I'm sitting with Jon Lovitz inside his tiny dressing room at Helium Comedy Club. The man has been culturally ubiquitous since the mid-1980s, when he became a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” (look up “The Pathological Liar” — that's the ticket!). That job ignited a career that’s spanned TV, film and Broadway — and, more recently, stand up.
That's why we're here. Lovitz is in Buffalo, performing at Helium Comedy Club through Saturday, Oct. 8. I caught his Thursday evening show, a 70-minute mix of stand-up and piano-man music, and now I'm chatting with afterward, getting nosy about how his comedic mind works.
What still challenges you?
“All of it,” says Lovitz, who is 59. He refers back to his college years at the University of California, Irvine, which is when he decided to become an actor. He liked the idea that it wasn’t a “finite” job — something you learn to do, and that’s it. The allure of acting is it’s a constant challenge.
A challenge to come up with new material.
A challenge to get better.
“I just did a small part in a movie a couple of weeks ago, and it was hard, because every time you get a new part, you go, ‘I want to be great,’ and it’s like you’re starting over,” Lovitz says. “You’ve got to figure it out. It’s still a challenge to do.”
It’s challenge, too, to conquer his self-doubts. Acting – like many jobs, to be fair – requires you to flow disparate elements neatly through a funnel: You have to get into the mindset of your character (or create one for the character). You have to advance the story, make the scene work, play off the other actors. And you have to do that while making it appear you’re doing nothing at all.
“Every time you do a part, you work on it and you feel like you’re never gonna get it: Why did I take it? This was a mistake,” Lovitz says. “And then something clicks — Oh, finally. But it just takes time.”
Lovitz is sitting on a black leather couch next to his brown-haired dog, a Chihuahua-pug named Jerry, who’s wearing a stylish navy sweater. He looks up at me. (Lovitz, not Jerry. Jerry is staring at the floor.) His face is shaped like a dinner platter, with a tall forehead and large eyes. It’s a perfect canvas for comedy, but when he’s being serious – like now – he can use those eyes to connect briefly with yours and create a moment of understanding.
“I guess it would be like you” – he means me – “sit down and write everything that comes to mind, and then you go back and edit it. You know what I mean?"
I do know what you mean, Jon. Like when I write a story, no matter how happy I am with the final piece, even if people tell me they liked it, I always have a sense it’s not quite good enough.
I’m about to add, “I always feel like I can do more,” but Lovitz jumps in.
“It’s not that it’s not good enough,” he says. “That’s one way of looking at it, but I think it’s more about you only have so much time to think about it until you have to do it. You have a deadline. I have to turn it in. Then the next week you go, Oh, I thought of this and this and this. I would have cut that. You know what I mean?
“You keep thinking about it. I think that’s what happens.”
Lovitz is talking about me and my job (and I have some editors who’ll appreciate his little deadline nudge), but he’s actually talking about himself, too.
“But if there was no deadline, there wasn’t a start date you have to shoot or perform, you would just never be ready, because you could just change it forever.”
He starts talking about his own stand-up career, which he started 12 years ago. At the beginning, he used to do characters — which seems natural, given his SNL roots.
“It just didn’t work,” he says. “So I started just doing myself, and it’s more and more me and how I really feel. The audience connects to that more than anything.”
Lovitz’s show takes aim at culture, politics (lots of politics — Trump, Clinton, Sanders, even David Gergen). And Bob Saget. Lots of Bob Saget too.
But he’s clear on this point with his audiences: He’s just an actor. You shouldn’t be listening to him.
“I’m reflecting back what’s going on through my own point of view,” he says. “I’m just commenting on it in a funny way, which is satire.”
Easy to say — but still a challenge to do.