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Wednesday, November 10,2010

'Yeah! That’s the ticket!'

He may have been a latercomer to stand-up but Jon Lovitz is making up for lost time

by James Sanford
Jon Lovitz is in the midst of a nationwide tour of comedy clubs, and when he wraps up, he can go home — to his very own club.

The Jon Lovitz Comedy Club opened last year in Universal City, near Hollywood. Although Lovitz is quick to admit his place (where he often performs on Wednesday nights) won’t be mistaken for the usual brick-wall, cabaret-style stand-up space.


"I don’t know if you’d really know it’s a comedy club when you walk in," he said, calling from his home in Los Angeles. "But it’s a fun space and relaxing."


Its décor: heavy-duty Hawaiian. "There’s a big backdrop painting of Diamondhead and the beach and the ocean," Lovitz explained, as well as numerous creations by the Detroit-born, single-named marine life artist Wyland: "He’s a great artist, and I have his paintings all over the place."


Lovitz, who performs this weekend at Connxtions Comedy Club, shot to fame on "Saturday Night Live" in the mid-1980s and went on to appear in such films as "A League of Their Own," "The Wedding Singer," Woody Allen’s "Small Time Crooks" and director Todd Solondz’s bruising black comedy "Happiness" and its recent followup, "Life During Wartime."


Lovitz graduated from the University of California-Irvine with a degree in theater, having studied Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. But he was broad-minded.


"I remember I got out of college in 1979, and I went to a club in Los Angeles. They were teaching a workshop for free on a Saturday, and I went because I wanted to start doing stand-up: I used to do Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce’s routines in my dorm."


Aside from the hallowed legacy of Lenny and Woody, Lovitz realized there were many comedians who had used stand-up as a springboard to TV stardom. Robin Williams, who had played tiny clubs in San Francisco for little more than spare change, had become an overnight phenomenon, thanks to "Mork and Mindy,” and former stand-ups Gabe Kaplan and Andy Kaufman had found themselves starring in "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "Taxi," respectively.


What Lovitz found at the class, however, was discouragement.


"The guy teaching the work-shop, the first thing he said was, ’If you want to be a stand-up because you think it’s going to help you get into a sitcom, you know, don’t do it. They’re not hiring stand-ups for sitcoms.’ I said, ’Really? You’d think they would. They’re not?’ He said, ’No, they’re not.’" Lovitz continued questioning him. "I raised my hand and said, ’You’d think they would; you guys are really funny.’ And he said, ’Yeah, you’d think they would, but they’re not.’ And I believed him, and the truth was they just weren’t hiring him. So I said, ’Well, I’ll skip that step.’ "Then I got ’Saturday Night Live,’ and Dennis Miller would take me to comedy clubs to do stand-up. I was so nervous, I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, it’s really hard. Even if you’re not doing stand-up, if you’re just going to speak on a topic for an hour, just to stand up in front of a group of people for an hour and speak — and hold their attention and not bore them. It’s not easy. And then you gotta go, ’Well, now do that and make ’em laugh for an hour.’ "But I started doing it seven years ago because the movie roles were drying up and I needed to make money, so that forced me to do something I’d always wanted to do."


If Lovitz’s stand-up background was somewhat sketchy in his early days, his sketch comedy skills were sharp. He trained at The Groundlings in L.A., a comedy theater that has also spawned Phil Hartman, Julia Sweeney, Cheri Oteri, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan.


"I was (at The Groundlings) for three years, and one thing led to another and I got ’Saturday Night Live,’" Lovitz recalled, adding he has actor Charles Grodin ("Midnight Run," "Beethoven") to thank.


"I got a movie with him, and he recommended me to ("SNL" creator) Lorne Michaels and (original "SNL" cast member) Laraine Newman, so I always want to give him credit. And I had great teachers at The Groundlings. I’m just very lucky I got that show."


Lovitz’s most popular "SNL" characters included the pathological liar Tommy Flanagan ("Yeahhhh, that’s the ticket!" he would assure his listeners after weaving ridiculous yarns) and, in a nod to Lovitz’s theatrical training, the pompous Master Thespian. In one of Lovitz’s most memorable sketches, he portrayed a disgruntled Satan, forced to turn to "The Peoples Court" in order to settle scores with a white-trash hairdresser (Rosanna Arquette) who sold her soul in exchange for a successful salon.


Lovitz won’t be playing anyone other than himself during his Connxtions date, however.


"I’m just myself, it’s just my opinions," he says of his show. "I make fun of myself and religion and politics and celebrities, and I play the piano and sing funny songs. I’d say the show is rated R. There’s stuff about sex. It’s a fun show. I just decided I’d put in there whatever I think is funny.


"I didn’t want to define myself as a specific type of comedian, so I just do what I think is funny. My sense of humor is what it is."

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