"Let's sell some tickets!" It's with this enthusiastic cry that comedian and actor Jay Mohr begins, by phone from L.A., an interview. He's referring to his upcoming weekend of standup at the Tempe Improv. With the subject's motives firmly established, the interviewer asks Mohr how life is after Action, this season's splendid, critically acclaimed, idiotically canceled Fox comedy in which he played Pete Dragon, a Hollywood executive of vast and lovable rottenness.
"Life is great after Action," Mohr replies defiantly. "I don't think we could have made a funnier show; it was one of the best times I've ever had. It would have made sense to try it in a different time slot, but.... In TV, you know, you think it's about entertainment, and it's really about selling Tide. If enough people aren't watching, you're not selling enough Tide, and that's it. Anyway, I'm doin' a movie right now called Pay It Forward, with Helen Hunt, Kevin Spacey, Jon Bon Jovi, Angie Dickinson and Haley Joel Osment. So I'm back in the bigs. And I'm really lucky to have comedy as a day job."
Mohr's been working that "day job" for 14 years now, whenever things have been slow. "When the show got canceled, I said to my agent, 'We gotta have some positive cash flow,' and he's really great; within a week, I had a bunch of dates. You know, when other actors don't have a job, they don't work. When I don't have a job, I travel around the country and stay in hotels. Watch a lot of SpectraVision. And try to get out of payin' for it."
He insists his success rate is close to 100 percent on dodging SpectraVision bills. "I just tell 'em, 'I was tryin' to watch, you know, My Dog Skip, and Afro-Whores keeps comin' on. I tried to watch it, but I lost interest after about three minutes.'"
Parts of Mohr's current film, Pay It Forward, are being shot on location in Vegas, where, Mohr claims, he's found great success with a particular machine: "I play the ATM, and I've gotten a lot of cash out of it. I think I've got a secret code or something. You laugh, but next time you're in Vegas, and you take your money out of an ATM, just start screaming. Twenty old ladies'll trample you to get to it."
The Verona, New Jersey, native, probably still best known as the bastardly Bob Sugar, who fired the title character in Jerry Maguire, has appeared in films including Playing by Heart, Go, Small Soldiers, Suicide Kings, 200 Cigarettes and Mafia!, and on television in From the Earth to the Moon, Saturday Night Live and The Jeff Foxworthy Show. In the kids' movie Paulie, he played an onscreen role and also provided the voice of the title character, a plucky little green parrot.
Also in Paulie, Mohr got to work onscreen with one of his idols, Buddy Hackett, who subsequently turned up, superbly, on Action, as Pete Dragon's dissipated uncle/bodyguard. "They were talkin' about casting somebody in the part, and I said, 'Don't cast anybody, just have Buddy Hackett do it,'" Mohr recalls. "And the producers said, 'Let's have him read,' and I said, 'Buddy Hackett doesn't read.' But they brought him in, and in five minutes they said to him, 'Go to wardrobe.' Buddy said, 'I never got a job so fast in my life.'"
When he quotes Hackett, Mohr slips effortlessly into a flawless impersonation of the comic. Starting modestly, early in his career, with an impersonation of Andrew McCarthy in St. Elmo's Fire ("I just make my eyes big and say 'I love her, man!'") he's developed a reputation as one of the best mimics on the current comedy scene. He has a formidable Harvey Keitel in his arsenal, but is especially favored for his Christopher Walken. "I open with Walken," says Mohr. "I used to close with him, but now as soon as I walk onstage, people start yelling, 'Walken! Walken!' So now I do it up front, to take their toys away."
The act isn't all impersonations, however. "Oh, it's filthy," says Mohr proudly. "It's definitely R-rated. It's cathartic for me to get up there and say things that piss me off. It seems like other people get pissed off by the same stuff, 'cause when I say it, they laugh and clap. That's how I know I have my finger on the pulse of annoying things in our society."
And with Walken up front, what's he closing his standup act with these days? Mohr snorts at the question, and launches into a typically restrained response: "Yeah, like I'm gonna tell you. My act is organic!" A pause, and then, "That's probably the faggiest thing I've ever said. See what you've done to me?"
Jay Mohr is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, March 23; 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, March 24; the same times Saturday, March 25; and 8 p.m. Sunday, March 26, at the Tempe Improv Comedy Theater, 930 East University (at Cornerstone mall). Tickets are $12 and $15. For details call 480-921-9877.