Gasping For Airtime – Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live (2004)
by Jay Mohr

It's hard not to feel sorry for Jay Mohr as he recounts his frustrating two-season run on "Saturday Night Live," during which he struggled with panic attacks exacerbated by the wildly unstructured goings-on at America's favorite comedy show. That is, until you think about the fact that he was on "SNL" at all, making tons of money and building an enviable career without, apparently, doing much.

Mohr himself vacillates between self-pity and gratitude throughout Gasping For Airtime, and the fact that he had it pretty good isn't lost on him. What is lost on him, though, is the fact that he was a bit player during one of the show's least popular eras (that floaty couple of seasons in which Michael McKean, Janeane Garofalo, and Mark McKinney tried unsuccessfully to infuse some new blood into what had become a pretty lifeless affair). So Mohr's memoir is such that you can identify with him (i.e. he was frustrated with his job), but if you take a step back, you wonder why this book exists in the first place.

Not a tell-all, nor a scathing detraction, nor a reverent look back, GFA is, simply, Mohr's view of his life while on "SNL." It's an odd and somewhat refreshing perspective, as Mohr's peripheral status on the show gives him much more of an outsider's viewpoint, which allows the reader to easily follow him into the chaos. In some respects, it's as honest an account as you'll get, since Mohr is only looking to present things as he saw them, not to name and blame. Yet, after reading it (in about two hours), I was left feeling like I was just brought inside something I don't particularly care about.

I can take or leave "SNL," but what drew me to the book was that it's on the cusp of what will surely be a flood of Gen-X memoirs, now that the 90s are comfortably mothballed. Most interesting will be watching my generation, for whom the appearance of coolness has always been of central importance, spill their guts like every other generation has, finally letting everyone in on how it really went down.

So far, I'm disheartened to see that these memoirs reveal this generation to be about as pathetic as we were made out to be in those slackin' 90s. Maybe it's just that the deeper souls haven't revealed themselves in print yet, or perhaps it's characteristic for most people not to speak with real insight about their lives until they're in their 50s or 60s. But as with 40 Watts From Nowhere, Gasping For Airtime mistakes brushes with fame for personal achievement, and subversive behavior for greatness.

Though the book is written with an utter lack of imagination (Steven Tyler from Aerosmith is described as carrying around a mirror, which he looks into "more than someone who lived in a house of mirrors"), it's affable enough, and easy to read with Mohr's recognizable voice in your head (I chose to allow "Paulie the parrot" to narrate).

My problem was more with the disjointed chronology and lack of confidence in assessing the author's overall experience. Mohr can't commit to feeling good or bad about his years on "SNL," so he compromises in both directions, ending up with a wishy-washy tone that dilutes the impact of all his points. He remarks on how patient his costars were in dealing with his whininess while on the show, yet doesn't seem to have really gotten over the need to keep whining about it.

A telling moment comes when Mohr sees a therapist for his panic attacks, and is prescribed Klonopin, with no real therapeutic follow-up. The pill helps him deal, but I was reminded of far too many friends who've tried drug after drug without ever trying to get to the bottom of their problem. I mean, I know it ain't cool to sort out your childhood traumas, but it's much less cool to wait until your midlife crisis to do it.

And so Jay goes along blithely, never really questioning the whys and wherefores but basking in, like, hanging out with Pearl Jam, or seeing Nirvana rehearse. The politics of the show always seem to work against him, yet he doesn't question the fact that he didn't put much heart into his work. His need for approval supercedes his ability to really shine as a unique performer.

By the end, he's stolen another comic's bit to grab a piece of that precious airtime, and even then he doesn't seem to look any deeper than the fact that he felt pressured to produce. Given that his "SNL" legacy amounts to bringing Christopher Walken into the realm of comedic impressions, you'd think he'd spend more time wondering why he didn't ever develop the singularity of some of the more well-known "SNL" stars.

As with most of us slackers, it's because ultimately he was afraid to truly stand out. That was a mighty dangerous thing to do in the cynical 90s.

Review by La Fée