Books — Gasping For Airtime

Other people’s meltdowns = comedy gold

By Amy Diaz []

Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live, by Jay Mohr, Hyperion, 2004, 292 pages.

There is nothing funnier than other people’s panic attacks.

Self-doubt, crushing fear, overwhelming stress—sure, when it happens to you it’s like sweaty death but when it happens to other people? Hilarious.

Jay Mohr, star of the late great Action and host of Last Comic Standing, developed a severe case of panic disorder between 1993 and 1995, the two seasons he was on Saturday Night Live. The show all but ruined his health and, even though he was only a featured player, made his career. He describes the soul-sucking, life-altering experience this way:

“Julia Sweeney once said that Saturday Night Live is ‘like an uncle you hate paying for all four years of Harvard.’ Actually, it’s more like an uncle who touched you when you were seven, then paid for all four years of Harvard.”

Saturday Night Live turns talented people into stars but first it makes them suffer. It’s that one job everyone has for which you are the most grateful when you no longer have to work there.

For such a crucible, Saturday Night Live does not, in Mohr’s book, make nearly half as interesting a topic as Mohr. After all, this is the man who played an amoral producer in the television show Action and kills with his stand-up bit about Christopher Walken reading Goodnight Moon. In the life of Mohr’s career, Saturday Night Live was actually one of his tamest accomplishments.

Perhaps this accounts for the strangely unMohr-like tone of the book. Gone is the sarcastic tough-ass that appears on stage or in his television shows. This Mohr is a kid—cocky, somewhat, but primarily a big gooey mess of stupid and unsure. And, like Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, Dave Attell, Conan O’Brien and even, to some extent, stars like Adam Sandler and Mike Meyers, Mohr did not really find in Saturday Night Live the space to do what he did best. During some of the driest, darkest times at Saturday Night Live in the mid-1990s, the cast of both writers and players featured some of the smartest, most talented people in comedy. It’s a shame, for the show’s sake, that it never really knew what to do with them.

The book is therefore a mild collection of stories about famous people sprinkled throughout the tale of one man’s complete unraveling. The Saturday Night Live stuff is sporadically interesting but ultimately done better elsewhere. It’s the unraveling part that offers the most fun. Ever paid your dues, made your bones, earned your way with a fantastic job you absolutely hated? It’s nice to know that the guy busting chops on Last Comic Standing feels your pain.

- Amy Diaz

2004 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH