JON LOVITZ'S SECOND ACT
'SNL' alum takes a shot at career reinvention with his Laugh Factory residency
By CARL KOZLOWSKI
You may think you know Jon Lovitz, but you don't. Maybe you think of him like most people do, as one of the prime performers in the Saturday Night Live renaissance of the late '80s, who played a wide array of deceitful yet ultimately lovable characters, ranging from Mephistopheles himself to Tommy Flanagan the pathological liar to the sonorous-voiced Master Thespian. Or perhaps you recall him for the distinctively paunchy, hilariously nasal characters he portrayed in more than a hundred TV and film roles following his stint with the late-night powerhouse. He's one of those rare performers whose mere appearance signals laughter on the way.
Yet that impression is far too limiting, for Lovitz is also a man who can tell a vivid tale of the harrowing days he spent trapped in New York City after 9/11. He can also amaze you with a candid, impassioned defense of his friend Michael Jackson. (Hell, it's stunning to think of Jon Lovitz and the King of Pop being friends in the first place.) And now, he's making a bold leap by opening up his life onstage, taking a swing at standup-comedy success with a weekly Wednesday-night showcase at the Laugh Factory.
He decided to take this creative turn because, at 46, he was growing tired of playing the same types of roles and had experienced occasional dry spells between films. Eager to shake things up for himself, he approached Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada last June. Lovitz's initial performance was so enthusiastically received, Masada instantly urged him to work up a full routine.
Lovitz's performance rests squarely on his shoulders, and for a guy who's built a career on playing insecure losers, he steps up to the challenge in surprisingly strong fashion. Veering from topic to topic on a recent Wednesday – politics to bizarre childhood tales to ridiculously overstated complaints about the state of television advertising – he conveyed a childlike spirit that won over two consecutive crowds, no matter how conservative their politics or stringent their morality. But most of all, his appearances are another example that, in showbiz, it's never too late to reinvent yourself.
"I've seen plenty of comics become actors, developing their persona and career and image through standup before signing a TV sitcom or movie deal," says Masada, who has watched literally thousands of the comedy hopefuls who wander through his club's doors. "[Lovitz] has one-in-a-billion timing that has taken him farther in the past six months than I've seen people go in 20 years of trying. I can see him taking this show to Broadway by the time he's finished here." Masada has given Lovitz an unheard-of yearlong commitment. "Like very few people – Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, and Chris Rock – he can make anyone of any age and any background laugh hard."
Lovitz's journey to the standup world began with what he recalls as an idyllic childhood as the only boy among five kids growing up in Tarzana, where he says his doctor father helped spearhead the construction of the suburb's main hospital. Friends star Lisa Kudrow was a neighborhood friend of his, and Lovitz's father was also the family physician for the Jacksons – as in Michael, Janet, and the rest.
Those experiences helped Lovitz hone a sense of the absurd at a very young age, as well as a fierce loyalty to his friend Michael. One of the funniest bits in his show comes when he recounts the difference between growing up "not a Jew, but Jewish" and the disparities he perceived between his upbringing and that of a macho kid in Texas: "Most boys at 12 go hunting with their fathers, kill a deer, and then learn how to gut them and skin them. I had the same experience with a bagel. My father would come in screaming, 'You're cutting it wrong! Look at all the dough you're wasting!'"
Yet it was around that time, at age 13, that Lovitz saw Woody Allen's classic 1969 film Take the Money and Run and decided he wanted to be just like him.
"I heard his routine and performed that and other Jewish comics like Lenny Bruce's routines in my college dorm, and when I graduated I took comedy workshops on Saturday nights at the Comedy Store," he recalls. "I always wanted to do it but didn't have the guts to take the stage on my own like that, until [fellow SNL alums] Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller told me I should do it, and I heard how much Dana was making at it. Right away, I started hosting shows for [fellow SNL-ers] Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson, and Norm MacDonald. I did 10 minutes first; then they asked if I could do 30."
Lovitz was able to work at getting into SNL because of his father's thorough emotional support. Despite his success as a doctor, the senior Lovitz had really wanted to be an opera singer, and so the patriarch encouraged his children to follow their hearts careerwise. Thus, young Jon headed off to UC Irvine to pursue acting – a professor there served as the inspiration for the Master Thespian – and soon afterward began performing with the legendary Groundlings comedy troupe, where SNL producer Lorne Michaels discovered him.
During Lovitz's five-year run on the late-night powerhouse, he recalls upsetting only one celebrity with a stinging impersonation: iconic gay playwright/actor Harvey Fierstein. Lovitz pretended that Fierstein was hosting a talk show from his boudoir, desperately hustling attractive male guests for physical affection while always being thoroughly rebuffed.
"Harvey didn't like it, and he came in to the show to complain about it," says Lovitz. "His point was that he was getting more famous as me than as him. Watching him, I realized I was doing him quite well. He thought I was doing a gay stereotype," laughs the comedian. "But I only played him one time after that. If it hurts someone, it's not worth doing."
That surprisingly gentle philosophy is rare among today's generation of notoriously mean-spirited humorists, but it allows Lovitz to get away with poking extensive fun at all types of politicians and pop culture. Even when the admittedly staunch Democrat calls on the Republicans in the Laugh Factory crowd to raise their hands and "out" themselves, they do it joyfully and wind up laughing harder at his take on Bush than even the Democrats in the house. And when Lovitz fires off his best riff of the show, complaining about celebrities like Bob Dole or Tony Bennett making ads for penile dysfunction medications, it's hard to find an audience member who isn't doubled over with laughter.
At the end of the night, Lovitz surprises the crowd one more time by sitting at a portable keyboard and pounding out jazz-pop tunes he's written. But even these are childishly dirty and absurdly off-kilter in the best way, as they revolve around another unlikely friend of his – squeaky-clean TV dad Bob Saget of Full House fame – and Lovitz's unfounded impression that Saget is gay. As he spells out one incredibly deluded allegation after another in a voice that could lull an infant to sleep, Lovitz tickles the ivories with fast-jazz fury, transformed by the moment into the all-around entertainer he's always dreamed of being. As the audience bursts into a final round of applause, one senses Masada is right: This is career reinvention at its most exciting, and could very well signal the rebirth of a star.