Looking ahead and looking back, Jay Mohr is satisfied with both perspectives.
“Last Comic Standing,” the NBC talent contest he hosts and executive produces, gives comedians an “American Idol”-style shot at stardom — or at least steady nightclub work.
“Gasping for Airtime,” Mohr’s book about his two years as a writer and performer on “Saturday Night Live,” candidly details what it’s like to be a blip on a pop-culture phenomenon, panic attacks and all.
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His new show has been instant gratification, a chance to help struggling comedians. The pungent “Saturday Night Live” experience had to age for nearly a decade before he could appreciate it.
“It was fascinating and I wasn’t enjoying it, even when it was going well,” Mohr said. “I watched Nirvana perform, I talked to Kurt Cobain, I talked to (Eric) Clapton, I got to work with (Chris) Farley every day.
“But I was so self-obsessed with survival — survival on the show and then mental health survival and back to survival on the show — I certainly didn’t take time to smell the roses,” he told The Associated Press.
The stellar guest musicians and colleagues including Farley, Mike Myers and Michael McKean were the roses; the thorns were his inability to make his talents fit a demanding monolith and insecurities that fed a panic disorder.
(A few guests inflicted minor scratches: Mohr recalls a skit he’d written for Marisa Tomei being dumped after the actress realized he was merely a featured performer and not a cast member, while Roseanne Barr disrupted a cast meeting by deliberately and loudly belching.)
Frustrations of ‘SNL’
Mohr, a 23-year-old standup hired as sketch writer and player, found sparkling ideas elusive. He was also confounded by a production style that, as he describes it in “Gasping for Air” (Hyperion), was haphazard and arbitrary.
“Saturday Night Live,” a perpetual motion machine that turned out stars like John Belushi and Adam Sandler and serves as a cultural touchstone even when it’s subpar, was impervious to a confused comic.
“That’s what made it so frustrating, is realizing that whether you bang your head on the wall and scream like hell (to protect a skit) or whether you don’t even show up, the show just sort of rolls effortlessly,” Mohr said. “Then you really get into this existential conversation with yourself, questioning your own worth and existence.”
Therapy and medication ultimately controlled Mohr’s panic attacks, but consistent success on the show still eluded him. Conceivably, Mohr could have targeted Lorne Michaels, creator and acknowledged emperor of “SNL,” for the environment. The book, however, treats Michaels only with respect.
“I was the person not fulfilling my potential and having panic and stealing,” Mohr told the AP, referring to an admission that he lifted a sketch from a fellow comic. “Lorne hired me ... I got a great spot in my heart for somebody who hired me on the show that’s probably the only show that’s a piece of an American timeline.”
Mohr went on to an acting career that included roles in “Jerry Maguire” and “Pay It Forward.” He’s now in charge of his own small piece of pop culture with “Last Comic Standing,” which has enticed enough summertime viewers, particularly younger and affluent ones, to win a place on NBC’s fall schedule.
“The show is just too hot to ignore,” NBC entertainment chief Kevin Reilly told reporters recently. The network delayed the fall return of “Average Joe” to make way for “Last Comic,” deeming it a better pairing with its high-profile reality boxing show, “The Contender.”
Mohr is no Simon Cowell
As the second season of Last Comic” draws to an end, six finalists were being cut to three on Thursday (9 p.m. ET), with the winner to be announced on the Aug. 12 finale.
“The genesis of the show for was when I’d be on the road, see other comics, and I’d look at my friends and say, ’This guy’s a TV star, why isn’t he on TV?’,” said Mohr. “It’s a show where you get to be the conduit for these people who deserve it.”
Last season, Dat Phan received the first-place prize of a talent deal with NBC and has been headlining at comedy clubs. Others who competed are doing OK too, Mohr said.
“I just talked to Dave Mordal from season one, who’s making $10,000 a week and just bought 40 acres in Minnesota. That makes me so happy. It’s the greatest phone call I got,” he said.
As executive producer, “I’m sort of like quality control to make sure the comedians have it as easy as possible. I’m the one who made sure there’s no Simon,” he said, a reference to acerbic “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell.
“I think it’s a pretty relaxed and great, groovy experience for comedians,” Mohr said. He rejects the idea his approach is a response to his “Saturday Night Live” years, but adds it might indicate a subconscious belief in “how you should run an airline.”
His own subconscious seem relaxed these days. He and wife, Nicole, have a toddler, Jackson (“I’m watching a 2-year-old stand on a sleeping Rottweiler. It’s very funny”), and he’s reveling in being an author.
“I got a best-selling book out of it,” Mohr says of “Saturday Night Live.” “Hooray for me. So now I REALLY like Lorne.”