Jon Lovitz: Standing Up For Himself
By Paul Freeman
Over the past 25 years, one of the funniest figures of film and TV has been Jon Lovitz. Now he’s focusing on bringing laughter to live audiences, via his relatively new standup career.
Standup would seem to be a perfect avenue for Lovitz, but he’s only been doing it for six years.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re naturally funny,’” Lovitz said. “Even if you’re talented at it, it doesn’t mean anything, if you’re not going to work at it. I had to really work my ass off and learn how to do it.
“Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, but I guarantee you, he’s been running for years. Is he fast? Yes, but he still has to know how to run a race. He has to practice. If he just sat around all day eating burgers and getting fat, I don’t care how fast he is, he wouldn’t win.”
Friends like Dennis Miller had long been urging him to enter the standup arena, but Lovitz was nervous. “Finally, the movie roles started drying up and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to do something to make a living.’ I didn’t want to run out of money. My agent and manager both told me to sell my house and move into something smaller. That was their answer. So I fired both of them and started doing standup.
“It was a combination of something I always wanted to do plus, if I want to maintain my lifestyle, I needed to learn another way of making a living. So fear and desire forced me to try to do this.”
Lovitz didn’t take any shortcuts, however, spending the first two years honing his craft. Though he had studied drama at U.C. Irvine and earned acclaim with legendary improv troupe The Groundlings and “Saturday Night Live,” standup requires another skill set.
“I got a standup agent and, right away, he said, ‘Let’s start doing clubs.’ I said, ‘I’m not ready. People are going to show up to see me and if I suck, I’m not going to get hired back. What’s the point of that? Plus I have to make sure I do a really good show, so people get their money’s worth. Otherwise, I’m ripping them off.
“A lot of comedians at the Laugh Factory said, ‘You know, you could go out right now and make a lot of money on the road, but you’re taking the time to learn how to do it and we want you to know, we all respect that.’ It was really starting over, to be honest.”
SNL pal Dana Carvey contributed his expertise. “He gave me these tips like, ‘Have fun.’ Simple, but huge. Or Dana would say, don’t do a long setup and then one joke and then another long setup and one joke. You want to do a short setup and stay on topic. That saved me years, tips like that.
“Whitney Brown was a great stand-up. I met him on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Lorne Michael had us write my ‘Liar’ routine together. I learned a lot about writing jokes from him.”
At first, Lovitz planned to incorporate his familiar characters into a standup setting. “But they weren’t really working. I don’t know why, if it was too long ago, the way I was setting them up, or whatever. So I had to come up with all new material. I’m glad, actually, Otherwise, I’d just be repeating things I’d already done.”
Standup reveals the real Lovitz. “Instead of it being characters, it’s just me and my opinions on everything. I make fun of myself and religions - including my own - and men and women and relationships, gays and lesbians, politics. I play the piano. I sing funny songs. Whatever I like to do, I’’ll just put it into the act.”
After two years, he hit the club circuit. “Now I go, ‘I don’t know how I thought I was ready then.’ You learn so much more. That’s what so great about that or singing or acting. The fun part is to keep getting better, at least for me, it is. Otherwise, I’d get bored.”
Doesn’t Lovitz’s screen stardom give him a head start towards audience acceptance? “You have an advantage... for about 30 seconds, to be honest. Then you’ve got to be funny.”
He recently opened his own 400-seat comedy club at Universal Studios CityWalk. “It’s a beautiful club. It’s got a whole Hawaiian theme. We have great food and atmosphere and drinks. It’s three floors. I wanted something fun, not just a plain, black backdrop. So we have a backdrop of Waikiki. You wouldn’t actually know it’s a comedy club when you walk in.
“Nothing against any of the clubs I played, because I enjoyed playing them, but I just said, ‘Let’s have a club where we have a great sound system. That’s really important, because you want everybody in the audience to be able to hear the comedian really clearly. Also we have a great microphone. That sounds obvious, but a lot of clubs don’t. If you have a great sound system, you can pick up all the little nuances in the performer’s voice.”
Comedy has been Lovitz’s lifelong passion. “When I was 13, I saw Woody Allen’s movie, ‘Take The Money and Run’ and I wanted to be a comedian. Then when I was 16, I saw the movie ‘Lenny,’ about Lenny Bruce, starring Dustin Hoffman. I thought the movie was so great and I’d never heard of Lenny, so I went to the record store, because I wanted to hear the real guy. Then I saw that Woody Allen had a record. I didn’t know he had been a standup. So I bought ‘Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years, ‘64-’68.’
“I learned their routines and performed them at my college dorm. That was at U.C. Irvine. I was a drama major there. In imitating their routines, I learned a lot about writing. You learn how to write a joke. I was influenced by them a lot, the way I say something, the timing or whatever. Or Jack Benny, sometimes, I’ll go, ‘Well.... ‘
“After that, I went to a free workshop at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. This was in like 1979. It was the hottest club in town. Robin Williams had just gotten ‘Mork and Mindy.’ The guy teaching the workshop said, ‘They’re not hiring stand-ups for sitcoms.’ I thought it would be a good way to get in. But I believed him. I didn’t know anything. Turned out, they weren’t hiring HIM. But taking his advice, I didn’t go into standup at that time.”
Lovitz enrolled in The Film Actors Workshop, studying with renowned teacher Tony Barr. Lovitz said, “Acting is acting, but there is a big difference between stage and film. They shoot everything out of order. They shoot matching, then up close. It’s a very subtle art. It makes you more real. But the stage helped my film acting and vice versa. And it all eventually helped my standup.”
His experience with famed comedy troupe The Groundlings definitely helped. “That prepared me for everything that followed. You have to take classes at The Groundlings. You have to work your ass off in those classes and it’s very competitive. Then you’re in the Sunday company, if you’re lucky enough to get voted into that. I was in that for a year-and-a-half. You have to work your ass off in that. Then I finally got in the main company. And then you have to work your ass off in that. So none of these steps are easy.
“But everything fell into place. I got into the main company in September of ‘84 and then, in January Of ‘85, The Groundlings had a new revue and I was doing my liar character in it and a couple of other sketches. A producer named Jim McCauley was the guy who found all the comedians and put them on ‘The Tonight Show’ back then - Garry Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld, Roseanne, Jim Carrey, Bill Maher, on and on. With this new Groundlings revue, we got a great review in the Hollywood Reporter and Jim McCauley, unbeknownst to me, came to the show.
“I remember, it was the following Monday and everyone was calling me from The Groundlings, like 20 messages - ‘Congratulations,’ ‘Good for you,’ ‘Good luck.’ But not saying what it is. I didn’t know what they were talking about. So I called Tom Maxwell, who was the artistic director of the theater at the time. I said, ‘Tom, everyone’s calling me, congratulating me. What’s going on?’ He goes, ‘We’re going to be on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ‘Who?’ ‘You.’ I go, ‘What?! When?’ He goes, ‘Thursday.’ ‘You’re kidding!’ We’re both just screaming, ‘Oh my God!’
“He said I was doing my liar character - on ‘The Tonight Show.’ I couldn’t believe it. I was so nervous, because my liar character, half the time it worked and half the time it didn’t. So we go to rehearsal and I said to the director, ‘Look, I’ve never been on TV doing something like that.’ He said, ‘Just play it straight to the camera.’
“We’re in the dressing room, getting ready and I’m still not sure what to do. Jack Lemmon’s in the make-up chair. He’s going to be on the show before us. Morley Safer’s interviewing him for ‘60 Minutes.’ To me, it was like, ‘Oh, this is that world of show business I heard about.’ I couldn’t believe it.
“Morley Safer says to Jack Lemmon, ‘After all these years of acting, what’s the main thing you have learned?’ Jack Lemmon says, ‘Keep it simple.’ So I think, ‘Okay, that’s what I’ll do.’
“Anyway, that appearance got me an agent. He goes, ‘I want to submit you for ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I said, ‘Oh, shut up. Don’t be ridiculous.’ He said, ‘No, I’m serious.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t I land on Pluto? Why don’t I do that?’ He said, ‘I’m going to submit your tape.’ I got mad at him. I said, ‘Would you just shut up? They’re not going to hire me.’ That was the year Lorne Michaels had come back.”
In the summer of 1984, SNL alumnus Laraine Newman saw Lovitz in a show called ‘Chick Hazard, Olympic Trials.’ “They had the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984 and they funded nine theaters to do shows and The Groundlings was one of them,:” Lovitz recalled. “They picked Phil to star as his character, Chick Hazard. I got to understudy a role.
“It was Phil’s idea for me to understudy the part, to get that opportunity. He was like a giant figure at The Groundlings. He was the only guy who had money. He had a car, had a house. Everyone thought of him as a star. And he was a real genius. He was amazing.
“I remember I was out in the hallway and I said, ‘Oh, Phil, thanks for picking me to understudy in the show.’ I’d never met him before.’ He goes, ‘Sure,you’ll be great.’ I said, ‘You know who I am?’ He said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve seen you work. I think you’re great. You’ll be fantastic in the part.’ And then he walked on. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, Phil Hartman spoke to me!’
“He was nine years older than me and I idolized him. And he was the nicest guy in the world. So of course, after that, I was like a puppy dog, ‘Oh, Phil, Phil, Phil. Phil, I want to see your house.’ I wanted to be like him. I admired him totally.
“I asked my agent to get me extra work on soaps, because it was $90 a day, which was a lot of money for me then, because I was making like 40 bucks a day. He said, ‘No, you don’t want to do that. Just wait a few weeks and there’ll be auditions.’
“So one of them was with Charles Grodin for this movie [“Last Resort”] and another was a series called ‘Foley Square.’ Well, I got both jobs the same day. It was amazing.
“So Laraine Newman saw me in the Chick Hazard show. She actually brought John Travolta. I told her it was my first night playing the role. She was blown away. So she befriended me. She recommended me to Lorne Michaels.
“I did the movie with Charles Grodin and I had one scene. We were on Catalina Island. Phil was in the movie, too. I was supposed to leave on a Wednesday to meet with Lorne Michaels. So Charles Grodin - I didn’t know him - he called Lorne and said, ‘Listen, when you meet this kid, can you take a good look at him? He’s really great.’ So he recommended me and that helped me get the show.”
Praise from NBC’s Jim McCauley and SNL writer/performers Al Franken and Tom Davis (the duo had caught Lovitz performing his Master Thespian character with The Groundlings) also helped.
Lovitz chuckled, “Lorne was like, ‘Who is this guy? Everyone keeps saying, ‘Jon Lovitz. Jon Lovitz!’”
The time came to audition for SNL. “I used to do this World War II piece with Tim Stack, who’s like 6’4” and I’d look up at him at one moment, like ‘How did we get in the war?’ I showed it to Randy Quaid.
“I was standing in front of Lorne in the studio and he goes, ‘Well, do you have anything else?’ Randy goes, ‘Why don’t you do that piece about your grandmother?,’ which was the one about World War II. I said okay.
“At the point where I would have looked up at Tim, I looked up at Randy and then I looked back and then I did a double-take at Randy, because I thought, ‘Oh, he’s 6’4” like Tim. And I’m looking at the same spot.’
“That look got me the show. Al Franken said, ‘You know, you were everything we weren’t looking for, in one person. But you were funny.’ ‘What was funny?’ ‘Oh, that look you did at Randy.’ I said, ‘I wasn’t even trying to be funny.’ This was how lucky I was to get on the show.”
Lovitz became a pop culture sensation, thanks to such wildly popular characters as pathological liar Tommy Flanagan.
“No one expected me to be like the breakout of the show that year. Dinah Minot, who was producing the show, she sat me down and said, ‘Here’s who we think is going to break out to become stars,’ which is like meaningless. She said, ‘We think it’s going to be Robert Downey and Joan Cusack and so and so.’ And then it’s me. And I’m like, ‘Huh?’ ”
Of his meteoric rise, Lovitz told Pop Culture Classics, “I thought I handled it okay.
“My Dad called me up on a Sunday and said, ‘Doonesbury did a whole cartoon on your liar character!’ It was surreal. I never got a fat head about it, because, to me, it was like,’Of course, you put anybody on TV every week, they’re going to get famous. So it’s not me. It’s television.’
“I’m not an idiot. I know it’s because of that character and ‘Saturday Night Live’ that I have a career and I have a great life. I’m proud that I succeeded, because I worked so hard. But you have to keep working hard. You can’t ever walk through a part or walk through a show, if you take pride in your work. I don’t take any job for granted... ever.”
His work included a role in his hero Woody Allen’s film “Small Time Crooks.” “My father was very hard on me. He’d go, ‘‘Who do you think you are? Woody Allen?’ That’s when I was like 20. I was like, ‘Well, I wanna be.’
“Then when I got a movie with Woody Allen, I didn’t know if I should do a character or not in the movie, because everyone in it had these thick New York accents. So I was doing it. I was imitating this guy with this thick New York accent. His name’s Cha Cha [John “Cha Cha Ciarcia, Albie of “The Sopranos”]. You can hear him on the ‘Wise Guy’ radio show.
“Woody wanted to talk to me I thought I was going to be fired, because he was firing people, if he didn’t like their performance. That would have been a nightmare for me.
“I did a good imitation of Cha Cha, but Woody didn’t think it sounded real. He called me aside and said, ‘I tell people it’s going to be you and me in the movie and they think that’s fantastic. Guys like us, we’re already funny. We don’t have to do that stuff.’
“I went back to my mark and I started crying, because I was relieved I wasn’t going to be fired. Plus, it’s Woody Allen, saying ‘Guys like us.’ Here’s a guy who was the whole reason I became a comedian. Now he’s saying, ‘guys like us,’ including me in his world of being a comedian. This was my idol, validating my whole life. It was the best.”
Naturally, “A League of Their Own” and “The Wedding Singer” stand among fans’ favorite Lovitz movies. “Benchwarmers” is another that brings ongoing enthusiastic reaction, though primarily from 10 to 12-year-olds. “It was made for that age. It may seem silly, but they have a very powerful connection to that movie, because it’s about them. It’s about kids being picked on and you shouldn’t pick on kids or leave kids out. There’s millions of those kids. And they’re just like, ‘Oh, my God, this movie’s about me!’
“I went to a screening of it and I asked these kids what they thought of it and one said, ‘Best movie I ever saw in my life.’ They were in the theater, thinking, ‘Oh my God, they made a movie about me!’ But that’s Adam [The movie was made by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions]. I can’t take credit. The movie is so silly and funny, and yet it has this tremendous heart to it, saying ‘Don’t be a bully. It’s wrong.’ I know if I was that age and saw it, I’d be like, ‘How do they know?’”
About his movie career in general, Lovitz told us, “It’s tough. I had leads in some movies that didn’t do well. Of course I wish they’d done better. I’d like to do more leads in comedies, as opposed to 10 minutes here and there. That’s just boring to me. I get offered a lot of cameos and I just really don’t want to do that anymore. I can do it. But I don’t enjoy it.”
Lovitz does possess that rare gift of being able to take a small role and make it unforgettable. “It’s a technique where you’re on screen for 10 minutes and you want to score. You go, ‘I can make a strong impression in this part.’ You always want to make a strong impression. But it’s different if you have the lead in a movie and you have time to develop the character over the space of the movie.
“With a cameo, I’m trying to make it memorable and entertaining and also, though, play the story of the movie. You have to keep in mind what part your character is supposed to be playing in the story. And you focus on that.
“I want to make it really real and believable and really fun. I’m not just walking through the parts, in other words. I’m consciously saying, ‘What do I want to wear? How do I want to look? How do I want to speak? How do I want to walk? What part of the story am I telling?’
“Doing a lot of theater and entertaining, you know what effect all this going to have on the audience watching it. It’s not like it’s just random. It’s your job. You say, ‘How can I make this scene work?’ Is it supposed to be funny or sad? How can I make it effect the audience emotionally, one way or the other. And make information come across. And make them believe that this is happening and that it means something to them, that it’s important. That’s your job as an actor.
“The camera picks up everything - everything real and everything false. So, if your focus ever wavers, it picks it up. And if it looks like you’re trying to perform, or act, it picks it up. Unless they’ve tried it, people don’t understand how difficult it is, the subtleties.”
Though standup is his main focus these days, he still welcomes good acting roles. “I didn’t do stand-up to give up the other stuff. I still want to do everything. It’s in addition to...
“I’ve learned that people define you by whatever you do. Not by what you can do. By what they see you do. So you’ve got to to keep creating stuff.”
He costars with Kevin Spacey in director George Hickenlooper’s upcoming dramedy “Casino Jack,” about jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
“I’m basically in the movie throughout the second half,” Lovitz said. “t’s the most I’ve been in a movie in years.
“Kevin’s fantastic in it. I think he’s going to get nominated for an Academy Award, frankly. He’s that good. I’ve known him for years. So it was fun working with him. He’s a great actor.
“I play this guy Adam Kinan, who’s a real person, an associate of Jack Abramoff. I’m not really imitating him. I’m just playing the part that’s written in the script and my interpretation of it, because there’s no film on him and people don’t really know who he is anyway. So that doesn’t matter.”
Lovitz is proud of his work in the film. “I can honestly say that this movie that I just did with Kevin is the best that I’ve ever been, as far as being real. But it’s because of everything I’ve learned making movies up to now.
“Every movie I make, I think, ‘What do I want to achieve? What’s my goal in this movie?, as far as improving on my acting from the last movie. What have I learned?’ That’s what makes it interesting and fun.”
Lovitz has made numerous classic guest shots in TV series, including “Just Shoot Me,” “Friends,” “Two And a Half Men” and “NewsRadio” (where he became a regular in the final season, following Phil Hartman’s tragic passing). He voiced the title character in the critically acclaimed animated series “The Critic.” He deserves a new sitcom of his own.
“I’ve tried over the years. I was in different pilots. But they’re not really doing sitcoms hardly anymore. Not with me, anyway. I kind of blew that. I could have done them earlier and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know. I want to do movies. I don’t want to be that famous.’ Now I’m like, ‘What’s the difference?’ You’re lucky to be that popular. I’d be lucky to have a show that popular. What was I thinking?’
“I would love to do sitcom, like a three-camera show in front of an audience. That would be a lot of fun. And you could have a normal life. When you do a dramatic series, it’s pretty much 14 hours a day, six days a week. That’s just too much. It’s like doing a movie for eight months.
“I can’t do whatever I want. It’s what they’re buying and if they want you. You get hot and then you don’t. I don’t take it personal anymore. It’s all about who can sell tickets. Actually, that’s a more mature attitude.
“When I left ‘Saturday Night Live’ to do a movie, ‘Mom and Dad Save The World,’ HBO was doing it. I said, ‘Well, they know I left the series to do their movie, so they’re really going to get behind it and promote it, right?’ I thought it would be like that. And it wasn’t. The delusion being that you’re working with people who actually care about you and your career. And they don’t. That’s all a bunch of crap. They’re nice people, but there’s no studios or anything anymore. It’s really just business.
“It’s a tough business and everyone’s trying to keep their career going. I understand that now, just running my own club. We have headliners and I say, ‘Well, this guy’s funny, but can he sell tickets? How can we have him headline? We’re going to lose money.’
“You can’t expect somebody to want to put your movie in their theater and then have them lose money. Why would they do that? What do they get out of it? Nothing. It’s a tricky business. They’re taking risks. Even if it’s a known actor, you’re still taking a risk. The whole thing is risky.
“So I understand now if someone says, ‘Jon, so-and-so’s going to sell out my theater.’ I just say, ‘Well, then you should put him in your theater, not me.’ I don’t take it personal anymore.
“It’s tough now. Obviously I’m older. I’m 52. I’m not 28. So obviously I’m not going to get those younger parts. It’s like ‘The Godfather’ - it’s not personal. It’s just business. I understand that now. I get it.
“The audience chooses who’s going to be popular or not. So I’m just grateful that they chose me for a while.”
As a standup, Lovitz is consistently in demand. “That’s the audience saying, ‘We want to see him.’ So that I feel very fortunate about. It’s a great feeling, when it’s hard to get work in TV and movies, but you have these people, fans, who still know you and like you. If I never get hired again, I can always do standup and make a great living.
“My dad was a doctor and successful, but I’ve always worked,. since I was 16. I was a delivery boy for a pharmacy. For years, I had jobs that paid me $5 an hour. I was an orderly at a hospital. I did stock work at a clothing store. I’m just glad I don’t have to back to that.”
So far, what have been the most gratifying aspects of Lovitz’s career? “Saturday Night Live - writing and performing my own material, getting to work with great actors; doing movies - getting to work with great directors and actors. That’s the most satisfying - collaborating and creating stuff. And now the standup - writing and performing my own material.”
Through all career peaks and valleys, Lovitz has connected with the public. That’s evidenced by the comments on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/JonLovitz) and by the tourists who are thrilled to have their pictures taken with him at Universal Citywalk.
“TIt’s amazing to me, that I get people from all over the world coming up to me. And it’s not just people my age. With DVDs, it’s also people in their teens and twenties.
“It’s a great feeling, when it’s hard to get work in TV and movies, but you have these people, fans, who still know you and like you.”