As Tommy Flanagan, Jon Lovitz was the pathological liar who insisted he was a senator, the man who penned “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” for the Rolling Stones and Morgan Fairchild’s significant other. As Master Thespian, he fancied himself an accomplished Shakespearean actor who never went out of character—even when hired to be a department store Santa. And while impersonating Harvey Fierstein, he portrayed the actor/playwright as a man chronically low on self-esteem who just wanted “to be loved.”
While those characters jump-started his career, Lovitz doesn’t talk too much about his famous “Saturday Night Live” creations today, preferring to file those skits in the ancient history folder.
“I was on ‘Saturday Night Live’ 16 years ago,” he said. “So I don’t think people remember it.”
Of course, people do remember, which is why for most people older than 30, any mention of Lovitz automatically conjures images of Flanagan proclaiming, “Yeeeahhhh, that’s the ticket!” Master Thespian boisterously announcing that he was merely “ACTING!” or Fierstein pining, “I just want to be loved—is that so wrong?”
But Lovitz is onto a new career now—as a stand-up comedian. And like most entertainers embarking on a new path, he wants his present work to be relevant. Which is why we won’t have Harvey Fierstein to kick around any more.
“It’s much more fun to do stuff that’s going on now,” he said. “You know, come up with new material.”
Lovitz has been in more than 30 films (and will co-star in the upcoming “I Could Never Be Your Woman” with Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd) and has been a TV regular. But he has longed to be a comedian since he was a child.
Lovitz—who is notoriously not funny during newspaper interviews—was characteristically serious as he spoke by phone from Central Park.
“I saw the movie ‘Take the Money and Run’ when I was 13,” he said. “That’s when I said I wanted to be a comedian like Woody Allen.”
Though inspired by the stand-up of Allen and Lenny Bruce, a comedy instructor told him that he wouldn’t find sitcom work as a stand-up comic, so he pursued acting instead.
His resonant voice and classic-actor mannerisms would eventually lead to stardom. But Lovitz struggled for years, with virtually no acting credits as he approached his 30s. His first break came when fellow actor Phil Hartman introduced him to a comedy troupe called The Groundlings, where he was discovered by actors Charles Grodin and Laraine Newman.
Newman recommended him to “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels, and Lovitz joined the cast in 1985. Initially, the program seemed near the end of its storied run. But the show was solidified when Lovitz was joined by Dana Carvey, Mike Myers and fellow Groundling Hartman, whom Lovitz recommended.
“I knew he’d be great on the show,” Lovitz said. “I said to Lorne, ‘If you think I’m good, wait until you see Phil. He’s a genius.’”
On the show, Lovitz played a series of characters, including a stiff-looking Michael Dukakis, a monosyllabic Tonto and a dumpy-looking Mephistopheles. But Flanagan—the man who habitually lied in order to make himself seem more important—was his first big hit, which brought “Yeah, that’s the ticket” into the lexicon of the ‘80s.
“I didn’t make up the phrase ‘That’s the ticket,’ ” Lovitz said, noting that it was a popular line in the ‘20s and ‘30s. “But I kind of brought it back with that character.”
A proposed Flanagan movie fell through. But a friendship with director Penny Marshall would lead to several film roles, including parts in “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Big” and “A League of Their Own.” And he would also star in TV shows “NewsRadio” (replacing his friend Hartman, after he was murdered by his wife) and “The Critic,” an animated show in which he voiced the titular movie critic. He also has appeared on “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.”
Yet, while most stand-up comics dream of a promotion to TV and film, Lovitz wanted it the other way.
“Frankly, I just didn’t have the guts to do it,” he said. “I recently decided if I was ever going to do it, I’d better get going,” he said.
Initially, he did five-minute bits, opening for friends like Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Victoria Jackson and Dennis Miller.
“I was just scared to death,” he said. “I’d get up and my heart would be pounding. And then Dana said, ‘Keep getting up, and eventually that goes away.’ “
Then next tough step was creating a longer act. Being funny for five minutes, he found, is much easier than being funny for a half hour or more.
“I couldn’t get past 20 minutes,” he said. “It was really strange. I thought, man, this is hard.”
While he had written for “SNL” and done improv with The Groundlings, stand-up is a more solitary venture than TV writing, he said.
“(On ‘SNL’) you usually end up writing with somebody, and also you get notes, sometimes from Lorne,” he said. “Plus, it’s a sketch, and you’re doing it on television; it’s a mini-movie. With stand-up, it’s you onstage by yourself. You’re kind of the director, the writer and the performer, and the notes are really from the audience—you know, if they laugh or not.”
At first Lovitz did try to incorporate some of his characters into his act, but, he said, it just didn’t work. So he bid farewell to his thespian (though his “Eat fresh!” Subway commercials feature a similar character).
Carvey would continue to offer Lovitz advice, telling him to expand on what he had without dwelling on any one topic. And eventually Lovitz began honing his new craft at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, where he performed weekly for two years. In his act, he talks about sex, religion and politics—and even offers a few musical numbers.
“I sing a bunch of songs about my sex life, and I sing a bunch of songs about Bob Saget,” he said.