By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
LOS ANGELES — Anyone connecting the dots to the impressive vitae and past history of one of America’s brightest comics/rock solid actor will not be the least bit astonished that agent “Bob Sugar” in the mid-1990s smash “Jerry Maguire” is on his way to establishing a potent presence in sports talk radio.
Second-year (2009-2010) plotline for CBS-TV’s “Gary Unmarried” called for its lead character to lessen his role as a housepainter as he transitioned to what he had always wanted to do – host a call-in sports radio program. “It is this crazy scenario that I actually wound up doing in real life what I was doing in a make belief sitcom,” remarks Jay Mohr, whose “Jay Mohr Sports” debuted January 2 on Fox Sports Radio.
Writers on “Gary Unmarried” told Mohr they realized that his job literally was to watch paint dry. “It was hard to write jokes when a guy is painting walls,” he deadpans. “They thought being a sports talk host would be a good fit.”
On roughly four-dozen occasions, Mohr had guest-hosted for Jim Rome and when news broke that “Romey” was leaving for similar duties at the newly-launched CBS Sports Radio Network, Mohr wasted no time in taking action. “I told my manager that I have to sit in that chair,” the Espy Award winner for MTV’s “Lip Service” declares. “The stars aligned and it was time for me to see if I could land my actual dream job. I did a few test shows, then several more, and I learned how little I really knew about radio. When you are a comic, you never think you have much room for improvement – but boy was there. Hopefully, I have improved and people will be happy with it – I know that I am.”
Perhaps more so than any one else, the phenomenally clever Rome was responsible for elevating the quality level of a national sports talk program, yet Mohr does not feel any pressure replacing him. “I had quite a few trial-runs on his show in that format,” he reasons. “By the time I got to do ‘Jay Mohr Sports,’ it was almost like pinch-hitting 50 times and being asked if I think I can play. I thought we were working toward that.”
Each time Mohr substituted for Rome, it was with an eye on the bigger picture. “I thought if I could keep doing this, one day I might be able to do it for a living,” he remarks. “I listened to Jim for many years and he really changed sports talk radio. He made it fun again. My job is to reset the dial a little and bring everybody back to the fun part of it.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the sample size is a scant two months, Mohr assesses the experience thus far as being “incredible” for the daily, three-hour (12:00 noon – 3:00 pm, ET) broadcast that quickly ramped up with a highly commendable 125 affiliates. “The chart for this looks like a ski jump and that is exciting,” he comments. “The corporate guys are saying that what is happening with the show is amazing. It seems I have partnered up with the right horse in this race. I am a comic – I usually work an hour a night and make drunks laugh.”
Sometimes the venue for that facet of his livelihood is a theater; sometimes it is a club; and other times it could be a casino. Wherever it is, a performer in such settings has the advantage of receiving immediate feedback, but the host-executive producer of NBC-TV’s “Last Comic Standing” explains that doing a radio show is completely different. “We play to a smaller audience in the immediacy, but to millions in the long term,” Mohr comments. “My hope is that our board-op lifts up his head and smiles. It is like Rachael Ray, who talks to the camera her entire life. You realize she is in a room with four people.”
Wrestling with Formatics
Among the most pleasant revelations of Mohr’s new on-air radio assignment is that he gets to have conversations with a wide array of sports stars and sports figures. “I walk in and find out I’ll be talking to [Dodgers manager] Don Mattingly, followed by Kenny Florian from the UFC,” he notes with amazement. “Really – that’s what I get to do? Okay – I’m in. You forget how enormous a benevolent conglomerate Fox Sports is. People will actually talk to you.”
Recent announcement by the International Olympic Committee that it was taking wrestling out of the Olympic Games really struck a nerve with Mohr, who is a former wrestler. “That’s my favorite sport, but let’s be honest – no one ever talks about wrestling on sports talk radio,” he laments. “This is one reason why I was hired and where the playbook comes into play.”
Moreover, such situations enable Mohr to rely on the vaunted expertise of FSR senior vice president of sports programming Don Martin. “He helped me with things I didn’t know,” Mohr admits. “Don said that I could absolutely go off on the IOC, but before getting into it, I should let everyone know that I would be [covering] other topics like the NBA and the NFL Hall of Fame. That was something he taught me, so I promoted that we would [address] those things – but first – I went nuts about the IOC getting rid of wrestling.”
Part of Mohr’s on-air tirade was mentioning how vital wrestling was to him in his youth. That particular segment turned out being a particularly special day for callers. “Parents told us their kids were in gangs but wrestling straightened them out,” he recounts. “I like doing the interviews because I get to ask questions that others are not. I would like to think that is something new and fresh that I can bring to the table. Don gave me the playbook with which to succeed. Days when all hell breaks loose or something weird happens with the phones, we just fall back on that playbook and we’re okay; ‘In Don We Trust.’”
Not many other sports hosts will put basketball standout Kobe Bryant on the spot by naming his favorite Wu Tang Clan member or have NY Giants defensive end Justin Tuck pick the winner of a mythical tussle between former Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight and volatile basketball coach Bob Knight. “It makes people laugh and lets them know it isn’t the usual haircut,” Mohr maintains. “They won’t be asked the usual, dreadful questions. People always ask how someone feels when they hit the winning homer or score the winning shot. What do you think they are going to say, ‘Hungry?’”
Can You Hear Me Now
Growing up in New Jersey, the now 42-year-old Mohr would read sports pages aloud as if he were doing the news. “That was before all the sports talk radio really happened,” he recounts. “My one discernible skill is that I can talk incessantly. My paycheck is predicated on me being needed to talk nonstop for a three-hour period about what I love the most. Whatever happens, I can’t shut up. Everything that got me kicked out of class when I was in school is now propelling me into my stratosphere of happiness.”
Fondly counted among his early influences was former WABC, New York “Sportstalk” host Art Rust, Jr. “He had a mellifluous voice and would do the Yankees post-game show,” Mohr points out. “It was just the way this man from across the river spoke that would make me listen in my bedroom. He was talking about the same things I liked and that really connected with me.”
Especially given Mohr’s East Coast roots, appearing on legendary morning drive personality Don Imus’ syndicated simulcast had to have been a benchmark milestone. “Imus is one of the funniest guys you could ever run into,” Mohr unequivocally asserts. “If you are a real club comic who came up in very tough rooms, you have that ‘we have to shovel to get out of this’ mentality. You know what it is like to really, really work for it. Guys who have not been hardened can get scared away.”
As soon as Mohr showed up for his introductory shot on Imus’ wakeup program, “The I-Man” seemed to take a liking to the comic, but Imus really warmed up to Mohr when he was gutsy enough to make fun of his hearing. “I didn’t know what else to do,” Mohr concedes. “You must remember that he is wearing [an Interruptible Feedback device], he has a control room talking to him, and he is getting weather reports in his ear. If you do some joke that doesn’t get a laugh, you can either wilt – or – say, ‘That was funny Imus – give it up – you look like Andrew Jackson.’ I thought the latter was the way to go and he got it. Sometimes emperors like to be told that they are not wearing any clothes. I just took him to the carpet and he loved it.”
At the very least, Mohr is of the opinion that he and Imus have become fast radio friends. “If he ever called me and needed a favor, I would do it without any hesitation – but I don’t want to get crazy and give the man a kidney,” Mohr jokingly points out. “His charity work is so outstanding. He is [peerless] in the work he does for [the Imus Ranch, which helps cancer-stricken children]. Don Imus is just a great guy and I love making him laugh. It is like being coroneted. When you make someone who has been in the game that long laugh, you know you are doing something, although [a 72-] year-old man who looks like Mick Taylor from the Rolling Stones is not exactly my P1 radio demo.”
Seriously – It’s Only Make Believe
Contrasted to what others must grind out for a living, Mohr’s role as a sports talk radio host can sometimes seem pretty absurd to him. “People pay us to play make believe,” he practically whispers. “I cannot take all of this so seriously. At some point, we were all little leaguers. When interviewing someone who is doing it professionally, I just talk with him or her honestly and comfortably. When you work with giant movie stars and are in small spaces with them, you just don’t care after a while. Eventually, you have to ask them about things like the weather.”
As fanatical as Mohr was regarding the amount of sports he watches, he jests that it “was weird” that he was not being paid for it. “I am not doing anything that I wasn’t doing before – only now I have a job talking about it,” he states. “I don’t feel there is any ‘local’ radio anymore, so it is important for affiliates to feel they can count on me, lean on me, and rely on me. Whatever town a team is from that is playing ‘your’ team, you have a vested interest in that visitor. You are knowledgeable in national sports. You can only be ‘local,’ if all you know is your team and you don’t know who they are beating.”
Taking “Jay Mohr Sports” on the road remains a distinct possibility, as the comic could combine stand-up appearances with meeting his affiliates. “I’m used to going out, shaking hands, taking pictures, and having a great time with everybody,” Mohr emphasizes. “It is not a stressful thing to have lunch with our affiliates and ask them what is happening in their market. It is what I do for a living and what I did before this ever happened. I only recently learned that apparently that is the part many others like least about the job. To me, thanking people is the fun part of the job.”
At the conclusion of nearly every one of his stand-up engagements, Mohr repositions himself in the lobby so he can conduct meet and greets with the audience. “If they don’t come, you don’t get paid,” he matter-of-factly states. “If an affiliate wants to carry me instead of a local program, you can bet your bottom dollar that I am going to look that person in the eye and really thank them. They can do anything they want with that time slot and if they give it to me, I can promise they will get sincerity, a lot of laughs, and they won’t find anyone who is having a better time.”
Priceless Personal and Professional Partner
Extreme likeability and genuine off-the-charts cordiality aside, an abundance of reasons exists for Mohr’s typical male fans to be jealous of their favorite sports talk host. After all, he gets to do what he loves for a living – which is to talk about sports; still is applauded for his spot-on Christopher Walken and Dick Vitale imitations while a 22-year-old “SNL” cast member; and he starred in one of the most consistently-hilarious sitcoms ever to be canceled after just two years. Aforementioned “Gary Unmarried” was January 2009′s People’s Choice Award for “Favorite New TV Comedy,” but that might have been the kiss of death as it received its pink slip from CBS 16 months later.
Jealousy, however, turns to pure, downright envy when those male Mohr partisans realize that, for the past six years, the comic has been married to one of the most gorgeous women on the planet, actress Nikki Cox, who uses her significant creativity to play an integral part in Mohr’s success. “She is no longer the world’s best-kept secret,” Mohr says of the stunning Cox, who, on “Las Vegas,” portrayed Mary Connell. “As I slept on an airplane, she wrote three chapters of my last book, ‘No Wonder My Parents Drank: Tales From A Stand-up Dad.’”
Two of those chapters were used by Simon & Shuster to sell the book in 2010. “If she were in a writing room for any show in any era, she would dominate,” Mohr boasts. “There is no question about that whatsoever. She is next to me during the radio show as the co-writer and co-writes my stand-up comedy shows, as well.”
Radio Exit Appears Implausible
All too often, big-name, non-radio talents are recruited for jobs in the medium only to tease the audience briefly before returning to other projects, but Mohr insists, “I have a contract and I am not looking past this. There is a lot of noise and you have to find the signal in that noise. Honestly, I have turned off the sitcom and movie noise to concentrate on the radio show; those other doors are closed right now. I cannot be on the phone trying to figure out how I am going to leave a studio at ‘this time’ to be on a movie set at ‘that time.’”
Noteworthy nonetheless is that Mohr (“Rick The Implausible”) is part of the huge cast (Steve Carell, Jim Carrey, Alan Arkin, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi, Brad Garrett) of “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” which is being released the middle of this month.
Even the consistently quick-witted Mohr has been unable to identify the most challenging aspect or greatest downside of being a sports radio talent. Although the rest is factual, one particular portion from a story he frequently imparts is untrue and his wife always rights the ship. “She said I have to change it, because that was not how it happened – but the way I tell it makes it funnier,” Mohr maintains. “She reminds me that I have to tell the truth or I am through. Therefore, I am being honest when I say there has not been a negative day or a negative part of a day with this job. There is a really cool, produced opening to the show that says how kick-ass I am and there are clips of funny things I’ve said and then I get to work.”
It is Mohr’s contention that it is unimportant to him if he ever gets his picture taken again. “If I can ride off into the sunset doing sports talk radio, stand-up gigs, and the corporate shows – which are amazing – I will be extraordinarily happy,” he emphasizes. “Sleeping bare at the Country Bear Jamboree and doing sports talk radio are the only jobs where you can actually show up in your pajamas.”
Only about a dozen episodes were ever seen – and at that, it has been 12 years since the Fox sitcom that featured comedy legend Buddy Hackett aired – but Mohr’s starring role as the despicable “Peter Dragon” in “Action” is still remembered as a cult classic. “Some great fastballs right down the middle have been grooved for me and I’ve been able to take many good cuts,” Mohr humbly downplays. “No one could ask for the amount of opportunities I’ve had. Now, I get to sit around and talk sports. It isn’t rocket science or Shakespeare. This is the greatest job in the world – it is dreamland.”
Mike Kinosiancan be reached at Kinosian@Talkers.com or phoned at (818) 985-0244.