Monday, October 23, 2006

Studio 60: Warm-up act

While we're waiting for her agent to talk our Studio 60 Live Blogging Hostess into leaving her trailer and fulfliling the terms of her contract tonight (My lawyers are standing right here, Shakes.), a bit of Studio 60 backstory trivia.

Episode week before last, one of the plot threads involved a bit that had been stolen word for word from an obscure nightclub comic's routine. DL Hughley's character, Simon Stiles, delivered the monologue during the news. At the end of the broadcast, Bradley Whitford finds out from Christine Lahti who has discovered the rip-off via the wonders of the Internet and YouTube. This sets up a mad scramble to pull the bit from the west coast tape, interrupt their own show with a live broadcast, and cover the now dead airtime with an apology and some new jokes.

This is all very breathtaking and exciting because no one has ever done a live feed before, apparently. (Meanwhile, the network's entire news department's rolling on the floor laughing.) And it turns out not to have been necessary. They find out the material was stolen by the guy they stole it from and he stole it from a guy who used to write for Studio 60. The bit was written for the show but it never aired. This means the network owns the material. Lawsuit averted. Phew.

So. Over the weekend I'm reading Gasping for Airtime: Two Years in the Trenches of Saturday Night Live by Jay Mohr. Mohr---Last Comic Standing Mohr, Action Mohr, voice of Christopher Walken on an episode of The Simpsons Mohr, Go Mohr, which is my favorite Mohr---was a featured player on SNL for two seasons in the early 90s.

He hated the gig.

It literally made him sick.

The schedule was and is a killer and not everyone's cut out to handle it, which I think is a knock on producer Lorne Michaels' stubborn commitment to tradition not on anyone who can't handle it. As Mohr points out, the schedule for producing the show was set during its first couple of seasons when everybody was coked out of their minds. But what really got to Mohr was that he couldn't get his material, or his face, on the air.

Weeks would go by when he had nothing to do.

Other weeks he would write a sketch that made it over all the hurdles, the pitch, the table read, the first rehearsals, the dress rehearsal, only to see it killed before showtime on Saturday night because there wasn't enough time or someone decided that another sketch worked better or had Chris Farley in it, which in everybody's mind at the time was the same as a sketch that worked better.

Other writers weren't putting Mohr in their sketches, which is how performers get on a particular show. The writer of the sketch casts them. That's why it was good to be a writer/performer...or to be Chris Farley.

At any rate, Mohr was growing desperate, watching himself disappear from the show, watching, he thought, his career disappear. He was frustrated, scared, at his wit's end, and he was beginning to doubt himself to the point that he couldn't follow through on any of his ideas. He couldn't write because he couldn't see the use.

Mohr was still doing stand-up while he was working for SNL. One week, just to have something to say at the pitch, he wrote down word for word a routine he saw another comic do at a nightclub. It wasn't a Weekend Update bit like on Studio 60. It was about an Irish bartender who insulted all his patrons. At the pitch, the meeting with Lorne Michaels at the beginning of the week where all the writers tell Michaels their ideas for the upcoming show, Mohr did the bit.

It killed.

Mohr was shocked. He'd expected it to die like everything else he'd been pitching lately. But he wrote it up and submitted it for the table read on Wednesday. He figured, given his track record, no way the bit would make it out of there.

Guess what.

And it made it through rehearsals and it made it into the final dress and it made it on the air.

In the early 90s there was no World Wide Web so there was no immediate shout of outrage from the comic.

But the comic eventually heard about it and SNL's producers eventually heard from the comic's agent. He was threatening to sue.

I'm not telling tales on Mohr here. This is from Mohr's book. Mohr's telling on himself.

Three weeks later the SNL's supervising producer, Ken Aymong, led Mohr into a meeting.

On top of a cabinet was a television and a VCR. Sitting in front of the television was Lorne Michaels.

Ken asked me if I knew a guy named Rick Shapiro. I told him I did not. Ken then pressed play on the VCR, and in front of me on the monitor was a video of Rick Shapiro doing his act. On the tape in the VCR, he was doing the Irish bartender sketch. He was doing it exactly the way I copied it. Ken let the tape play a while. Finally Lorne asked me, "You've never hear of this guy or seen his act?" I replied that I had not. Lorne nodded his head and Ken Aymong turned off the VCR. Lorne looked at me for a second and said, "Okay." And I walked out of the room.

Mohr wasn't fired. And he still doesn't understand why not. It's doubtful Michaels believed him. Nobody else believed him either.

...the reputation for being a thief followed me for quite a while in the only place I had ever felt comfortable: the comedy clubs.

The comic did sue. There was a settlement. Mohr doesn't know its details.

No point to this. Just found it interesting. I wonder what Mohr thinks about the story of how he stole a routine for Saturday Night Live being stolen by Aaron Sorkin for Studio 60.

And I wonder what the comic he stole the sketch from thinks.


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