Truth in Comedy with Jay Mohr
The morning I talked to Jay Mohr he had just returned from fishing in the ocean: “I am drunk on catching perch with a spinning lure.” He spoke about how he used to fish with his father as a child and how he recently returned to the sport, often bringing his own son along. “It’s a new baptism for me. It’s a rebirth and I’m really happy about it.” This sense of rebirth is important since Mohr has been going through a very stressful, public divorce from his wife of nearly ten years, Nikki Cox. The whole ordeal has hit him hard, but he’s finding ways to stay centered — for instance, getting drunk on fishing instead of booze. He spoke with a low-key sense of personal spirituality, a practiced calm, a lucid candor. Our conversation was initially supposed to be about a new film he’s starring in, Party Boat, available now on Sony’s digital platform Crackle. But we eventually got into much deeper waters, including his work on Finding Joseph – the documentary about troubled Bad Brains’ frontman H.R. — the effects his divorce has had on his mental health, and how he is aiming for personal truth in comedy.
All of this fishing talk is a great segue into Party Boat. How did you get involved with the movie?
The movie was fun, period. Crackle was really smart putting together the cast they did. I mean, it’s called Party Boat. There’s no tricky terms here. It’s not like, “Well, I didn’t see that drama coming at the end.” No. Party. Boat. It’s a boat. It’s a party. I get to play the goofy Lake Patrol. I’m kind of like Barney Fife if he could bench press a lot. I got a call from my agent saying that Sony wanted me to go to Georgia and film Party Boat on the same day I sold a documentary I had made. I went to Georgia for four days. That was the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie set in my life. I told that to the executives and they thought I was pulling their leg. I said, “No, it was so much fun.”
You mentioned Barney Fife. In the movie there really is no Andy Griffith, so if you’re the top dog at Lake Patrol, how would you describe your sidekick played by Jc Caylen?
Jc is really funny. He doesn’t say much in real life or in the movie, but he radiates funny. He is just really, on a cellular level, a funny person. As a comedian of 30 years there are so many kinds of funny. All you want is somebody to play, somebody to return your serve. I would say, “In this take I’m going to say this and you’re going to say that.” Jc would say, “Alright,” and then he would do what I asked him to, but a little bit different to where it would catch me off-guard and make me laugh. He was really great to work with. On set I found out about his YouTube following. I looked up his YouTube videos and my nieces were like, “Oh my God! You know Jc? Ahhhhhh!” He’s worth all the attention he gets. He’s really somebody that’s a pleasure to stand next to, whether it’s real life or playing make-believe.
With this movie having a YouTube star in the cast and it being released on Crackle it’s very representative of the way that entertainment, especially comedy, is being distributed right now. I imagine that in the course of your career you’ve seen things change drastically. How do you feel about the state of accessibility in entertainment right now?
I think it’s great for the audience, but I think it’s bad for the studios and networks. But the reason you do this is for the audience. It’s a service industry. It’s like waiting tables, like a restaurant. If the food is no good people don’t come back. For a movie, if they like it they’re going to find it. Word on the street is the biggest, most influential thing on earth. I think it’s exceptional the way it’s evolving and the way people have accommodated that evolution. I’m glad things are being distributed the way they are because people will find it.
The documentary that you mentioned, is it the one you did about H.R. from Bad Brains?
A lot of people just think of you as a comedian/comedic actor. How did you get involved with that project?
I was playing the Borgata theater in Atlantic City and James Lathos came backstage and said, “I’m working on a Bad Brains documentary. Would you be in it?” I said, “I would do the voiceover in a minute.” He said, “Sure.” I said, “I want to produce it.” He said, “Sure.” He sent me what he had filmed. It was hours and hours of incredible footage of a man that was not well. I’m covered in goosebumps right now as I’m talking to you. I realized the opportunity to make this a story about mental health and humanize him. People think he just went a little crazy or had lead singer syndrome. No, he’s diagnosed, mentally ill, schizophrenic. He’s got some issues that a lot of us have to deal with. To drag those into the light and and do it with somebody as powerful as him…at the screening I actually sat there and cried.
In talking to you now you seem to be doing well, but careers in the spotlight can be tough. You’ve had some ups and downs. Have you ever had any moments where you worried about your own mental health?
I had a panic disorder when I was on Saturday Night Live back in ’93. I went to a great psychiatrist who caught it really early and then it was just done. But I went through a divorce last July that’s still not all the way finished yet. I mean, I put myself in that position, but the loneliness and all of the sudden a brand new depression…I mean, I have never experienced depression until 45-46 years old. The analogy is — with love and respect — like when a soldier comes home from the battlefield. I was in a battle in my home. Everything was so confused, so crazy. When it got really quiet I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know who I was. It got bad. I went back to Alcoholics Anonymous March 14th. I didn’t drink. I didn’t drug. But I was sick, sick, sick. I needed to go back and put pen to paper and work a program. I had to get it together. So yeah, I had a really bad year this year. It’s funny you say “ups and downs” in my career. I don’t really know any downs. I’ve chosen to do everything you’ve ever seen me in.
Well, I was thinking about how in your book you talked about how SNL was very stressful for you, and then the joke theft stuff that came up, and then this recent stuff from your personal life going public. When so much of your life is public it seems to me like it would facilitate a lot of ups and downs.
Yeah, but it’s weird because if I didn’t write about it or talk about it, it would maybe only be known by a dozen people. But when I write about it it becomes fodder for the week. It’s really easy to talk trash about somebody. I’m a topic. Not really anymore, but for about five or six years I was this recurring topic on podcasts and radio shows, like what a jerk I was. Nobody was ambivalent about me, that’s for sure. It’s either ice cold or red hot.
I see that you’ve been staying active with standup. How often are you getting out?
I do about a hundred shows a year.
What is your material centered around now? Are you talking about your personal life and what you’ve been going through?
The biggest change for me comedically was about four years ago when I realized everything I’m saying onstage has already happened to me. Every single new “bit” or “joke” already happened to me with my kid, or at the store, in my car, fishing. It’s going to be real life, truthful. I don’t have to sit down and put pen to paper and go, “Okay, let’s write some material today.” That’s not truthful. That’s an act. That’s a con. It’s a magician wearing a suit pulling a dove out of his sleeve. If I go onstage and share, sometimes something may not get a laugh, but that doesn’t matter because it’s completely personal. If it doesn’t get a laugh, you move on to the next story. Some of it is real deep stuff. I know that if I just talk about me and what’s happening, that’s truth and that’s what comedy needs to be right now.