Those seeking the ultimate skeletons-in-the-closet tell-all about SNL will be a little disappointed with Gasping for Airtime. The book does have some candid details about some cast members and writers. But usually, Jay Mohr will couch a criticism or abusive behavior with some kind of praise. Take this note on Janeane Garofalo: “Though Janeane’s very funny and a talented actress, she was a drag when she worked at SNL.”
Similar stuff is said about Rob Schneider, Al Franken and, of course, Lorne Michaels. The only cast member Jay entirely dismisses is Ellen Cleghorne, and even then he at least gives her credit for hating him to his face.
More interesting then is his focus on the show’s insane pitching and writing schedule. Monday has everyone throwing spitballs at the host, which often involves lying about not having an idea or having ideas you have no intention of actually writing. Tuesday is an insane all nighter for anyone who wants to get a sketch on the show that week. A bleary-eyed Wednesday read through of 40 sketches leads to a another til-dawn rewriting session for the sketches that survive. And even then, during rehearsal, your sketch might go. The politics of what sketches get picked, with unfunny hosts (who Jay happily trashes) providing resistance at bizarre intervals, seems to have worked against Jay Mohr.
One of the things I always hear when discussing SNL with somebody is, “Why don’t they just cut a half hour out of the show?” The last half hour of the program is kind of a waste, but you still get the competition to be seen that Jay describes (and that would be even if you cut the cast in half… there’s sometimes 16 people including featured players). If there is a flaw in the show, this book has convinced me it’s not the length.
Back from Maine, having had my fill of lobster meat and bargain clothing. Also read Gasping for Airtime by Jay Mohr. For those of you unfamiliar with the title, Jay Mohr talks candidly about his two years on Saturday Night Live. Or rather, not on. Jay didn’t really make much of an impact on the show, though it’s not from a lack of trying on his part.
Jay’s short tenure fell, pretty indisputably, in a nadir for SNL. Numerous magazine stories abounded in 1993-1995 with the zombie-like headline “Saturday Night Dead.” Most notable was a way-pre-Bonnie-Fuller “US Magazine” piece about the treatment of women on the show and a general piece from Kurt Andersen era “New York Magazine” that just slammed the show. (Here’s a funny thread showing Kurt Andersen’s attempt to publicize the piece on the Internet, with a response by yours-truly circa 1995.) For a while there, it looked like SNL was going to get cancelled or Lorne Michaels was going to get fired. Even though the show is still wildly uneven (the only can’t miss part of it is Tina Fey’s Weekend Update), the show’s fate being that dire is a little hard to believe now. Heck, Lorne’s wining the Mark Twain Prize for Humor this year.
One of the most interesting parts about the book is Jay’s confession that he stole material from Rick Shapiro to create one of the few sketches of, er, his that saw the light of day. Rick, who’s kinda the patron saint/cautionary tale for downtown comics, apparently threatened to sue and according to this account proved the bit was his own. And presumably got a big check that prevented him from sucking dick for heroin for a while.
Jay feels pretty horrible about the whole affair (and by the time you get to this point with him in the book, you have some sympathy). Stealing someone else’s act is one of things that’ll get you loathed by half the comedians out there. (Though it seems a pretty typical way to start out… I recall numerous comic profiles I’ve read which state “For the first year or so, I just did (Richard Pryor/Woody Allen)‘s act.”) The fact that Jay Mohr brings it up shows a little bit of guts and makes the criticisms in the rest of the book more interesting.
More on Gasping For Airtime and other SNL books this week. Maybe I’ll even go dig up that old NY Mag article and we’ll see if any of those criticisms still stand.