BOSTON — 'I think of it as structured silliness," says Jon Lovitz of the comedy craft. The newest member of the cast of "NewsRadio" (NBC, 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays) has appeared in 11 films (including "High School High," "City Slickers II," and "The Wedding Singer") and guest-starred on many a TV sitcom.
He endeared himself to millions as a regular on "Saturday Night Live" (SNL) from 1985 to 1991. Mr. Lovitz says there is no mystery to what he does and can't believe anyone thinks there might be. Comedy - especially the kind of sketch comedy for which he is famous - is built on instincts and effort, he says.
Lovitz is a two-time Emmy-nominee for his range of characters on SNL, where he created such hilarious portraits of excess as Tommy Flannagan, the president of Pathological Liars Anonymous; the Devil (in a cheap red-satin suit with horns and pitchfork); and Master Thespian (the great declamatory actor with the sonorous voice), among others, and sometimes urged folks to "Get to Know Me" - but always for their own good.
He brought an actorly quality to his sketches that seems remarkable now - seldom indulging cheap jokes and always reaching for the human among all the foibles he mocked.
He continues to exaggerate the real without ever despising the characters he plays or his audience. He is especially winning in "NewsRadio" as Max Lewis, radio reporter, who has been fired from 37 jobs.
"I read Sid Caesar's book," Lovitz says, "and he said he would see comedians who would make fun of the audience, and he decided it was better to make fun of himself. And I thought - 'I'll do that.' I don't think the goal is to make people uncomfortable. But laughing at yourself, you allow people to recognize the same things in themselves, so you are laughing together."
It's this generosity that helps distinguish his brand of humor from so much of the merely crass on TV. "Jon brings a kind of unpredictability to 'NewsRadio,' " says executive producer Josh Lieb. "In some ways [his character] Max is chaos personified - a live grenade. One of the cast members said he is our Groucho Marx. But he also brings a certain sweetness to the show.
"It's impossible not to like Jon. I guess he's a candy-coated grenade. He's just so funny."
Lovitz grew up in Tarzana, Calif., one of the many sprawling burbs of the San Fernando Valley outside Los Angeles. The first time he knew he wanted to make people laugh, he was five years old. He was inspired by a four-year-old friend at a sleep-over who made funny faces. But the catalyst that really opened his eyes to a life in comedy was Woody Allen's "Take the Money and Run."
"I was 13. That's when I knew I wanted to be a comedian," he says. Later, he memorized Allen's stand-up routines as well as Lenny Bruce's and performed them in his dorm at University of California, Irvine.
But he had other comedy heroes inspiring him along the way - from Al Jolson to the Marx Brothers to Lisa Kudrow's big brother David.
"I grew up with the Kudrow family. She was like my sister," he says, speaking of Lisa, who plays Phoebe on the NBC sitcom "Friends." "Her brother David was my friend, and he is super funny. And it's ironic, a lot of people, once they know we are close, think she looks like she's doing me. But if you see that, it's because we're both doing David. He was more talented than both of us. But he's a doctor now...."
As a drama major in college, Lovitz took a class from a famous teacher - Robert Cohen - who wrote "Acting Professionally."
"The class was called 'Great Acting' and the professor said, 'Forget mediocre acting. Let's just look at all the greatest actors. What are the elements of greatness? Try to put that in your work.'
"I was thrilled by that - that has always been in my mind. He said this is what you should always do, strive for greatness. Not that I think I'm great, but just the striving...."
He names a handful of great actors - Dustin Hoffman, Kathy Bates, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Stewart, and Morgan Freeman - pointing out how easy they make their work look. There is so much respect for them in his words that it's clear he has studied them carefully.
"What are they doing?" he says. "Part of what they are doing is simple: There is no wasted motion, they keep everything specific. But you can always tell what their character is thinking."
And this is one of Lovitz's strong suits, too - you always know his characters are thinking.
Lovitz came to "NewsRadio" to fill the void left by the absence of the late Phil Hartman, his dear friend and colleague. "We all talked, writers and cast," says executive producer Lieb. "And we all thought the only person who could fill that void was Jon - not just as the character, but as a friend." Lovitz had guest-starred a couple of times and was no stranger to the show.
He was also Phil Hartman's friend.
"I idolized him like an older brother," says Lovitz, who had worked with Hartman for years on SNL and at the renowned improvisational theater The Groundlings in Los Angeles.
"It was hard to decide to do [the show] because I was conflicted. But they said, 'You would be honoring him, and he'd want you to do it,' and I thought they were right."