Q&A with Jay Mohr of  ‘Gary Unmarried’

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Actor/comedian Jay Mohr has had a lively and varied career. Starting out as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” he attracted attention with dead-on impressions of the likes of Christopher Walken and Sean Penn. Mohr soon starred in the Fox comedy “Action,” where he played vicious Hollywood agent Peter Dragon, a spiritually bankrupt ancestor of the Ari Gold character on “Entourage.”

While “Action” garnered critical acclaim, it never caught on with audiences. From there, Mohr did bit parts in numerous films including “Jerry Maguire” until 2003, when he created and hosted the NBC reality show “Last Comic Standing.” While he relinquished his hosting duties after three seasons, the show remains an NBC success story to this day.

Now, Mohr is returning to television with perhaps the most conventional project of his career. In the new CBS sitcom “Gary Unmarried,” Mohr plays Gary Brooks, a recently divorced father of two who juggles parenthood, his ex and new romance. While the plot might take a different tack, the show itself is straight out of the network’s Ray Romano/Kevin James’ theme of “let’s make dad the butt of all jokes.” Bankrate spoke to Mohr about the new show, and some of the ups and downs of such a varied career.

Bankrate: What appealed to you about “Gary Unmarried?”

Jay Mohr: I love the dynamic of a not-typical family. I like that there’s a show with a divorced parent finding his way. I knew a lot of families like that. And it was funny. The bottom line was, it had to be funny first.

Bankrate: When this was brought to you, were you looking for a specific kind of opportunity?

Jay Mohr: I was employed at the time by “The Ghost Whisperer,” but I’ve always wanted to get back to multi-camera (video production). My first job when I came to Los Angeles was a multi-camera show called “Camp Wilder” with Jerry O’Connell and Hilary Swank, and we went one year. It was pretty bizarre. I didn’t realize how great the hours were compared to making films and single-camera TV like “Action” and “Ghost Whisperer.” So I couldn’t wait to get back to multi-camera comedy … but also because they’re comedies. I’m a comic, and I’m 40 years old, almost. I finally get to walk into a room, say something funny and walk out, and then go home and kiss my wife. I’m not sitting in a trailer at four in the morning wondering why they’re putting up a crane.

Bankrate: So television production is very different from film production?

Jay Mohr: Yes. It’s like, “Why are you hosing down the street?” If you notice, on every car commercial, the streets are wet. It looks better when you film a street that’s wet, always. There’s no exception. Any sitcom, when they pull up to the driveway, everything’s wet. And a water truck is $600 a day.

Bankrate: When you say the hours are better, is there a drastic difference?

Jay Mohr: Yes. I come in (some days) at 10 a.m. and I’m done at 1:30 p.m. Whereas, when you make a movie or if you do a show like “The Ghost Whisperer” on film, you’re looking at a 12-hour day everyday. And every week is different, because each episode is different. For some episodes, it’ll rain at night. So, sometimes you have to be there at six in the morning; sometimes six at night, sometimes both. Sometimes you work five days; sometimes you work one day. So you really can’t do much of your life outside of that. Whereas with multi-camera situational comedy, I have three weeks on, one week off, so I can do stand-up too.

Bankrate: Television really has changed so much since the old days, and this show seems to have that old-fashioned rhythm to it.

Jay Mohr: Yes. I love it. It’s reliable, the show. It’s very funny, and it’s off the beaten path enough that it can still be mainstream funny without losing people. I can use “Action” as an example of something that was way off the beaten path, where it was almost like a niche show. Whereas, this will be on after “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” The two shows go very well together. And we won’t be opposite “Friends,” like “Action” (was). We’re opposite “Knight Rider” instead.

Bankrate: The show falls very neatly into the put-upon husband/father genre, even though you’re unmarried. Why do you relate to the character so well?

Jay Mohr: Gary is in a state of flux, and I was once in that state of flux, albeit briefly, because I was married very quickly after my divorce. But I am where Gary would dream of being in his wildest, best case scenario. I’m remarried. I live with my wife and my son. I have my own place that’s great. Gary has a dumpy, transient, temporary place. So I love that. I can relate because I am where Gary would like to be one day. And fighting with the ex, that’s just hand in glove. You don’t want to, but they seem to make it easy.

Bankrate: Given the show’s structure, is this a calculated attempt at a Ray Romano type of success?

Jay Mohr: Of course. I would love it. I’d love to work here for 10 years. There’s nothing like it in show business. Stand-up comedy is comparable, but it’s a lot longer. You have to stand there for an hour. That’s a long time to stand on stage. Contractually, a comic has to do 45 minutes. That’s a sitcom and a half. (The late comedian) Mitch Hedberg once said, “I’ve never watched a sitcom and said, ‘I wish there was just 15 more minutes of that guy.'” So, it’s better than anything, it really is.

Bankrate: Being a stand-up, is it tough doing a show based on jokes that you don’t write?

Jay Mohr: No, it’s great. These guys are very funny, and it’s also pretty collaborative. My wife (actress Nikki Cox) writes a lot of my punch-up dialogue. I’ll give her the script and say, can you give me five or six jokes? So it’s fun to have a collaborative effort with the writers, and I like to sit with my wife. We’re pretty goofy together. I’ll say (on the set), “You know what would be funny? And they’ll say, “take two,” meaning, “just do it as written once, then we’ll do it three or four more times, and on those takes we can do what you and your wife did laying around in bed.” You might ask, “Why are you and your wife writing jokes laying in bed? There’s other things men do with their wives in bed.” Not me! My bed is a place of humor!

Bankrate: In recent years, conventional sitcoms have increasingly failed to catch on. Why do you think “Gary Unmarried” can buck the trend?

Jay Mohr: Because I think the trend is over. Do you watch “Lost” or “Heroes?” Have you watched from the beginning? I find that whenever I ask people if I should watch “Lost,” they say, “If you start watching now, you just won’t follow it.” It’s not a very ringing endorsement. I think the sitcom is very familiar. It’s comfort food. I think that super-long story arc will still have a home. But I think people need, at the end of the day, to sit and laugh.

Bankrate: You created “Last Comic Standing,” and hosted for a few seasons before you left. Do you have any involvement with, or stake in, the show at this point?

Jay Mohr: I’m a consultant, he said vaguely. I have a vested interested in the success of “Last Comic Standing,” a very vested interest. I root very hard for that show to do well. But if it’s up against “Gary Unmarried,” I’ll smash it.

Bankrate: Why did you leave the show?

Jay Mohr: I was becoming, I thought, that reality host guy, and I didn’t want to check out from doing movies, (especially) as often as I had been doing them. I had a really good run for awhile. Greg Kinnear had a huge stigma attached to him. He didn’t come to Hollywood to host “The Soup.” He came to Hollywood because he was an actor, and that was a job he got. But Greg had to hoof it for a long time. So I tapped out of “Last Comic Standing,” and then I did two movies. I did “The Groomsman,” and I did “Street Kings” with Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker. Neither one of them made a lot of money, but I love both of those movies, and if I look back on my career and my life, I think that’s a very fair trade-off. I wanted to play make-believe for a while.

Bankrate: Out of all the roles you’ve played, which would you say has been most pivotal for you?

Jay Mohr: “Jerry Maguire” was the most pivotal, because it was the first. Bob Sugar was the very pivotal role (that) people still yell at ball games (about), or if I do a concert. I’m going to The Orleans Casino in October and doing their theater, and I’m pretty sure I’ll hear a few people yell “Bob Sugar” that weekend. That was first; nobody really knew who I was. It was an arch nemesis, combined with, “Who is that guy?”