Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
There are many short-lived cast members who talk trash about the backroom politics and airtime struggles at SNL, but Jay Mohr literally wrote the book on it. In fairness to Mohr, standing out on the show was a tall order for any new player up against a huge cast of veteran stars like Farley, Hartman, and Sandler, and though he did find some grounding during his stint, Mohr's frustrations over cut sketches and being stuck in the Featured Player Zone for two seasons outweighed his full potential and resulted in one of the show's more unfriendly cast member departures.
Mohr started stand-up at sixteen years old in his hometown of Verona, New Jersey and moved to New York City after high school. After regularly performing in New York comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Comedy Cellar, he got his first break when he was hired to host the lip-synch game show Lip Service in 1992 after auditioning to be an MTV veejay. Lip Service was canceled after thirty episodes, and Mohr then landed a role on the 1992 ABC series Camp Wilder costarring Jerry O'Connell and Hilary Swank. The following year, Mohr was hired as a writer at SNL (at age 23) along with Norm MacDonald and Sarah Silverman, then promoted to featured player for starting the October 9th episode.
While on SNL, Mohr developed lone recurring character James Barone ("Good Morning Brooklyn" cohost) and impersonated Christopher Walken, Ricky Lake, Tony Bennett, Sean Penn, Billy Idol, Don Rickles, basketball sportscaster Dick Vitale, and Mickey Rourke. But despite his impression skills, Mohr was almost instantly frustrated with his lack of influence on the show, which he later chronicled into full-length book form in his 2004 memoir Gasping for Airtime. In the book, Mohr blurs the line between justified complaints and more self-absorbed whining, paints SNL as a system working against him, and describes his cast mates, generally, in a negative light (with a few exceptions). He also admitted to stealing an act from comic Rick Shapiro for an Irish bartender sketch that made it to air, then lying about it when confronted by Lorne Michaels. The sketch has since been cut from reruns. Some quotes from Gasping:
On Adam Sandler: "In a way, I resented Sandler. Not Adam the person, but the audience’s familiarity with Adam. I felt that if I could just get on the air more often, people would become familiar with me and look forward to a sketch I was in. Having an audience know who you are as a performer is an amazing freedom. It’s true of stand-up comedy. When you reach the status of headliner, doing stand-up becomes easier. You don’t have to worry about winning everyone over."
On Rob Schneider: "Rob enjoyed dressing the new guys down in front of everyone. He would always call me a rookie in front of the other writers. … I don’t mind a little hazing, but after a while it got real old. The cycle of asshole would start with Schneider chiding me as a rookie in front of everyone and then proceeding to treat me like garbage for two weeks straight. Then, for some bizarre reason, he would wander into my office and start massaging my shoulders and ask, 'How have you been, man?'"
On Ellen Cleghorne: "When Sally Field hosted, she gave me a shoulder massage at the rewrite table, but that wasn't nearly as exciting as her tearing Ellen Cleghorne a new asshole. Ellen pitched Sally Field her recurring character Zoraida the NBC page. Ellen started off by telling Sally Field about how Michael Jordan had done it. Then she explained some of the things they could do together. Through it all, Sally Field smiled politely and nodded. Then, in front of all of us, she took out a (metaphorical) knife and sliced Ellen up."
On getting a sketch cut: "To put it mildly, I sulked that entire evening … I decided to make a statement and not go onstage for Good-nights. Not exactly Gandhi's hunger strike, but I somehow had to protest."
Mohr made several contractual demands, including a promotion to repertory status, after the end of the 20th season in 1995 and quit after receiving no response to his wishes. He may have left SNL on bad terms, but he also left having experienced enough mental and emotional workplace-related strain (in Mohr's case, anxiety, panic attacks, and alcoholism) to arm him for a lifetime of auditions, resulting in film roles starting with 1996's Jerry Macguire (as Jerry's protégé-turned-enemy Bob Sugar) followed by a string of supporting roles (Picture Perfect, Suicide Kings, Small Soldiers, Go, Pay It Forward), television shows (The Jeff Foxworthy Show, Action, his starring role in Gary Unmarried, and most recently Suburgatory), and hosting gigs on Last Comic Standing from 2003-2006 as well as ESPN's Mohr Sports in 2002. He also hosts a podcast called Mohr Stories and recently started a podcast network called Fake Mustache Studios.
As for his darker SNL days, it seems that Mohr has since found peace from his sour experience. "It was fascinating and I wasn't enjoying it, even when it was going well," he told AP. "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." Perhaps that's why SNL remains a tough shell to crack for some, like a greenhouse wall there to keep out users, social climbers, and serial kvetchers — you know, the types that might write a nasty book about you after they leave, then 20 years later realize there were roses.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.