The actor: At his best playing cocky sleazebags, pathological liars, and other guys with far more confidence than their looks or talents warrant, Jon Lovitz is most famous for his stint on Saturday Night Live, where he was part of the cast that saved the show from ruin and cancellation after its early-’80s decline. After five seasons that saw the Groundlings-educated comedian introducing characters like Tommy “The Pathological Liar” Flanagan, Master Thespian, and Hanukkah Harry, Lovitz left the show—against his will—to concentrate on movies, breaking out as the sarcastic scout in A League Of Their Own and taking the lead in the David Zucker-penned spoof High School High. After providing several voices for The Simpsons, Lovitz starred in The Critic, a short-lived, unceremoniously canceled animated sitcom that continues to grow in cult esteem. The murder of close friend Phil Hartman led to Lovitz’s bittersweet role on NewsRadio and an uneasy experience—particularly with cast member Andy Dick—that continues to be a sore subject. After a somewhat fallow post-NewsRadio period in the late ’90s that saw Lovitz relegated to small walk-on roles in films like The Wedding Singer and heading up an ad campaign for the Yellow Pages, he bounced back by doing Small Time Crooks with his idol Woody Allen and contributing the devastating opening scene to Todd Solondz’s Happiness. Those two films paved the way for his new role in Casino Jack, where Lovitz plays the mob-connected co-conspirator to Kevin Spacey’s Jack Abramoff. (Casino Jack is the final film by director George Hickenlooper, who died the day after this interview was conducted at the Austin Film Festival.)
The Paper Chase—“Levitz” (1984)
Jon Lovitz: Oh, God. I was 25. I auditioned three times. It came down to me and another guy, and the other guy got it. He did two shows, and then they brought me back for a fourth time and I found out he quit. I didn’t know what they wanted. I was really nervous the first time I met with them, then a little less the second, then a little less the third. By the fourth time, it’s like I knew them, so I wasn’t nervous. I just thought, “What do they want?” So I thought, “Well, I’ll just use my own personality. I’ll just do what I would do if I were in the situation in the scene.” Then I read with the producer and the guy directing the show. So I did it, and they were laughing. At the end the director said, “Well, you both read very well.” And I was being flip, I go, “Well, yeah, but only one of us has the part.” And they laughed at that, and then I got the part.
They actually named the character after me—L-e-v-i-t-z. I had done plays in high school. It was something I always wanted to do since I was little. I was a drama major at UC-Irvine. Now I was 25, so it’s like 10 years later. I was working at a clothing store in Sherman Oaks at the time. When I found out I got it, I started laughing, and then I started crying, and then I threw up. [Laughs.] I was so nervous. And then I didn’t get a job for like, three years.
Saturday Night Live—various characters (1985-1990)
JL: It was the summer of ’84. I understudied a show that Phil Hartman was starring in, a special for the Olympics—not the Special Olympics. That got me into the main company of the Groundlings in September of ’84. But January of ’85 they had a new show, and I was doing my Liar character in it, and we got great reviews. Then March 28—I know all these dates, because they meant so much to me—they put us on The Tonight Show. There were three sketches, and I was in two of them. I had just gotten into the company, so I couldn’t believe it. The assistant to the agent who had signed me three years before, he was an agent now. He signed me, and he was saying, “What about Saturday Night Live?” By then I had been a messenger for the last two years, and I said, “Well, what about landing on Pluto?” It just was absurd to me. But he kept pushing.
After he signed me on May 3, I said, “Get me work on soaps,” because extra work on soaps pays $90 a day, which was a lot of money for me. I was only making $5 an hour. He said, “Wait three weeks and you’ll get work.” He started sending me for auditions three weeks later, and I got everything I auditioned for. I got a recurring role on a series called Foley Square. Then I got a movie with Charles Grodin, Last Resort. I only had one scene, but Charles Grodin liked me, so he kept wanting to stick me in more and more. That ended up helping, because he recommended me to Lorne Michaels.
When I understudied that show, the Olympic trials that Phil starred in, Laraine Newman came to see the show the first night I did it. She was doing that movie Perfect with Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, so she brought John Travolta. She was backstage and asked, “So, how long have you been doing the show?” I go, “It’s my first night.” She goes, “Ha ha, no really.” I go, “No, it’s my first night.” She goes, “Will you stop?” I said, “I’m telling you. I was understudying my first night.” Anyway, she was impressed, so she befriended me. Charles Grodin and Laraine Newman, they both recommended me to Lorne Michaels. Then The Tonight Show, this guy Jim McCawley, who was the producer—he found more comedians and gave them their big break than anybody, like Jerry Seinfeld and Roseanne and Jim Carrey, and on and on. He put the Groundlings on The Tonight Show, and he recommended me to Fred Weisman, who was casting Saturday Night Live in Los Angeles.
Then Al Franken—Senator Al Franken, now—and Tom Davis, they saw me in the Groundlings, and I was doing Master Thespian. Nobody was laughing except Al. I could hear him. And I remember thinking, “Ugh, thank God that guy from Saturday Night Live is laughing.” Then I auditioned for the show, and then I met Lorne Michaels, and then they brought us to New York.
It was nerve-wracking as hell. There were 10 men and 10 women and five spots open. They’d already cast Anthony Michael Hall. They’d already cast Randy Quaid. They’d already cast Robert Downey, Jr. They’d already cast Terry Sweeney. Turns out there’s one spot for nine guys. I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to get it.” Then Laraine Newman called me and told me I got it. I couldn’t believe it.
AVC: When you left Saturday Night Live, you said you thought they’d brought in Adam Sandler because they “needed a Jew.” Do you think that was maybe the reason they hired you—that they needed a Jew?
JL: Yes, of course. I was leaving, and they hired him that summer. I don’t think it’s coincidence. Lorne never hired a Jewish guy before me, which was like not having a black basketball player. In comedy at the time, 90 percent of comedians were Jewish. I met Adam at the Improv. I thought he was really funny, and I went up to him and went, “Hey, I think you’re really funny.” And then I heard they cast him on the show, so I go, “Want me to explain to you how it works and stuff?” I sat down with him for about an hour, and just because of that, he’s been so generous with me in putting me in his movies. He’s very loyal to his friends. And on the show, I’d see some of his characters and I’d go, “Those are funny, but I would never think of doing them.” But Opera Man, I go, “Oh, crap! Why didn’t I think of that?” Because I could sing fake opera pretty good.
AVC: You’ve said your dad wanted to be an opera singer.
JL: Right. So I saw that and I went, “Shit! I wish I’d thought of that.” I told Adam, “Opera Man. I can’t do your stuff, but that one I could have done.” And he goes, “Want to do it with me?” That’s what he’s like. When I was on the show, everybody was very territorial. No one would ever do that. So I was Opera Man’s brother. Adam’s always been just so fantastic to me. It’s very rare. Comedians nowadays, when they want to put you in their movie, a lot of them will say, “You’re too funny.” How am I too funny? I said to Adam, “You get it. It doesn’t take anything from you. It’s just another funny thing in your movie.” You want everyone to be great and funny. I’m not saying I’m great, but I’m funny. Anyway, he’s not threatened by it. I can’t say enough good things about that guy. One time I ran into him and I said, “Adam, I need to be in a hit movie. Can you get me a part in your next movie?” And then he wrote a part for me in Little Nicky.
AVC: You’ve said in interviews that your particular cast always tried to play the characters as real people, not as caricatures or cartoonish.
JL: Yeah, my goal—I’m not saying I achieved it—was to do great acting, make the guy real and be super funny together. But the whole cast would do that. When it’s cartoonish or mugging, you’re playing the character, but you’re not completely committed. You have one eye on the camera, and you’re kind of winking at the camera, saying, “I’m not really this guy. I’m pretending to be.” And to me, that’s just bad acting. Everybody on the show was so talented. There wasn’t anything that they could write that we couldn’t play. I don’t want to talk about myself, that’s for other people to say, so I’m not saying I was so talented. But we would say it about each other.
Another advantage we had was, at some point, everybody had worked with somebody. I worked with Jan Hooks once before, Phil I knew from the Groundlings. Dana Carvey and Kevin Nealon knew each other and Dennis [Miller] from stand-up. Victoria [Jackson], I forget who she knew. I’d already worked with Dennis and Nora [Dunn] from the year before. Everybody already knew each other, and we were closer in age, whereas the year before, it was all different ages. I was sad that those people weren’t brought back, like Joan Cusack, Robert Downey, Terry. I liked all of them. I missed them at first when they weren’t there. It was kind of hard to get used to it. I thought that they all had done a good job, and Robert and Anthony Michael Hall, they had never done sketch comedy, and toward the middle of the season, they started to get the hang of it. I remember there was some boxing sketch and A. Whitney Brown and I were watching Anthony Michael Hall going, “Jesus, he’s brilliant!” And watching Robert and going, “He’s brilliant!”
AVC: When you came back in ’97 and hosted, were there any differences that you noticed in that cast as compared to your own?
JL: I didn’t sense any tension, and I also didn’t sense any camaraderie. It seemed very quiet. I didn’t see comedians goofing around. None of that. It was weird. I mean, it was calm, and everybody got along. And Lorne was very nice to me, but I felt like they looked at me like an outsider, even though I had been there. After the show, people come up to the host and say congratulations, and the only one who came up to me was Will Ferrell. He said, “Good show.” Nobody else did, which I found very odd.
On Monday, they have a meeting with all the writers and cast. They come in Lorne’s office and pitch their ideas. Before the meeting, Lorne said, “Listen, just don’t say anything.” And I go, “Really?” So they come in and tell me their ideas, and I just go, [Pauses] “Okay.” And I didn’t say anything! I think they probably thought I was a jerk, but he told me, “Don’t say anything.” I couldn’t say, “Oh, that’s funny.” They’d say, “We have an idea for a sketch. You’re a teacher, and the student brings you an apple.” I go, “Right.” “And then another comes in and another brings you an apple, and then another brings you an apple.” I go, “Then what happens?” They go, “No, that’s the sketch. They’re just all bringing you apples.” I said, “That’s not a sketch. That’s just a premise.” They didn’t know what I was talking about. I said, “A sketch is supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s like a movie. It’s supposed to have a story. You have a who, what, where—the beginning, and the conflict, and it builds and builds. That’s how you do improv. You’re filling in all those spots to make the scene work. It builds to a climax. Then there’s a resolution, which is the ending. It takes hours to write the ending. It’s hard to come up with them.” They just looked at me blankly.
I think the writers thought I was a jerk, because I was like, “Then what happens?” to all of it. They’d go, “That’s it.” Maybe they didn’t like that. They wrote a first draft, and, “Who are you to touch our brilliant first draft?” Writing is rewriting.
At the same time, I was thrilled to be there to host. There’s a little star on the floor where you stand, and if you watch, I just ran out and jumped on it, like “Uh!” You know, like, finally. And Lorne said, “Listen, the audience is going to really cheer for you, so just milk it.” They really went for a long time, which surprised me how loud it was and how long they cheered. They just kept going and going, and I just went, “Man, they remember me”—because I had been off the show for seven years. I really didn’t want to leave the show, but I got a chance to do a movie, which meant I would have had to miss two shows, and at the time Lorne had a policy where you can’t miss shows, so I left.
Mom And Dad Save The World—“Emperor Tod Spengo” (1992)
JL: The script was hilarious. They ended up not releasing it for two years, and then they released it for a week. I’m like, “Crap! I left the show for this.” I thought they had written the part for me, which they hadn’t. For years I was going, “Well, that was a dumb move.” They reedited the movie for kids, so they took a lot of the edgy humor out of it. It was silly and smart. I’m not saying edgy, but silly and smart, which I like. They reedited it so it was silly and stupid.
AVC: We did a Random Roles with Teri Garr, and while she wasn’t that fond of it either, she said, “The only thing redeeming about that movie is Jon Lovitz farting.”
JL: [Laughs.] She was hilarious in it. We had become good friends, and I really wanted her to do it. Jeffrey Jones was super nice and funny in it. But they waited two years. A movie can be great, but if it doesn’t have any backing, or they don’t want to put it in theaters for more than a week, it has no chance. But I really enjoyed making that movie. I was going to do it that summer and then come back to Saturday Night Live. It ended up that I had to choose one or the other. The producer said, “I can’t work it out,” and Lorne said, “You can’t miss shows.” I felt like, “My contract’s up. I’ll make my shows up to you at the end. I’ll add on two more shows.” He goes, “It’s not fair to the other cast. Not this year, but next year you could miss shows to do movies.” I said, “But I have one now! I don’t know if I’ll have one in two years.”
And the truth is, the cast wouldn’t care if you weren’t there. We were very competitive. You write 30 to 40 sketches, they produce 14. At dress rehearsal, six get cut—which is almost a whole show—so it leaves eight. So if a cast member wasn’t there, everybody, including me, would go, “Good! More for me.” They’d be thrilled. We were very competitive. You would get a sketch in, then you’d have writers saying, “Don’t put his sketch in. Put mine in.” It was really, brutally competitive. People would do everything to knock someone’s sketch out. [Laughs.] And you watch the show, it looks like everyone’s having such a fun time.
Dana Carvey and I, we’re very close friends, but we were competitive. He’d go, “At least we’re admitting it, that we’re competitive against each other.” I go, “Yeah, I admit it. But you don’t have a choice.” But while you make a plea—“I think my sketch is really funny, it can be really good”—I would never say, “And don’t do his.” I never did that, but other people would do that, I found out. That’s just the way it was. But as a result, the show was super funny. Whereas when I hosted it seven years later, it was funny, but it didn’t have that—to me anyway—that edge.
But honestly, I wish it wasn’t like that when I was there, because there were times I’d scream and call my manager like, “Get me off this fucking show!” Everybody would treat each other just so rude. It was a real division, like the writers versus the cast. We were supposed to write stuff, but if you got one on one week, the next week they wouldn’t write for you.
My Stepmother Is An Alien—“Ron Mills” (1988)
AVC: You played Dan Aykroyd’s brother. Did you compare SNL experiences?
JL: I would ask Al Franken a lot, actually. I remember saying, “Does it feel different than the first five years?” He would say, “It feels the same. It felt like this.” Because it was a legendary show, and I couldn’t believe I was on it. Everyone goes, “What do you think the best cast ever was?” I’d say, “Well, the original cast. They invented it.” Everyone else was following their paradigm.
I remember my second show, Chevy Chase was hosting. When he was there, or Dan Aykroyd, or Bill Murray, it was very exciting, because it felt like, “Oh, I’m on, like, the original show.” Not just me, but the whole cast. We were super excited, because now we were working with the original guys. Dan Aykroyd, I remember he did a Bob Dole sketch, and then afterward—none of us had ever met him—he took us to the Hard Rock Café in New York, and he gave us these jackets that said “Hard Rock Café” and bought us all dinner. We were all broke, so dinner and a jacket! I remember Jan Hooks looking at me and saying, “Who is this guy?” I’m going, “Is he not the nicest guy in the world ever?”
And then I got My Stepmother Is An Alien. On the set, I went into Dan’s trailer and I said, “Oh, you have a TV in your trailer.” He goes, “Yeah, don’t you?” I go, “No.” He goes, “What do you mean you don’t have a TV in your trailer? Let me see your trailer.” It was a really dumpy thing—I mean dumpy. You’re talking about something that’s been left outside for, like, 30 years, with mildew and mold. Like a homeless guy just moved out of it. It was pretty bad, now that I think about it. But at the time I didn’t know. I’m like, “Hey, I got a trailer!” [Laughs.] So he goes, “This is ridiculous.” The next day, I had a new trailer with a TV and air conditioning and a fridge and everything. He was so great to me. He knew how to live. We really hit it off. I’ve become friends with him. He’s just the nicest guy.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash—“Doug” (1986)
JL: When I got to Saturday Night Live, the first host was Madonna. Normally the host was there for a week, but she was there for two. The first thing I shot was a short film in Central Park. I think George Meyer wrote it, who later wrote on The Simpsons. Madonna’s driving a car—she’s supposed to be on this country road, but we shot it in Central Park—and she keeps hearing this banging, so she pulls over and opens her hood and I jump out like a mugger and attack her. So we’re shooting that—it was like 2 a.m.—and there’s Penny Marshall hanging out. She’s friends with Lorne. She befriended me. And then, my first Saturday Night Live show, to all the cast she goes, “Here’s your Saturday Night Live kit.” Mine was a Knight Rider lunch pail. I still have it. And inside was Tylenol and Maalox and aspirin. I didn’t get it. Then after the first show, I go, “Now I get it.” It was a very stressful show to do. And after I did my first show, she called me up and said, “Learn your lines!” I go, “You can see me reading the cue cards?” I didn’t think the camera would pick that up, because I thought I could look really fast and the camera wouldn’t get it. But of course it picked it up. So she really helped me.
And then she took over directing Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Howard Zieff was directing it, and I had actually auditioned for him before I got Saturday Night Live, and I didn’t get it. And then she took over six weeks into it. Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t happy, or she wasn’t getting along with Howard Zieff, so they fired Howard and hired Penny. She called me and said, “Hey, I’m doing this movie. Can you just come on? There’s no part, but you can improvise.” I think Phil already had it. I was like, “Phil, we’re in a movie together!”
Big—“Scotty Brennen” (1988)
JL: Then she gave me the part in Big. She goes, “You can improvise again.” So I get on set and I start trying to improvise and she goes, “No, you can’t do that.” I said, “Penny, the part’s nothing. You said I could.” She said, “I know, but the writers don’t want you to.” I go, “Then what am I here for?” She didn’t want me to do anything—just play it totally straight. I go, “Crap. I’ll just be subtly funny. I’ll sneak it in.” And later on she goes, “See, that’s why I said that. So you would do that.”
I worked on it for about a week, and one day I said, “Listen, I feel really sick. I think I’m going to throw up.” She goes, “All right, well, try.” We’re doing a scene, and in the middle they go, “Cut,” and I ran and threw up. I said to her, “I can’t work anymore.” I was sick as shit. So I went home, and I had the flu bad for about a week. And then I felt better, and I thought, “Maybe I should call her up and tell her I’m feeling better, see if she wants to put me back into the movie.” But then I thought, “Ah, forget it! The part was nothing.” And then it turns out to be this huge hit, and I’m like, “I’m an idiot.”
AVC: Still, you got one of the really good lines in the trailer: “She’ll wrap her legs around you so tight…”
JL: “You’ll be begging for mercy.” Yeah, it was fun. And I became friends with Tom Hanks.
A League Of Their Own—“Ernie Capadino” (1992)
AVC: And then you guys all worked together on A League Of Their Own.
JL: Yeah, the summer of 1990 I was supposed to do A League Of Their Own and then Mom And Dad Save The World and then go back to Saturday Night Live. That was the plan. But they ended up not making A League Of Their Own that summer; someone else was supposed to direct it, but then the next summer they hired Penny. That movie’s really fun. And Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, they wrote the part for me, and every time I see Babaloo he goes, “We wrote the part for you! We’ve never written a part for anybody! That’s the only time before or since!” I remember the script, just laughing out loud. I remember calling my manager and saying, “I don’t care what I get paid, I have to play this part. This is the funniest thing.” Because the character was so sarcastic.
That movie was magical because by then I had actually lived at Penny’s house for two summers, because I had nowhere to live in L.A. She had a big, beautiful house. So I was really good friends with her and her daughter Tracy, who was also in it. It was like working with family. And Tom Hanks and I had become really good friends from Saturday Night Live, and then Geena Davis and Madonna, they both hosted Saturday Night Live. You get to know them pretty well when they do, even though it’s just a week. And then I met Lori Petty, and she was nice. I met Rosie O’Donnell for the first time. Rosie was like a kid: “It’s my first movie! I met Madonna! I can’t believe it!” We went to see Rosie do stand-up, and she started imitating me from the stage. She goes, “I can’t believe Jon Lovitz is here watching me do stand-up!” Now she’s like a major star.
AVC: I don’t know if you’ve heard about the letter from Madonna that was recently unearthed where she was complaining about working on A League Of Their Own, saying, “I cannot suffer any more than I have in the past month learning to play baseball with a bunch of girls (yuk) in Chicago (double yuk)” and “I hate actresses.”
JL: I was only on the movie for four weeks. I’d been to her house, because I was friends with Sean Penn, so to me she was just another performer. I never put her on a pedestal. I like her a lot. I saw her about five years ago, and I told her, “I feel like my career started with you, and I have a fond place for you in my heart.” And mine did start with her. The first thing I ever did was with her. And she goes, “I know, I feel the same way about you.” But it was a tough shoot. After I left, it was very hot. It was 108. People were fainting on the set. But I remember when I was there, she was having a good time at baseball practice. I went just for fun, because I liked to play baseball and catch, but she would show up and she’d have already run eight miles. And then they’d do the practice and she’d stay after another hour and hit. Her work ethic is fantastic. I’d like to read that letter.
I’ll tell you something about that movie that the girls told me. It was like 40 women. They go, “Jon, when you get a group of women together, their menstrual cycles all get in sync, so they’re all getting their periods at the same time.” This is the women telling me this! So it’s 40 women, all getting their period at the same time. So that’s part of what happened. Plus, it was so hot. I remember Lori Petty told me that there was a guy in the crew, he leaned back to stretch and he fainted in his chair.
Trapped In Paradise—“Dave Firpo” (1994)
JL: [Pauses.] Well, I feel like I’m very fortunate to be in movies at all, but I called it Trapped In Shit. I love Dana, and Nicolas Cage was great and we became friends, but the director [George Gallo] just wasn’t there. He wasn’t directing. It was a bad time in my life personally, because my father had just died Dec. 25. And I’m up in the snow with no light—we did night shoots for six weeks. It was like 25-below. Everyone was fine, but after six weeks, the whole crew started going crazy ’cause there’s no light. It really affects your mood. Then we moved to Toronto, so we’re shooting inside. It wasn’t fancy, but inside during the day, this was a luxury. It was like 31 degrees, but it felt like summer. So as soon as I worked during the daylight, my mood changed.
But the director would say, “Just do whatever you want.” He was bragging about what a great director he was before he hired us: “I’m as good as Rob Reiner and Martin Scorsese.” This is George Gallo. I said, “Don’t you think you should let other people say that?” We never even got to read the script. He’d go, “Well, let’s rehearse this.” I’d go, “Oh good, we get to rehearse.” And he’d start screaming at me, “Do whatever you want!” And I go, “Saying ‘do whatever you want’ is not direction.”
Six weeks in, Dana and Nicolas took over. We were doing this scene where we had to take these trash bags out from the trunk of a car and change clothes, and it was complicated. Nicolas was like, “What do you want?” And George goes, “Do whatever you want.” Nicolas said, “No!” Nicolas ended up basically directing that scene, because we had to choreograph it. It’s too much stuff in action; you can’t just do whatever you want. You have to shoot a master, then you shoot coverage—you have to match everything. You have to plan it out. It’s absurd.
And the movie did horrible, but people like it. I’ve done a lot of movies where I thought, “This will be fun” and it’s a disaster but then people like it. So you never know. But what made me angry was the director started blaming us and said I didn’t know my lines, which was complete bullshit. I was on the set and I asked him, “Is this the scene where…?” Because when you’re doing a movie, they shoot out of sequence. So we’re shooting in the middle of this empty field and there’s nothing. I asked the director, “Is this the part of the scene after we steal a Lexus and it goes over the cliff, and we’ve climbed up the hill, and it’s starting there?” He goes, “I don’t know! I don’t have time for these questions! You have to know the script!” He was right—I should have known it better, and I hadn’t looked at it enough—but it turns out the answer to my question is “yes.” So I knew it enough. And he wrote the thing! It was like, “You don’t know where we’re starting the scene from?” I mean, he didn’t know anything.
I don’t care, I’ll tell everybody: He wouldn’t even come out of his tent. It was freezing cold, we’re out there shooting this scene and there’s a problem on the set, and he’s 50 yards away in his tent. We go, “George, what do we do? There’s a problem.” And he goes, “I’m looking at fucking Jupiter.” It was ridiculous.
AVC: Was this around the time that you and Dana were talking about doing Bad Boys together?
JL: This was afterward. But yeah, [Don] Simpson and [Jerry] Bruckheimer, they wanted Dana, and then they added me into it afterward. But the script—oh, another George Gallo script—the script was awful. They rewrote it for three months, but Disney didn’t want to do the new script. They wanted to do the original one, and it ended up going to Columbia. And Barry Josephson—who is a friend and used to be my manager—he decided to make it with two black actors, and that’s what happened. It was disappointing. I wanted to do it.
AVC: It seems like you and Dana might have made a good buddy comedy.
JL: I know, people are shocked. But the script really wasn’t good. In an interview with Don, he said, “Well, the script was shit.” And I’m like, “That’s what we were saying.” The funny thing is, I’ve become really good friends with Jerry Bruckheimer, and every time I see him I go, “Give me another chance!” And he says, “No, you’ll turn it down!” And I go, “But I said yes!” But that stuff happens. Then you had Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and they were great in it. Oh, and Jerry said, “Well, you guys could have improvised,” and I was like, “You never said that!”
The Simpsons—various (1991-2007) / The Critic—“Jay Sherman” (1994-1995)
JL: When I first did The Simpsons, I don’t know if it was the No. 1 show on TV, but it was huge. And then A League Of Their Own came out in the summer, and the thing about the movie business is, if you’re in a movie and it’s a hit, and you’re perceived as part of the reason why, then you get more work. That’s basically it. So I did well in A League Of Their Own, and it was a big hit, so Jim Brooks said, “We want to do a series with you.”
Al Jean and Mike Reiss, I didn’t know at the time, but they were big fans. They wrote this thing called The Critic. It was supposed to be a live TV show, but there was no script. I said, “It sounds funny, but can I read the script?” He goes, “Well, we’re not going to audition for you.” I said, “I know, but you’re asking me to commit five years to an idea. I just want to read a script.” And then they ended up writing a script, but then they said, “We want to do it animated now instead of a regular sitcom.” So I read the script and it was hysterically funny, and I was laughing out loud. So I said yes, and we did it.
And they wrote that part for me, too! People say, “Ah, you’re so great in The Critic,” but I always give writers the credit. They wrote it, they created the show. We did it for ABC, and ABC goes, “We love it!” And then they cancelled it after seven shows. I think they did 13 shows that season. We went on Fox and did like 10 shows, and on Fox it was better because it aired after The Simpsons, and actually it was a hit show, because The Simpsons was like getting a 14.1 rating, and we had an 11.1. We retained 90 percent of the audience. If you look at shows now that are huge hits, they’re not even 10 or 9. But the network head didn’t like it and cancelled it. I said to Jim Brooks, “What happened? I thought it was a hit!” And he goes, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.” I went to the head of the network and said, “What are you doing? You’re canceling a hit!”
Mike Reiss was so upset, he just said, “I’m retiring.” It was the most puzzling thing ever. But a lot of times what happens is, you get a new head of a network, and then he has shows on his slate that he didn’t develop, so he doesn’t want to do them. He wants to do his own shows. That’s why a lot of good shows you see, even if they’re doing well, if you notice a new network head and all of a sudden the shows are gone, that’s why. I think it’s foolish.
AVC: That was the first time I distinctly remember being pissed about a network canceling a show I liked.
JL: Yeah, I was pissed too! I remember we recorded it on the Fox lot where they record The Simpsons, in the Daryl Zanuck Theater. And the theater is upstairs and below it in the basement level there’s a big soundstage, and the same time I was doing The Critic, they were editing Trapped In Paradise. So I was quite thrilled, because I felt like, “Boy, I really have a career! I’m really in show business.” I even made up a song about it: “I’m upstairs, I’m downstairs, I am the whole building!”
Seinfeld—“Gary Fogel” (1995) / Friends—“Steve” (1995 and 2003)
JL: I grew up with Lisa Kudrow’s family. Her brother Dave is one of my best friends since I’m 11. She’s like my little sister, and then I did a movie with Courtney Cox in like 1988 called Mr. Destiny, and became really good friends with Courtney. So in 1994, they both call me up and go, “We both got this new show called Friends. Would you do a guest spot?” At the time I hadn’t heard of it. It was just starting out, and they were treating me like I was the first “name” guest star on the show. And then that Sunday—I’m supposed to shoot on Monday—Larry David called me and said, “I have this idea for Seinfeld,” and he told me about this character. He goes, “You find out you have cancer and you lose your hair, so Jerry enrolls you in Hair Club For Men. And then you find out you don’t have cancer, but you pretend you still do, because everyone’s being nice to you.” I thought that was hysterical. So I get back to Friends, and they’re pissed because I’m doing Seinfeld too. I’m like, “What?” And they go, “Well, we were gonna do a promotion about having you on Friends and make it a big thing.” I go, “Well I didn’t know!”
AVC: They thought there was too much Jon Lovitz on NBC that week?
JL: I don’t know. They were mad over at Friends, and then I had to beg them to go back on the show 9 years later. The first time I did it, I was doing them a favor because they were completely unknown. And they treated me like that: “Oh, you’re doing us a big favor!” And all the cast were like, “Oh, Jon Lovitz! Jon Lovitz!” And nine years later, I had to literally beg to get back on—just to get back on TV. I had to go to the producer and go, “Please! Can you put me on again?”
And then that was the week they were renegotiating. No one spoke to me barely until the day I shot the show. They’d say, “Hi,” and then they’d have meetings. And Courtney would go, “Sorry we can’t hang out, but we have these meetings. We’re negotiating.” I thought I was treated pretty badly. They just wouldn’t speak to me. Maybe they were busy negotiating—or maybe they said, “Don’t say anything to him, because if he says anything it will be in the press.” It was a very hush-hush thing. I remember thinking, “What are you talking about? You’re getting a million dollars a week! Ride it out!” I remember saying to some of them, “Once you leave this show, you’re not going to make this much money anywhere else. What are you doing?” They’d go, “We want to go out on top.” I go, “Nobody cares! Listen, I was on a TV show: Saturday Night Live. I’ve been banging my head trying to get back on. It’s not easy. Don’t forget how hard it was to get this show in the first place.” People go, “When do you quit?” I go, “When they tell you.” Until then you don’t leave. Until they say, “Hey, you gotta go.” Then you go. People forget there are very few jobs.
That’s why I started doing stand-up, because I had to. I have a nice lifestyle; I didn’t want to change it. So I had to go learn something else. But it’s tough. So [Casino Jack], you know, I’ve done a lot of movies, but in this I get to star with Kevin Spacey. I remember reading the script, and I thought, “It’s okay.” I didn’t know who the director was, but I thought, “If he’s good enough for Kevin Spacey, he’s good enough for me.” Right? Kevin’s smart, and I’ve known Kevin for years. And Kevin Spacey’s fantastic in it. He’ll get nominated for an Oscar. Everyone says that about a lot of movies, but he really is great in it. And George Hickenlooper, he made a great movie, and I’m just lucky he left my scenes in. It’s exciting, and I don’t take it for granted.
3000 Miles To Graceland—“Jay Peterson” (2001)
AVC: You and Courtney Cox were also both in this.
JL: I don’t know if I had a scene with her. No, I didn’t, because my character is already dead by then. I love Courtney though. She’s a great friend. And David [Arquette] is very nice. And I feel bad about [their divorce], of course.
AVC: You and Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell all sang together in “Voices That Care.” Did that ever come up?
JL: Oh! No. I was in that because I knew David Foster and he asked me to do it. Actually, Kevin Costner I’d met a few times before, and he calls me and goes, “Jon, there’s this part—there’s not much written, but if I write it, I want to make it really dramatic.” And he goes, “I have to kill somebody. I have to kill Jon Lovitz.” But he’s a great guy and I’m a big fan, and I was very flattered that he asked me to play that part.
His character is a killer, and of course my character doesn’t know that. But as an actor, I thought he was really pissed at me. After they yell, “Cut,” I go, “Are you really mad at me?” And he goes, “God no!” I thought he was really mad at me. That’s a great actor. He looks at you like he’s really pissed. You don’t get to work with actors who are on that level very often.
Kurt Russell, I admired him my whole life, but in my scene with him I’m dead. And I said, “The good news is I finally get to work with Kurt Russell. The bad news is I’m dead. But I finally have a scene with you!” He goes, “I can’t even look at you, I’m gonna keep laughing.” It’s hard being dead. You have to hold your breath. Stare off into space. You can’t move. It’s kind of creepy.
NewsRadio—“Max Lewis/Fred/Mike Johnson” (1997-1999)
JL: [Long pause.] Ah, I don’t want to talk about that.
AVC: Not at all?
JL: [Long pause.] Nah.
Small Time Crooks—“Benny” (2000)
JL: That I’ll tell you about. That was fantastic. I saw Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run when I was 13 and said, “I want to be a comedian like Woody Allen.” Then when I was on Saturday Night Live, I met Brian Hamill, his still photographer, and he introduced me to Woody about five years before that movie, and I got to hang out on the sets, and he was really nice to me. When I got that movie I was just thrilled, and I couldn’t stop smiling on the set. Here I’m working with my idol Woody Allen, and I just loved it. I kept saying, “You know, I’m a comedian because of you. This is just a dream come true.” I saw him at 13, and 29 years later it happened. I was just thrilled.
I would do my scenes and I was making him laugh. One time he came up to me after the scene I just had with him, and he goes, “I just want you to know that you’re really funny in the movie. I was watching dailies and I’m laughing at the screen, and I never laugh in dailies.” I go, “Oh God, thank you.” And he goes, “No, you don’t understand—I never laugh in dailies. And you were making me laugh, and I want you to know that.” So he really went out of his way to be nice to me. He knew how I felt about him. I have his albums from when he was a stand-up, and I used to do his routines in my college dorm.
When I first got the part, I heard he would fire people if he didn’t like them—and that would’ve been a nightmare to get fired by your idol, you know? I got to New York and they said I wasn’t to ask him a question about the part. My question was, [my character] was from Los Angeles, but all my scenes were with him, Tony Darrow, and Michael Rapaport, who are all from New York and have very thick New York accents. So I wanted to know if I should do a character or be myself. They said, “Well, he doesn’t like questions.” So I saw him on the set and I go, “Please, can I just ask you one question?” I asked him if should I do a character or me, and he goes, “Well, as long as it’s real, it’s fine.” So I was imitating a real guy, but this guy has a pretty thick accent and [adopts New York accent] he talks like dis.
So I was doing it, and then Woody goes, “I think maybe you should just do yourself. It doesn’t sound really like what we want. It doesn’t sound real. But hey, listen, it’s better you do yourself. I tell people Jon Lovitz is in the movie, they think it’s fantastic. Guys like us, we’re already funny.” And he said it, like, twice. I was relieved just to get an answer to my question, because I just didn’t want to get fired.
So I go back to my mark on the set and I start crying—not like sobbing, but tears started coming out, and I almost lost it. Why? Because he said, “Guys like us.” And he said it twice. I’m not saying that I’m him. He’s one of the greatest directors; I’m not saying that. I’m just saying funny. I remember when I was 20 in college, somebody goes, “Who do you think you are, Woody Allen?” Now I got Woody Allen saying, “Guys like us.” So I started crying, because it really was your idol validating your choice that you made in your life. Later I called Dana Carvey. He goes, “What’s it like?” I go, “He said, ‘Guys like us.’” And Dana started screaming, because he knew what it meant. It was heaven, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
And by the way, I feel lucky that I’m working at all. I don’t take any job for granted. I enjoy this. I don’t take this interview you’re doing with me for granted. It’s all enjoyable for me. It’s all part of it. And you know, you’re asking me about NewsRadio… All I’ll say about NewsRadio is it was not... [Pauses.] It’s just that Phil was like my brother, and it was horrible what happened. So it was not… [Pauses.] Whatever, that’s enough about that. [Small Time Crooks] was just amazing. After I did that movie, I literally thought, “Well, what do I do now? I could quit.” Because that was really the goal, to finally work with him.
High School High—“Richard Clark” (1996)
JL: That was a lot of fun. It was the first and only time I had a true lead in a movie. And Hart Bochner directed, my friend, who’s great. And Tia Carrere was great. Usually if you’re in a movie and you get like three scenes, you’re going, “How can I have an impact in those scenes?” And this one I was in almost every scene: I have a fight scene, a love scene, a heart-to-heart scene, a slapstick scene. It was just fantastic—and it’s hard, too. I remember the last shot after 12 weeks, I was standing there doing the last scene, and after five minutes my legs just started literally shaking I was so tired. But it was really fun. I remember I liked all the kids in the school playing the students. They’d say, “Do you care if I try something?” And I’d go, “Yeah, try whatever you want, don’t worry about me. I’ve got 10 other scenes. Go be funny. It’s good for the movie.”
AVC: It was the opposite of Saturday Night Live.
JL: Yeah. And Tia and I became really good friends. I remember doing a scene with her—I think I got to the set at 7 a.m., and we started shooting about 8. You know, you block the scene, and then you go to hair and makeup, and they set up the lights, and then you come back and shoot it. So we’re back about 8:30 and we’re shooting the scene, and about a half-hour went by and they go, “Lunch!” I go, “Lunch? What are you talking about? It’s only been a half-hour.” “No, it’s 1 p.m.” I go, “Are you shitting me?” I couldn’t believe it, because it felt like half an hour but it was over three hours. It was already time for lunch. My point is it was so much fun that the time just goes, like, you don’t even realize it. It’s a great job when you get it.
Southland Tales—“Bart Bookman” (2006)
JL: I don’t know. That movie… [Pauses.] I mean, I kind of understood when I saw it. Richard Kelly is a nice guy, and he’s very bright. But he said he made it like it was his last movie, so he stuck everything in it. To me, with all due respect, it was incomprehensible. I didn’t know what it was about. And I asked him, and he said it was about the end of the world. I think you have to see it a lot to figure out what it’s really about, but he just sticks in so many different things. It’s all different styles, all stuck in, and a lot of stuff that I did was—I didn’t have that big of a part, but it was cut, and what I was doing got changed, I don’t even know what my character… [Pauses.]
AVC: You think you’re the devil, right?
JL: I have no idea. I know I’m a bad guy. And I’m grateful to him for the opportunity to do that, to play a bad guy, but there was a whole relationship between me and Cheri Oteri that got cut. That’s what happens, but to me it’s incomprehensible. What do you say? It got booed at Cannes. It’s just incomprehensible.
Tales From The Crypt—“Barry Blye” (in the episode “Top Billing”) (1991)
JL: That was really fun. John Astin and Bruce Boxleitner were in it. I remember Joel Silver was producing the series and he asked me to do it. I had the lead, and when you have the lead, it’s fun. I was playing a struggling actor, and it wasn’t that long after I’d been struggling—maybe five years. I remember thinking, “I have to lose some weight. I’m too fat! I don’t look like a struggling actor.” I weighed 145 in high school; when I was in New York, when I was 24, I weighed 136 pounds. I didn’t have much money to eat.
AVC: But I thought your character was supposed to be a little chubby, and that’s partly why he didn’t get much work.
JL: I think they added that because I’d gained weight. Actually, if you look at it, I’m way thinner then than I am now.
Happiness—“Andy Kornbluth” (1998)
JL: Todd Solondz was trying to decide if I would play that part or the part that Philip Seymour Hoffman played. I met with him once to talk about it. I didn’t think I got it, and then five months after that meeting, they said he wanted me to play that scene. Here’s the thing about that scene: It’s very, very well written. A lot of times I get a scene, it’s not very well written, and they’ll say to me, “Can you add jokes? You’ve got to punch it up.” And I don’t mind doing that, but I kind of do, because I want to say, “Would you do your job? You didn’t hire me to write the thing. Come on.” This thing, though, was like Shakespeare. It’s hard, because now you have to raise yourself to the level of the writing. It’s like playing an easy piano piece like “Chopsticks” or playing Tchaikovsky—or Liszt or George Gershwin. It’s fantastic, and it’s very hard to play. I think it’s a brilliant scene, but I don’t take credit for it. It’s like some guy wrote a great musical piece and goes, “Can you play it?”
That scene is really funny and really sad at the same time, and it goes back and forth. It was hard to do—and it was hard to do because my character breaks down and cries. That’s in the scene. It goes, “Breaks down and cries.” So I had to cry all day for 12 hours, and I kept thinking of more and more sad stuff. Then it wouldn’t work and I’d try something else. At first I’m crying about the scene. Then I’m thinking about a girl leaving me. Then I’m thinking about my dad—who’s dead—waving to me. On and on, trying to make myself cry. By the end of the day I was exhausted, and then I was depressed for like two weeks. Because it’s not real, but physically you’re crying for 12 hours. Even though you’re making it up, you’re still doing it. Your body doesn’t know that it’s not real. Imagine for 12 hours—or even for 10 minutes—you have to cry and cry. It was hard.
Todd has a very dry sense of humor and he’s a great director. As opposed to saying, “Do whatever you want,” which is no direction. That means a guy doesn’t know anything. That’s just ridiculous. The director makes the movie. The director has to have the story in their head, has to know the style of the piece, has to answer questions from actors, design, set, lighting, every department throughout the pre-production, production, and post-production, because they’ve got it in their mind. They’ve got to know exactly what they want and what the style and story of the movie is. It’s them. They make it. And he knew exactly what he wanted. Any time you have the writer on set and you’re not sure, it’s fantastic to go to the writer and go, “What does this mean?” Because this is the guy who created it. He was terrific. Everyone goes, “What’s Todd Solondz like?” And I say, “Well, if Penny Marshall and Woody Allen had a kid, it’d be Todd.”
AVC: Have you seen Life During Wartime, where Paul Reubens takes over your character?
JL: No, I haven’t seen that yet. I know Paul Reubens, and he called me and goes, “I felt so weird doing it. I had to tell you I played your part.” He goes, “How could I do it? Jon was so great.” I go, “Well, you’re Paul Reubens.” I saw him in the Groundlings when I was 20. I was referred there by a talent manager who told me to go see him. That guy is so talented. I haven’t seen it though. I think he does him as a ghost?
AVC: Right, because your character killed himself.
JL: Yeah, but you don’t see that. That was in the movie, and then they cut it. I have that one scene in the beginning, and then there was another scene where I drop her off, and I don’t even look at her. And then there’s a third scene where I’m in my bedroom, and I end up killing myself. I drink and then take pills. For whatever reason, he cut those two scenes. When you have three scenes, it’s kind of like the beginning, middle, and end. You know everything—the actor knows, but the character doesn’t. You make specific choices that set up the next scenes. You’re doing certain things, so that by the time you get to the part where the guy kills himself, you understand why he was so upset, and also you understand that there’s something wrong with this guy. You make certain choices. The scene they shot where I drink, take some pills, and put a bag over my head, I had the ashtray. I’m petting it like it’s her. Todd didn’t write that—I added that part. And in the scene, the phone rings and the answering machine answers, and it’s her. She goes, “Hey, maybe we could go out again. I changed my mind.” I’m like [makes a choking sound], and I drop dead. [Laughs.]
Casino Jack—“Adam Kidan” (2010)
AVC: I’ve always wondered why, after Happiness, you didn’t have more dramatic roles. Do you think that Casino Jack could maybe open that back up?
JL: I don’t know. Here’s the thing… If anyone says, “Here’s the thing,” everyone listens, like they’re the expert. You could know nothing about anything, and all you have to do is go, “Here’s the thing.” Anyway, people don’t know what training I’ve had. They don’t know my background. They just see me doing sketches on Saturday Night Live. They don’t know everything I learned. I did plays in high school—I did 25 in high school and 21 in college—and I studied acting, and my teachers were all from Yale. They don’t know that. So when I do this, they go, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that.” Well, all right, fine. Well, I did. What do you want from me? But most comic actors, almost all of them could do drama. It’s no surprise to a comic actor.
This guy Ralph Levy who produced The Jack Benny Show and The George Burns And Gracie Allen Show—and they’re, like, the masters—he came to teach an acting class for a summer. I did a scene for him and Ralph says, “Where’s all the stuff you learned from Irvine?” I was from UC Irvine. I was a drama major. I say, “What do you mean? It’s the same?” He goes, “Of course it’s the same!” Most actors don’t know that. He says, “In comedy, you do all the same things as in drama. You add the comedy on top of it. You have everything plus the comedy. You the actor are aware of the comedy, but the character is oblivious.”
So, in other words, I’m going out of my way to be funny. If someone asks me to do it like the way I’m talking to you now, like, “Can you do that? But like you mean it? Not funny?” I go, “Well, of course. I’m going out of my way to be funny.” To me everyone says, “Oh, you’re dramatic in [Casino Jack].” And I’m like, “Where?” [Laughs.] There’s a scene where I get beat up. Well, they mean that. I go, “I’m not doing anything.” Honestly, that was like when you’re goofing around as a kid and you have a fake fight. It’s the way [Hickenlooper] shot it. It comes off horribly violent. Have you seen the movie?
AVC: No. You just spoiled the movie for me.
JL: Oh, sorry. But I didn’t tell you the whole movie.
AVC: Do you get beaten up and then you die?
JL: Maybe, maybe not! You’ll have to see the movie. But it’s a good part, and he left my scenes in. And I worked with Kevin Spacey, who’s a great actor and was great to work with. And George, who is great as director, knew what he wanted. Look, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done movies where I said, “I want to play it just really real, and not bigger than life,” and they say, “No, no, no. We want that thing you do.” I’m like, “Ugh. All right.” This movie, I finally got the chance to do that. Same for Happiness: I said to them, “I want to play it straight. I can do good acting.” And he goes, “I know you can.” In Happiness and in this, they both said, “Yeah, we want you to do this” and they meant it. I just feel lucky the movie came out so good, but that’s George. And people really like me in the movie. To me, it’s Kevin Spacey’s movie.
AVC: But people already know that Kevin Spacey’s good. It may be a surprise to them, like, “Oh, Jon Lovitz is also good.”
JL: [Laughs.] “He’s good, too. We didn’t know he was any good.” It kind of feels like A League Of Their Own, where I had a good part. But that’s the thing. You have to have a good part, and you have to play it right, and then they have to actually leave it in the movie. In Happiness, I have that one scene, then in the next scene I’m dead. I’m blue. That wasn’t really talent. That was makeup. [Laughs.] Let’s not kid ourselves. “Close your eyes.” And then they zip a bag over my head. That’s not talent. I’m just lying there with my eyes closed, and they painted me blue. Anyone can do that. But [Solondz] cut those two scenes. It’s his movie—that’s his prerogative. But as an actor you’re like, “Crap.” But in this, [Hickenlooper] left in all my scenes. As a result, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. It makes sense.
Trust me, I get a lot of laughs, though. You’ll see. Sometimes they’re laughing, and I’m not even trying to be funny. You’ll see one thing in the movie. It’s the second-to-last scene. I don’t have any lines but it gets a big laugh. You haven’t seen it, so I won’t tell you. The scene is somebody comes to my house. I won’t say who, but you’ll see two men come to the house… [Pauses.] I don’t know how to tell you without telling you. You’ll see it. It’s pretty much toward the end, and you’ll know. Something happens, and you’ll go, “Ah!” That’s all I’m saying. I came up with the idea. I go, “Hey, what if we did it like this?” George is like, “I don’t know.” I say, “Just shoot it once. It’s just film.” So we did it. I go, “Look, everyone’s crying. It’s hysterical.” He goes, “Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I should leave it in. I thought it would be too much. But then I did, and it’s really funny.”
Anyway, you could end this article with “I’d rather get laughs,” because the real question is, why do all these people want [comedians] to be serious? The reason they want that is these are people who aren’t funny. Anybody funny can be serious, but people who have no sense of humor, they can never be funny—and frankly, they’re jealous. There’s very few comic actors. Think about it. There aren’t that many. It’s hard because you have to be able to do both.
The best example is if Robert De Niro did Eddie Murphy’s part in The Klumps, right? He’d get the Academy Award. But because Eddie is already funny… In The Klumps, he played five different characters. He has scenes with himself where he’s his husband and his wife, and you forget, and it’s like a touching scene, and all of a sudden you go, “Holy shit. He’s doing that scene with himself”—only he’s not even doing it with himself, because they had to shoot his side and then the other side. And it’s perfect, and it matches, and it’s touching. How do you do that? Because he’s a genius, so hardly anybody could do that. He should’ve won the Oscar for that. I was like, “What do you have to do?” He’s playing seven different characters, and he’s funny and dramatic. He’s playing men, women, old people, young people, fat people—everything he’s not. Now how could he not win the Oscar for that? It’s because they go, “Well, he’s just being silly.” No. It’s so hard you have no idea. They’re jealous.