Actor and comedian Jon Lovitz hasn’t been on Saturday Night Live since he ended a five-year run in 1990, but some of the characters he played are cemented in fans’ minds forever. Tommy Flanagan: The Pathological Liar, was one of them, a slick purveyor of false information that supported his untruths with the line, “Yeah, that’s the ticket!” Annoying Man, and Master Thespian were a couple of the other characters fans embraced.
Over the years, Lovitz has starred in a slew of movies, as well as TV shows including News Radio and Friends. His distinct voice has earned him a substantial resume of voice-over work. The Critic — in which he voiced lead character Jay Sherman, a movie critic forced to watch the most pathetic movies ever — still has rabid fans who long for the show's return.
Right now, Lovitz is on tour performing stand-up that has him riffing on current events — mostly how he is dealing with all the things in the world that are "new to him" that he’s learning to understand. New Times caught up with the comedian in advance of his Friday, April 28, show at Talking Stick Resort.
Hi Jon. Let's start off by talking about your current show and what guests can expect that night?
Well, I don't do characters from Saturday Night Live, it's not that. I started doing stand-up about 13 years ago and it doesn't really work to do the characters. This is just me and my opinions about different things going on in the world. Same topics that other comics talk about; just my take on those things. You know, politics, political correctness, words you can't say these days. I'm friends with Caitlin Jenner, so I talk about that. You know, just how things in the world are changing. I also play the piano and sing funny songs. It's rated R, so definitely a show for adults.
You just said you don't do characters from SNL; I didn't assume that you did. Did you bring it up because you find that it's something people often expect?
Yeah, sometimes people do ask me.
Those pivotal points in a career can be hard to live down. I imagine, for some fans, that expectation will always be there, or be a hope.
Yeah. I understand, but doing the characters would just be repeating the past over and over. I get that people love the characters. With stand-up, you can do whatever you want. I wanted to make it different than acting. It's more personal, how I feel about different things or how I'm trying to understand how the world has been changing. To me, like right now, it's changing a lot. It's like how in the '60s we had the hippies, and the Vietnam War, and my parents' generation were just like "What the hell?" I feel like that's happening again. Major changes, and I'm trying to understand it all. There's a lot of extreme stuff that happened back then that eventually just became normal and part of the mainstream. All the stuff happening now seems outrageous but in 30 years will seem normal.
But just because the extremity may hit largely in these cyclical waves doesn't mean we should be any less concerned about the things we face today
Well, it's different things to different people, but it hit me that it's changing again. To me the comedy is in trying to understand it. It's like Bruce Jenner. I joined this club and was friends with him for five years and then he transitioned to Caitlyn and now I'm friends with her. That was a change to get used to. I have never known anyone before that has undergone a gender transition. To everyone it's a big news story, but to me, it's my buddy at the golf range. It's an extreme change. I don't know how much more you could change. I realize, to me, it's extreme, but of course it wouldn't affect my friendship with her. It's become more about understanding her and what she's going through. I actually said that to her the other day, I go, "I don't make fun of you, I make fun of me trying to understand it, trying to understand you, I don't understand you." And she said, "I don't understand you," which was the funniest thing ever. I tell her all the jokes and she gets it and thinks it's funny.
What do you think has changed for stand-up comedians?
Nowadays, it's all about you can't say this or that. Anyone who knows comedians at all knows that as soon as you tell them they can't say something, they are just gonna say it times 10. Once I hear that I can't say something, it's like, well, now I have to. The whole political correctness thing makes you seem like you're trying to be edgy but really, you're just saying stuff you aren't supposed to say anymore.
Well, even my agent said that I shouldn't talk about transgender issues, because Chapelle did and got shit for it. I don't want to apologize for it because it's something that I'm trying to understand. I make my point clear — I understand it's a real issue for people, becoming transgender. I just admit that there's certain things I don't understand. There's nothing wrong with that. I think it's honest. I'm saying it's all me. I don't think anyone should be bullied, or marginalized, or made fun of. There's just some things I don't get. Isn't that the whole point?
Right, we don't all come with an inherent understanding of each new landscape we encounter, but there are ways to approach things.
Right, and I think that's by bringing things up, not ignoring them. I think through talking about the things I don't understand right off the bat, I've learned about myself. I also feel like these days, people are encouraging respect for all different types of people more than ever before and that's great, no matter what I do or don't understand. I like to laugh at myself and make fun of myself and see my own follies.
Your career began well before you brought stand-up into the mix.
I did a lot of acting in high school, and then I went to college and did a lot of plays. I got a degree in drama and I was gonna start doing stand-up and I went to this comedy workshop in LA and this guy told me not to be a stand-up if I was thinking about getting into sitcoms.
So, what did you do?
I decided I'd skip the stand-up comedy and focus on acting. I went to New York for a while, did a play and some other things. I was about 25 at that point. I came back to Los Angeles and started at the Groundlings, did a play, and worked up to their main company. This was in the '80s. I was doing my Liar character and it got great reviews. The Groundlings got booked on the Tonight Show and we did some sketches. I was in two of the three that we performed, and that helped to get me an agent. I went on a bunch of auditions, got everything I auditioned for and he said, "What about SNL?" and I asked him if he was crazy. He was serious. I figured I'd have a better chance landing on Pluto. That was 1985. I was doing a movie with Charles Grodin at the time and he recommended me to Lorne Michaels, and Laraine Newman from the original cast also recommended me to Lorne, so I think that helped. Laraine had also been in the Groundlings.
Is your time at SNL a fond memory for you?
Yeah. It was amazing. It was like being in college again. It was hard, it was fun, it was everything. It was competitive and life-changing.
There are so many different recollections from cast members regarding their own experience on the show; it's always interesting to hear about each one
I think people stay close to the people they were in a cast with, after going through all that together. Being on TV, competing to get on air — it's like the college experience. Every week you're also getting to work with so many diverse hosts. Live television, I think, is the most exciting thing ever.
Do you find that stand-up gives you that same sort of satisfaction, being that you're also in front of a live audience?
In a sense, but being out there alone, just me, is different. It's more like a one-man play. It takes a long time to learn how to do it, lots of practice. I'm doing shows that average around an hour in length — there's so much to figure out. First you have to figure out who you are onstage, think about who you're talking to, what you have to say about things, what order to go in, even how to master a microphone, the pacing. As far the freedom goes, the sky's the limit. The show is 100 percent you. When it works, you're ecstatic. When it doesn't, you feel like an idiot. There's nobody to blame but you.
Working in so many different realms, what do you enjoy the most?
They're all fun and so different. Stand-up, probably, overall. You can just be funny the way that you're funny. It's not about ego, just about full expression of your writing and performing. You can change it to work better, if you need to. There's a sense of control that you don't have in other mediums. I've been cut in movies to where the context is lost and that can be frustrating. Sometimes in a movie, things get cut and it's like you made a painting and then in the end, people only get shown a corner of the painting.
How do you deal with that?
You just learn to — you have to. Until you see the movie in a theater, you don't know what gets left in, or what gets cut. You hear stories all the time about actors renting a theater, inviting friends and family to come and see this great part they did, and then their part gets totally cut out. It happens all the time. You learn with the movie-making experience, you have to let it go. They may not use any of it. You just learn to enjoy the experience of making the movie.
What gave you the final push into doing stand-up?
I like the directness — going right to your fans. People like Dennis Miller and Dana Carvey told me for years that I should do it. I watched them do it and they were so great and it just seemed so overwhelming. I wanted to, but it was so nerve-wracking at first, so hard. I went to the Laugh Factory and they were very supportive. I met Dane Cook. I didn't know him before that. He was also very supportive and I'm so appreciative of that. I did sets for a bit and thought it was so hard and stopped and then after a few months I was determined to do it. Laugh Factory gave me more stage time, which helped me develop my act. Because it's such a direct experience with fans, I wanted to do it right. I didn't want to just get out there when I wasn't ready. I did that for a couple years before I went on the road. I've been on the road now for 11 years. When I feel good about it, I'm in a good mood, and that helps the audience be in a good mood and have fun. It's about respect to them — they're spending their money on these tickets and they want to have a fun night out. I like making people laugh. That's the bottom line for stand-up. I get a kick out of it. I've always been like that.
Speaking of being direct with fans, you are very active on Twitter. You seem to take time to respond to everyone.
It's fun. Mostly, they say nice things. I think it's a great place to connect with fans. Of course, you get some negative comments. Friends told me to ignore these people, which has turned out to be good advice. I try not to engage with the negative stuff anymore. It's hard to know someone's tone. There have been times I've responded to something that seemed negative and the person apologized and said they were just trying to be funny.
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What else do you have cooking?
Touring right now, which is going so well. I'm doing some shows in Vegas with Dana Carvey. Doing some voice-overs, including the HBO show Animals. A variety of things. I did Celebrity Apprentice. It's not what I do, but I did learn a lot about branding. Everyone was nice on it and Arnold Schwarzenegger is great, but I learned that I don't really want to be on reality shows. I don't like having the cameras there 24/7.
So, you wouldn't do one again?
I don't think so. Right now, probably not. It's not what I do. I'm a performer.
Well, that's about all. I'm sure your Phoenix fans are getting excited to see you later this week.
I’m really looking forward to it. I just feel lucky that people come see me. I don't take it for granted. I'm excited to make people laugh. The show is smart but extremely silly.
Jon Lovitz is scheduled to perform in the Showroom at Talking Stick Resort on Friday, April 28.