He may be one of the most popular comedians to have regularly appeared on the long-running US sketch show Saturday Night Live and a familiar face from countless comic films and TV shows, but Jon Lovitz is a man who seems to take things very seriously. In fact, speaking to him on the phone from Los Angeles, just over a week before his Dubai debut on November 26 at the Comedy Club (he will open the Madinat Jumeirah Arena's comedy season), it is hard to raise a joke from the laconic American.
Of course, to expect a comedian to be funny all the time is as deeply unfair as expecting an off-duty policeman to carry a truncheon or an off-duty accountant to talk about double-entry book-keeping. Many comedians are notoriously gloomy by nature, and Lovitz seems to be no exception - indeed, this is often part of his comedic schtick, with his forlorn visage lending itself perfectly to misanthropic moments such as his feud with the celebrity-gossip website TMZ.com.
Back in the late 1970s, though, Lovitz trained as a dramatic actor at the University of California, Irvine, and it is a time that he is happy to look back on, citing his theatrical work as the source of the best comedy. "I did mostly acting at first, but I had a teacher named Tony Barr, who taught the film actor's workshop, and he had a friend named Ralph Levy who came to teach us comedy," he says. "Well, Ralph Levy used to produce and direct The Jack Benny Program and The George Burns & Gracie Allen Show, and he directed a movie, Bedtime Story, with David Niven and Marlon Brando, so the guy really knew comedy. And I did a scene for him once, and he said: 'Where's all the stuff you learned at UC Irvine?' And I said: 'You mean it's the same?' He said: 'Sure. You do all the things that you do in drama and then you add the comedy on top of it. You, the actor, you're aware of the comedy, but the character you're playing should be oblivious.' He's right. To be a great comedic actor you also have to know how to make a scene work."
That might explain why so many comedians find themselves, when they hit the big time, yearning to work as "serious" actors, ditching their stand-up in favour of proper movie roles. Eddie Izzard, for example, has forged a successful film career after starting out on the British stand-up circuit. Lovitz claims to have no such aspirations, though he certainly is aware of the perceived gap between comedy and "real" acting.
"For most comedic actors and comedians, it's not hard for them to do drama. The hard part is convincing people to hire you for it," he says. "One time, Dustin Hoffman befriended me and he brought me to audition for this movie, Billy Bathgate, and the director was Robert Benton. So Dustin was saying - and I was like 34 at the time - 'I think Jon would be really, really great in this movie'. And Robert Benton goes: 'Well, sure, I know he can do it, but people will be laughing.' And I said: 'Well, maybe at first, but if I'm not funny they won't be laughing.' I thought he was idiotic, because any actor you hire that gets famous, I could say, well, with Dustin Hoffman they're going to be thinking of Tootsie. So I think it's kind of ignorant." No hard feelings there, then.
Indeed for Lovitz, his career has gone in the opposite direction to that dictated by convention, with the mastery of stand-up being the ultimate goal. The work that goes into a stand-up routine - not to mention the fear of going on stage to declaim your witticisms in front of hundreds of people - is something that he has spent years on. "I always wanted to do it - I used to do Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce's routines in the college dorm," he says. "And then I got on Saturday Night Live and Dennis Miller would say: 'You could be a stand-up', and would take me to this club in New York, but I was so nervous. Or I'd get on stage and they'd cheer, but then I didn't know what to do and they wouldn't cheer and my heart was just pounding in my chest... It just wasn't fun. You know, at first you start off with five minutes, which seems like forever, and someone says: 'Can you do 10 minutes?' and then every time you go on stage you just learn more and more. What's interesting to me now is I know the material so well, I just go up and start and I don't even think about it. It's just there; it's a very strange feeling. That's how the stand-up comes out now. It's so organic." Let's hope it's funny, too.
Jon Lovitz is at the Comedy Club at Madinat Jumeirah Arena on November 26. Tickets from Dh250 per person for the show or Dh600 per person for dinner and the show. Visit www.comedyclubme.com for reservations. firstname.lastname@example.org