Broadcaster, sports anchor, author and Canadian expat Jay Onrait is in Toronto to promote his newest memoir, Number Two, which is out today. So, it seems fitting that we meet to chat at Dark Horse Espresso, the same downtown cafe where he wrote most of his first book Anchorboy. The 41-year-old Fox Sports Live co-anchor (alongside longtime on-air partner Dan O’Toole) was a TSN mainstay until his 2013 move to L.A. But the warmer climate hasn’t changed any of his fond memories about Canada and his hometown of Athabasca, Alberta—a point proven by the dozens of honest, filthy, insightful and rollickingly hilarious stories about his early life he shares in Number Two. We caught up with Onrait about his writing process, his favourite interviewees and masturbation. Yep.
When you were writing Anchorboy, did you save stories for a possible second book? Or did you realize you simply had more to say?
I didn’t save anything on purpose. I think the first book was more so to cover the span of my work life and what it’s like to work in this industry in this country. My whole point in the first book was that if you want to be in this industry in Canada, you’re going to have to live in a city you never imagined yourself living in. And you should embrace that. When the book was successful and they wanted me to write another one, I wanted to delve into my life in a small town and growing up on the prairies. I had so many stories that I hadn’t told because to me, it’s just how I grew up—I didn’t know that it was different than other people. And the second half of this book is stuff that’s happened to me recently in my new job.
When you were growing up, who were your on-air role models?
My number one role model is David Letterman. His old NBC show was such a revelation to me because it was so different than anything else that was on TV at the time. Talk shows were kind of stuffy and formulaic, but he brought such a different energy to it. It was so cool and formed a kinship between people who watched it. He made me want to be on TV and to do it my own way. As far as sportscasters go, guys like Rod Smith, Fred Hickman and Nick Charles were hugely influential. I love highlight shows. When I’m not hosting one, I’m watching one.
I still sing your ‘Worst Play of the Day’ segment song.
You do? It’s funny, we don’t have the worst play of the day at Fox, but we have ‘The Ones That Got Away’ so I do sing that title with the same tune. It’s all based on an old jingle. It’s the tune from an old jingle for Maisonettes that went [sings] I’m going to catch, catch some raisinettes with the same tune and I used to love it so the worst play of the day is based on that jingle.
The joke’s on me throughout the whole book. You’re either with me or against me. If you can get past it, then you’re good for the rest of the book.
Number Two includes stories about masturbation and shitting your pants. Was there anything too embarrassing to go in the book?
The only thing that was possibly over the line was anything that had to do with me making anyone other than myself look bad. The joke’s on me throughout the whole book. The fact that the first line of the first chapter of the book is ‘I started masturbating at age eight’ is to set the tone for the rest of the book. You’re either with me or against me. If you can get past it, then you’re good for the rest of the book. Nothing will be quite that shocking. I don’t know if it was a good idea, but it’s what’s there.
I think about my parents—they still haven’t read the book—and I just keep feeling sorry for them. They’re in this one a lot more than the first one, and it’s a lot of the stuff they had to deal with, like my dad walking in on me masturbating. He’s going to be horrified, the poor guy. But they say to write what you know and that’s all I really know.
What is your writing process like? How is it different than your on-air prep?
It’s so much more work. For me, the only way I was able to get it done was to set a word count. I read Stephen King’s On Writing and he has this great part where he says he writes 2,000 words a day, whether it takes him 10 hours or an hour, he always makes sure he gets to that number. I had a 1,000 word count. With that, at the end of 4 months, I had 80,000 words, which is a whole book. It was just a first draft and bad, but you need to have those words on paper. You can go back and reshape from there. The words find you once you start to write.
Getting into your on-air work, when did you first realize that you and Dan O’Toole had such great chemistry?
Really early in the process, almost immediately. We both have a very similar philosophy about how the show should be done. We were less goofy about it than I think people realized. To this day, it’s still very important to us to actually get the information out. Amidst the silliness, by the end of the show we want you to feel informed about what happened in sports the night before. We wanted to be the exact same people at all times. Viewers can see through someone who isn’t genuine. That’s why we did our ‘Ya Blew It’ segment, because we’re not perfect. It ended up being one of the most popular segments we did.
What would be your ultimate sports headline to report on?
Oh, great question. The Jays in the World Series would have been great. I’d love to keep going to the Olympics—I’m obsessed. In the book, I talk about going to Sochi. It’s funny when you’re there with CTV, who are rights holders, and getting to go absolutely everywhere. Compare that to being there with Fox who are not rights holders, and not being able to even get inside the stadiums. You’re asking athletes to come to your hotel where stray dogs are wandering around. I also mention my family being Edmonton Oilers fans in the book, so to report on a Connor McDavid-led Stanley Cup run would be the greatest thing.
One of the most interesting things I found in the book was that you said you consider yourself a writer first and a broadcaster second. Would you ever leave your on-air job to become a writer full time?
I would if being a writer was something that pays me what I make being a broadcaster. Sure! Until that happens—and I don’t think it’ll happen—it’ll be something I do on the side. But I love it. I love the process and I love to read. It’s so weird writing about yourself. I’m really laying it out for everyone. This sounds clichéd, but I think Quentin Tarantino said that when you hand something in to someone, you should feel embarrassed like everything inside you is on there. I may have taken his words a little too far. This kind of stuff is funny to me so I hope other people think it’s funny too.
If you were to write a fiction novel, what would it be about?
I’ve always wanted to! I’d love to write a series of books about a major junior hockey player coming up and following his trajectory through minor hockey to the NHL. I think it would be cool to write a series of sports books for kids like that where there’s a hero and he does well. It’s an amazing thing to get kids reading. Dan and I always talk about writing a kids book where we’d fight a bear or something like that.
It’s hard to interview someone who wrote an autobiography because a lot of interview questions are easily found in there. I wanted to ask about your best and worst interviews, but I feel like based on your book, Martin Short might be my answer for your favourite.
He really was. But I can tell you one that wasn’t in the book. Recently, we had Pete Rose on our podcast and it was great. He’s the kind of guy that played the game, as they say, the right way. Not being concerned about media or social media, but being focused on the game itself. You could tell that he was generally concerned about the paying fans who came to the game. He felt like he owed it to the fans to go out every night and be the best that he could be. He became the guy with the most hits in baseball just out of a sheer force of will. Those athletes are the greatest athletes. But then he showed me pictures of men with long penises on his phone. It took a weird dirty grandfather turn. That’s my best and worst.
In a podcast you were a guest on, you said that your philosophy about podcasts was ‘don’t prepare and do as little research as possible.’ Is that also your approach to interviews?
Pretty much. [Laughs.] I totally get nervous before interviews, especially if it’s someone I admire and am interested in. I don’t want to embarrass myself, but even when I do it’s never that big of a deal. I love the idea of preparing, but I tend to find that if you connect with someone the questions take care of themselves after a while. It becomes more conversation than an interview. That’s what I love about the podcast, it disarms people and I think we get the best out of them.
What are your tips for a good interview?
Despite everything I just said [laughs] I like to leave a whole bunch of questions on the table so that if things go awry, then at least you have the standard, backup questions ready to go. That’s my number one tip. Also, try to approach the interview in a different way. Watch a few interviews with the person beforehand and then try to go in a completely different direction. Take me, for example: I’m promoting my book, I have a million interviews one right after the other, so you’ll want to go in a different direction. Which you have, by the way. Then the interviewee is going to be excited by different questions. The downside, of course, is that they might not always be okay with it. You have to take a risk, say “fuck it,” and try it.