“Mohr Stories” is a fitting name for actor and comedian Jay Mohr’s podcast. The SNL alum has a knack for telling stories, which makes tales of doing live sketches with Chris Farley and auditioning opposite a fired up Tom Cruise all the more compelling.
I caught up with Mohr recently to talk SNL, Jerry Maguire, the art of impressions and more.
You were the first notable person to do a Christopher Walken impression, how did it come to be?
I have to tell the truth, I wasn’t first. There was a guy named Roger Kabler, who I saw doing a showcase at the Roxy in Los Angeles and he did Christopher Walken and I went, Oh wow, oh wow, I can do that. You don’t know you can do an impression until somebody does the impression. It’s hard to explain other than that.
When George Bush Sr. became president, it was like, How is somebody going to do that? And then somebody does it and everybody follows that. It’s one of those impressions [where] you don’t know you can do it until you do it and when I saw Roger Kabler do it, I knew I could do it. So I was not first. Roger Kabler was first, he just didn’t have the luxury of being on Saturday Night Live.
His was sort of like a wild horse and I wanted to be able to do it in a regular speaking voice. Like most impressions, you color way outside the lines. When Dana Carvey does George Bush he goes, “Not gonna do it.” But [George Bush] never said that, that’s what we accept as what he said. So I wanted to be able to do all my impressions like they were just talking without any kookiness. That doesn’t always happen right away, but it happens eventually and that’s when you have yourself a real impression.
With Walken, for me, the big one was… Still I don’t think anybody does the whisper as often as he does the whisper. (Jay whispers a soft, but deep and booming Christopher Walken whisper) Run like the wind… That whisper was the big one and now you have an EKG chart of sound and it’s also a one note thing.
When I do an impression on stage, I only do it after an exchange with the person I do the impression of that actually happened. Pacino yelled at me for throwing a rock at a bird (Mohr reenacts the tale as Pacino).
How vital is it for an impressionist to have good material?
If there’s no material, you’re not a comic. I’ve been doing impressions since I was a couple years into doing stand up. It’s almost like embarrassing to do an impression when you’re doing stand up. By the way, my first impression was Andrew McCarthy and it was a visual. I did look like him a little in high school, so it was like, “Here’s Andrew McCarthy.”
You have to have material first because I’m a comedian. I am a comedian. I was born a comedian. I was a comedian before I was John Ferguson Mohr. Before they put my name on my birth certificate, I was born a comedian. When I realized I could do impressions, I did an Arsenio Hall impression once. And what happened with the impression is I realized I’m showing people I can act. The Arsenio Hall one, I was 20 years old and I remember the bit was on his show he doesn’t really listen. He had Lyle Alzado [on] once from the Raiders, who was riddled with cancer, and he starts crying.
And I would actually cry onstage as Lyle Alzado and then I would switch personalities after a really uncomfortable pause and say, “I heard ya’ll win a Super Bowl or something, what’s that about?” He didn’t do a lot of research it seemed. He has Robert De Niro on, he said, “I heard you did a movie or something about boxing and something happened”… Just that nonsense and then that let me do De Niro.
There always has to be content, always. You write a script, what’s the story? I’m a joke guy. When I get a sitcom script I say “What do I have jokes?” and the director and everyone I’ve ever worked with says “Hold on a minute, what’s the story?” So I learned from that, and in my stand up, I just tell stories now. I don’t like to be called a “storyteller” because there might be people that go ‘Ah, I don’t like storytellers.’
Was it a big deal for you to do Walken on the Simpsons?
It was an honor because it was the Simpsons period. The story I heard, and who knows, [Walken] had a quote and he wanted his quote, but it’s a cartoon where they do 33 episodes a year, and they were like “We’re thinking more like 900 dollars.” Then they asked me to do it. If they paid me zero dollars I wouldn’t care at all because I got to be on the Simpsons. They let me ad-lib a little bit like “Children, scooch closer. Don’t make me tell you again about the scooching.” That was all ad-libbed. It felt good.
People always say the first cast of SNL was the best, do you agree with that?
I think they’re entirely overrated. A bumble bee singing “Soul Man” isn’t funny, it’s just a show. I loved the Interpreter with John Belushi, but a samurai guy like at a deli, that just didn’t hit me. When Bill Murray showed up in season two I thought they got cooking.
I got to work with Chris Farley. I was in motivational speaker sketches, and that’s like being on acid in front of your parents. Because you were laughing on live television, he [touches] your hair, your wig goes crooked. Chris was so funny, he knew when the camera was not on him. So when it wasn’t on him he’d only talk to you cross-eyed and you’d start laughing again.
And I remember between dress and air for the Spanish motivational speaker sketch, Lorne goes “MJ, can we not laugh during the sketch.” I was like “You got it.” Sure, I’ll just not laugh at an absolute planet in front of me. And he was a planet. A beautiful, beautiful life-giving, warmth-providing planet. The most beautiful man I ever met in my life was Chris Farley. And I was not friends with him, he was just beautiful. He was just a beautiful man.
Would Chris have been part of Adam Sandler’s crew if he was still around?
I don’t know if Chris would be a part of that crew. I know that Chris had an Oscar in him and he would have done something where he wins an Oscar. He was different, he wasn’t like those guys. But he loved having a good time and he really needed to be loved and needed to be liked.
There was a Tinkerbell quality, he flies and there’s just applause and laughter. But there was also really deep water. There was a well beneath the well that he was aware of and (writer) Fred Wolf was always trying to tell him, “You’re something much bigger than this, you just have to get with it.” It’s just his life ended too soon. He would have been an incredible dramatic actor.
How much confidence did you get from your performance in Jerry Maguire?
I don’t know if the movie gave me confidence, it’s more Cameron Crowe, Richard Sakai, Jim Brooks and Tom Cruise gave me confidence. Tom in my audition with [him] tried to murder me with that scene. He wasn’t like walking me through it, he was getting fired and he was angry about it and he tried to kill me.
It was one of those moments in your life where you say, Oh, I’m up against a club pro here I can either freak out or I can just concentrate and hit it straight. And I went, Well, I’m going to murder you back, and I remember in that audition there was two lines in a row like “I came here to fire you”, then there’s a pause and it says “It’s real, you should say something.” I waited excruciatingly long between the two lines and when they thought I had forgotten my lines, Tom knew I didn’t forget my lines, we were locked in and I was just staring back at Tom Cruise and I wanted it to be really uncomfortable and it was and right when I blew my top, and when I thought somebody might call out the lines, I said, “It’s real, you should say something.”
I felt a relief in the room and I actually thought, I just got this part, nobody is going to do what I just did. So that gave me confidence to be able to be with Tom Cruise and the connection with him where I didn’t have to explain what I was doing and he knew what I was doing, gave me incredible confidence.
It was a weird moment [in] show business where people unknowingly gave me validation that I needed to keep going to the next level. I’ve always had confidence, annoyingly so, and I think that’s what got me that initial stage of auditioning for Jerry Maguire. But it’s when somebody like Tom trusts you enough and says ‘No, I’m not going to take it easy on this guy, I’m going to kill him.’ That’s when it gets going.
Is Norm Macdonald always on?
He’s definitely not always on. He’s rarely on to the point where he’s such a dog whistle for comedy, that if you’re not aware of the dog whistle, you think he’s actually insane. I followed Norm into certain towns when I was doing a lot of stand up in between season one and two of Gary Unmarried.
Almost to the place, they would say to me ‘Norm Macdonald was here a couple weeks ago, he was really out of it, he’s on drugs’ or ‘He was gay.’ Over and over and over, no matter what town it was. They’re like ‘Do you know him, that was really uncomfortable?’ In my mind I thought, he just didn’t want to talk to you and your mundane commonness, because there’s nothing common about him. Then when I saw his next special after that, which was perfect, I went, Yeah, of course. Of course now you’re talking to these people. He didn’t want to mess with the frequency that he’s on.
I think he’s one of the greatest stand up comedians to ever live. I think if he was in the 50’s he would have been a movie star. He’s got 1950’s movie star good looks. I just love watching him and talking with him. He’s very deep. He’ll be silly and then when he asks you questions, he really wants to know the answer. He’s not big on small talk in my experience.