It’s not too soon, right? Nearly a year has passed, so I can go ahead and hate on Norm MacDonald. You’ll note that I was fairly measured in my obit piece when he passed last year. I stayed my hand for the sake of harmony. I won’t deny that he was both funny and a one-of-a-kind original. But he was also a nasty piece of work. On top of whatever sexist and racist and homophobic depths he plumbed over the years, my research into him upon his 2021 passing yielded a penchant on his first part for disparaging other comedians, including ones I admire. I think even Jon Lovitz will agree that the most egregious example was Jack Benny. “Jack Benny? You think that shit’s funny?” MacDonald chirped in apparent bewilderment in one of those “The Emperor Has No Clothes” style takes. I’m assuming it’s Philistinism like that that makes him so prized among contemporaries. Hey, edgy! Speak truth to power, man! A guy from 50 years ago doesn’t tickle your funny bone, but your drinking buddy in the baseball cap cracks you right up! You’re a fucking dead rocket scientist, Norm MacDonald!
But anyway, we come today to bury Norm MacDonald, not to not praise him. And to cut to the chase, another of the comedians he belittled was Jon Lovitz (b. 1957). That’s right, the much funnier and much more talented comic actor Jon Lovitz, who actually got cast in lots of movie and TV and voice-over roles, because he delivers the goods. Most of us first discovered him from his tenure on Saturday Night Live (1985-1992), roughly the same time as his old pal from The Groundlings, Phil Hartman. Naturally I’ve always loved him because he is steeped in show biz, and excels in nailing “old movie” characters, especially shifty low-lifes, agents, bookmakers, and so forth. His “Liar” character is probably the best remembered of these…it made people laugh not just because of the preposterous extravagance of his whoppers, but because of how he acted it, like a guy in an old movie. Probably my favorite bit of his was a cigar-smoking stand-up comedian from the Catskills, who followed up long set-ups with incomprehensible Yiddish punchlines. Again it was the way he acted it that was so hilarious, the way the character would stand back and proudly wait for his laugh when he delivered jokes no one in the audience could possibly understand. His “Master Thespian” character was also naturally drawn from show biz, although I was never as fond of that one. It was a good idea for a bit, but I feel like he was miscast in it, i.e., he should have given it someone else (e.g., Hartman). But that character informs, I think, his later animated series The Critic (1994-95), which was so insidery it only lasted one season.
As an old school character actor Lovitz is in a LOT of movies, not all of them brilliant, but enough to show that a guy like him is deservedly in demand. This is just some of the classics, semi-classics and turkeys he has appeared in, or provided voices for: Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), Three Amigos (1986), The Brave Little Toaster (1987), Big (1988), My Stepmother is an Alien (1988), An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), A League of Their Own (1992), Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), Coneheads (1993), City Slickers II (1994), North (1994), The Great White Hype (1996), Matilda (1996), High School High (1996), The Wedding Singer (1998), Happiness (1999), Small Time Crooks (2000), Little Nicky (2000), 3000 Miles to Graceland (2001), Eight Crazy Nights (2002), Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, (2003), The Stepford Wives (2004), The Producers (2005), The Benchwarmers (2006), Hotel Transylvania (2012, and sequels), etc etc. Naturally, many of these are with former SNL colleagues and friends like Adam Sandler and David Spade, etc. He’s also frequently on television, and has been for nearly four decades.
Interestingly, Lovitz only began performing stand-up comedy in 2003, two decades into his career. All of his pre-television training and experience had been in theatre and improv. For a time (2009-2014), he ran his own comedy club, with a concomitant podcast. We salute him on his natal day and hope to see many more performances from him in coming decades. This is a performer who will only get better as he grows older.
For more on show business history, including tv variety, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.