasionally exaggerated lunges for respectability. Mohr’s track record in movies is less flashy, hewing closer to the beats of a character actor. Think George Carlin in Prince of Tides. Or maybe a post-Ghostbusters Bill Murray as Polonius.
Consider this: few actors—let alone stand-ups—could credibly play opposite Jennifer Aniston in a romantic comedy (Picture Perfect), appear in a Clint Eastwood meditation on death (Hereafter), while also serving as a mainstay in ‘90s indie ensembles (Go, 200 Cigarettes). Channel surf sometime and you might catch him on an episode of Monk or Law & Order: Criminal Intent. That’s quite the tightrope.
Mohr is a specialist, of sorts, capable of shifting genre gears effortlessly while maintaining a distinct, identifiable persona: friendly and loquacious on the edge of smugness. Clearly white. It’s a skill grounded in his approach to stand-up: “You can be the Indian comedian, and get all of Asia in your pocket. You can just do commercials, and make millions of dollars. You can be the guy who never leaves the road, and be a road animal…there’s so many pieces to the pie chart.”
“I’m 47, and I meet people who have no idea I do stand-up comedy. And I meet people who say, ‘Oh, you’re an actor too?’” he says. “I’m still between worlds.”
Mohr’s relatable onscreen presence can be traced back to his 1993-1995 stint on Saturday Night Live, again falling into a weird categorical limbo. He is not one of the trivia card answer, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cast members like Jenny Slate or Robert Downey Jr. But he also joined the show amidst an avalanche of catchphrases and recurring characters. (On his first episode as a featured player, he busted out his spot-on Christopher Walken impression.) Over the next two seasons, Mohr appeared in sketches revolved around some of that era’s most iconic characters: Wayne’s World, Canteen Boy, Coffee Talk with Linda Richman, The Denise Show.
And Matt Foley: “The motivational speaker sketch is like being on LSD in front of your parents. Chris Farley was such a genius.”
To SNL fans of a certain age—the Comedy Central rerun generation—these are monumental sketches. To Mohr, they were small roles he stopped thinking about immediately once the sketch was over.
Mohr’s struggles finding his own hit character eventually became the basis for his 2004 memoir, Gasping for Airtime, one of the definitive accounts of SNL’s behind-the-scenes. In 2018, speaking so candidly about a revered, exclusive comedy institution seems extremely risky for a comedian—or, at least, a sure bet at provoking the ire of the show’s often mythologized, powerful creator, Lorne Michaels.
“I don’t think [Lorne] cares about anything negative and that’s why he’s so successful,” shrugs Mohr, reflecting back. “All the people who say, ‘Lorne did this, Lorne did that,’ I got news for you: Lorne was most likely in the Hamptons, holding his child, not thinking about you at all. And you applied all this to an evil mastermind who doesn’t exist. He’s just a dude.”
In fact, several former cast members have told Mohr that they appreciated his openness about his growing pains on the show, including Rachel Dratch and Brooks Wheelan. “The only blowback I got was at a Clippers game… I was holding my son, a baby, and I went up to [Adam] Sandler and he said, ‘I hear you took a shit on me in your book, no thanks,’ when I went to shake his hand. But I didn’t take a shit on him… so I’m like, ‘Alright.’” Meanwhile: “I’ve seen Rob Schneider and we’re genuinely friendly—I gut him in the book.”
Following SNL, Mohr made the leap into film, eventually starring in the mobster spoof Jane Austen’s Mafia! Released on July 24, 1998, and helmed by Jim Abrahams (Airplane!), Mafia! is among the last classic ZAZ-style parodies before the genre was ruined by Friedberg-Seltzer. “You can’t out-kitten a kitten,” says Mohr. “Once the Wayans Brothers got involved, as good as they do it, it’s like, ‘Alright, that’s the end of that. We can’t match this.’”
To this day, Mafia! remains the only movie Mohr has auditioned for where he was told he got the part on the spot. It’s one of those films that lives on through TNT rebroadcasts, a chaser for TV’s ubiquitous airings of Casino and The Godfather saga. “History isn’t very good to it... but it’s one of those movies, the longer I hang around, that’s one people bring up more frequently.”
Of course, Jerry Maguire “remains the standard, the constant, the blockbuster.” And—when prompted on how his character, the oily sports agent Bob Sugar, would react to the NFL’s recent decision to fine players who do not stand for the National Anthem—Mohr is unequivocal: “Bob Sugar would immediately think of the dollar signs, in the negative, then spin it. ‘I can get you a contract for kneepads when you’re welding.’ ‘Sometimes you just gotta take a knee on the job.’ ‘Hi, I’m Ricky Bell and I’m here for Anthem Kneepads.’”
Over the years, Mohr has balanced stand-up with work in TV and film. Working with the legendary Buddy Hackett on his FOX show Action remains a highlight: “He was like a father to me… I met him after I knew everything. I’d been doing standup for 16 years. It was like the Buddhist story of the Master emptying the tea cup and starting over.”
An appreciation of the Zen masters comes in handy in the mercurial world of Hollywood. Mohr’s one word of advice to burgeoning comics looking to follow his lead as an actor: surrender.
A big moment for Mohr came during a quick appearance onstage at a Broadway performance of Martin Short’s one-man show. Short, dressed as his clueless Hollywood interviewer character Jiminy Glick, asked him: “Aren’t you David Spade?” (He also called him Julia Louis-Dreyfus twice.) “I said, ‘No, I’m Jay Mohr.’ And he said, ‘Oh, right. There’s big stars and you just hover along in show business middle class.’ And it bothered me, but it was reality. When I accepted that, the game became: how high can I push the ceiling? Because what I have is longevity. The middle class doesn’t burn out, it just chugs along.”
Back in Portland, Mohr’s pitch is inside, but chest-high, definitely in the batter’s box. “I rushed it,” he says.
Mohr’s unconventional professional trajectory (“it would be interesting if I had any say in it whatsoever”) continues after this mini tour. He has a new film, All About Nina, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. He’s also planning a book of poetry, and currently moonlights as a high school wrestling coach in Beverly Hills. Both projects feel very much in-character for someone who has built a career matching hidden depth with his own brand of workmanship.
“All I want out of life is more at-bats,” he offers.
Following the first pitch, he shuttles off the field, and heads under the stadium toward the concession stand. A few minutes later, the game starts.
The Sea Dogs lost game one of the doubleheader in extras, 3-2.