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Jay Mohr Got <I>Action</I> Before He Was <I>Gary Unmarried</I>

From deliciously venal Hollywood producer to silly single dad -- oh, how far mighty comic Jay Mohr has fallen. Of course, with his new CBS sitcom yawner Gary Unmarried, Mohr may also fall into a longer run and higher residual checks. But we'll stick with his classic Fox half-hour Action, which crisply dissected Tinseltown with a sharp scalpel.

How sharp? Back in 1999, Action was the first network comedy series purposely and regularly bleeped for language. Which added a certain je ne sais quoi. Some fans do, however, go for the full monty as delivered on Sony's uncensored DVD set, memorializing all 13 single-camera episodes, alongside extras like creator commentaries and a making-of half-hour.

As nakedly venal as the episodes themselves, that featurette starts by excerpting Mohr's lead character discussing a series concept based essentially on himself -- "a TV show about a Hollywood producer, morally corrupt, nobody likes him. I'd have cursing, sexual content, I'd have guest stars running in and out."

Which pretty much describes Action. Mohr's arrogant ladder-climber Peter Dragon is so low in soul that the plot of the pilot has him picking up a hooker on the way to a premiere. Thankfully, she's played by sharp cookie Illeana Douglas, who soon becomes the avaricious exec's right-hand woman and studio confidant, joining his chauffeur/uncle Buddy Hackett.

Action was originally conceived for HBO, which goes a long way toward explaining the tone. The premium cabler hoped to replace its concluding Larry Sanders Show tube satire with a cinema-set slice of life. The production team knew of what they mocked, being led by Joel Silver, the larger-than-life movie mogul behind the Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and The Matrix franchises. And, as a throwaway jibe in one Action episode nicely noted, Silver had also been responsible for Xanadu.

But this was before the roller-disco musical bomb's retro revival and without explanation to clueless viewers as to exactly what Xanadu might be. So the joke, too, flops for them, and the commercial problem is clear. Despite critics swooning over Action's devastating details, the show played as an inside joke about a fairly heartless antihero leading a sleazy, self-involved life. It made Seinfeld look warm and cuddly. Coming off the movie blockbuster Jerry Maguire, Mohr probably offered a modicum more relatability than the show's originally planned star, Oliver Platt, but you'd have to get fractional to find it.

Action was just not a network sitcom in what was still a broadcast-dominated era. Its lacerating lampoonery and pointed pedigree failed to impress the mainstream public. Creator Chris Thompson had come off The Larry Sanders Show and his own troubled ABC vehicle The Naked Truth, while executive producer Don Reo did his own Nielsen swan dive with the class, race and substance-abuse humor of NBC's bus station saga The John Larroquette Show. As Reo declares on the Action DVD, "America actively hated this show."

But there's always at least a cult audience for sharp writing like Action strutted in spades. Mohr's self-promoting Dragon character -- in DVD extras, the actor calls him "the absolute worst human being on the planet" -- could say or do anything, no matter how cruel, thoughtless, tasteless or underhanded. And there's generally serious fun to be had in watching that happen.

"What's funny wins over everything else," series creator Thompson says in the DVD featurette. "If it's hurtful, it doesn't matter. If it's disgusting, it doesn't matter." Good thing, since Action went there, time and time again. One episode has Mohr's producer fighting showbiz rumors about him having intimate relations involving a frog. (Ouch.) In another, he so (guilefully) comforts a closeted gay actor that the man expresses his appreciation in a particularly physical way. (Watch his head leave the frame.) Action was one humongous network standards-and-practices nightmare.

Then add the thrill for pop culture vulture viewers of seeing cynical Hollywood get hit by some of its own ammunition. And the even cheaper thrill of seeing Hollywood types take part. Cool characters lined up for series cameos -- Keanu Reeves in the pilot, Salma Hayek, Sandra Bullock and David Hasselhoff among them. [Ed. Note: Which led to my favorite Sandra Bullock moment ever, when she spouted off against Dragon for making "While You Were Sleeping On My Face." -- Angel]

Maybe it's better, as Mohr says on the DVD, that Action ended as one golden season, rather than lingering on till all the mojo's gone.

And back then, Mohr had his mojo working bleeping great. Watch the evidence streaming free on Hulu.

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