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August 09, 2017

Jon Lovitz explains why Donald Trump won over Pennsylvania

The crass comedian, who performs at Helium this week, also says SNL's political pranks and parodies are nothing new

Comedians Interviews
Jon Lovitz Submitted photo/for PhillyVoice

“He was complimentary and nice when I first met him,” Jon Lovitz said of Trump.

When you think about Jon Lovitz, there are several predictable routes to go down. There are the talking points of a tenured alumnus of “Saturday Night Live,” where, from 1985 to 1990, Lovitz portrayed still-famous characters such as Tonto, “The Master Thespian,” Mephistopheles, Harvey Fierstein, Michael Dukakis. Then there were “Hanukkah Harry” and "Tommy Flanagan, the Pathological Liar." 

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By the mid-1990s, Lovitz was the voice and spitting image of “The Critic,” an animated Fox Network program where he satirized the pretentiousness of cineastes everywhere while celebrating New York City. It is, perhaps, the latter show that might give you an indication of what Lovitz will do in his stand-up comedy routine at Helium Comedy Club this weekend. The real Lovitz is as opinionated as the day is long. 

“And don’t expect it to be politically correct in any way, shape or form,” Lovitz said while driving. 

“That’s a fool’s game. If somebody tells me that something is not right to say to an audience, I’m probably going to use it in my act.”

If somebody tells me that something is not right to say to an audience, I’m probably going to use it in my act.”

Lovitz didn’t start his career with an act, at least not one pertaining to comedy. He studied drama at the University of California, Irvine, but happened to be a fan of Bob Fosse’s “Lenny” (about comic avatar, Lenny Bruce) and Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” and wanted desperately to be a comedian. 

“I would perform Bruce and Allen’s albums in my college dorm,” he said. 

Rather than move into stand-up like his heroes (“because producers weren’t hiring live comedians for sitcoms”), Lovitz traveled back-and-forth from NYC to Los Angeles looking for serious stage work. 

“I did Renaissance fairs as a village prankster and Oscar Wilde off-off-Broadway,” he said of legitimate theater in Manhattan before heading to The Groundlings for improvisational, sketch work. 

“I got funny there because I didn’t care what people thought. Everyone there was doing it because they loved doing it.” 

Among his fellow comics at LA.’s Groundlings was SNL’s Phil Hartman and Paul “Pee Wee Herman” Reubens. In 1984, The Groundlings got booked on Johnny Carson’s "The Tonight Show" where Lovitz performed his “Pathological Liar” character to great acclaim, and by 1985, was brought to the attention of SNL by his agent. 

“I thought I stood as much of a chance getting to that show as I did landing on Pluto,” said Lovitz.

Talking about SNL and the sketch and stand-up scenes of the late 80s in Manhattan means, for Lovitz, it featured a who's-who of current icons (Jerry Seinfeld, "Transparent"'s Jill Soloway) and silly events around the fringes (“the Miss Vagina Pageant”) of without any attempt to romanticize the moment. 

“Everyone says how, in 2017, SNL is so politically incisive – which it is – but remember when I was there, AL Franken wrote the great Dukakis/George Bush sketch for me, which is unforgettable to some,” he said. 

“Look at what Chevy Chase did, making Gerald Ford into a clumsy oaf, or John Belushi into Kissinger. What they do now is great, but the political stuff isn’t new. The only difference now is that they bring people outside of the cast like Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy in to do political characters. And that seems to be working too. It’s hysterically funny. That’s one of the show’s strengths.”

When it comes to what’s new – or at least recent – in Lovitz’s professional life, he was on the Donald Trump-produced last season of “The New Celebrity Apprentice” in 2017. He had met the President when he was but a billionaire-businessman at the U.S. Open in the past. 

“He was complimentary and nice when I first met him,” said Lovitz. 

“That’s not the same guy I met again – or heard – when he wound up making campaign speeches. Either way, during election time, I made fun of everybody – Bernie, Hillary, Donald – during my stand-up tour last year.” 

Lovitz recalls that tour, and how he found cities around the country devastated by what he saw as a lack of jobs and lousy economies. 

“Philly’s a great city, but the people didn’t seem as up as they normally are. I’m not knocking the city, I love it there. It’s just a mood I felt. Pennsylvania voted for Trump because they felt like their economy was hurting. That’s saying something.”

Stand-up tours such as this are still fresh for Lovitz, as that isn’t how he started his career in Los Angeles. Fellow SNL friends Dennis Miller and Dana Carvey, however, influenced him into the form. 

“I tried doing my characters at first, and truthfully, that didn’t work. So, I figured that I’d just talk about me, what I think about what’s going on in the world – politics, race, transgenders – as well as making fun of myself. A lot of people think I come off like Don Rickles. I don’t know that I do, but either way, that’s a pretty high standard to follow.”

Jon Lovitz appears Thursday, August 10 to Saturday, August 12 at Helium Comedy Club, 2031 Sansom St. Tickets are $38-$25. Show times are 7:30, 8, and 10 p.m. For more information, call 215-496-9001, or click here