The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
When introducing Jon Lovitz for one of his many appearances on Late Night, Conan O’Brien summed the man up perfectly when he described him as a “living cartoon character.” He has his catchphrases (“I was ACTing!,” “Yeah, THAT’s the ticket…,” “ACKhem!,” and the list could go on and on…), he has a signature cadence – there’s no better way to say it other than this: he’s just so Lovitzy.
He got a chance to shine on Saturday Night Live, obviously, and his roles on The Critic and Newsradio were great, but when I discovered a special for Fox that he had co-written and starred in on live TV, I was excited to see his pure, unadulterated vision for what a Jon Lovitz television event should be. Airing on May 20, 1992, the fantastically named The Please Watch the Jon Lovitz Special was performed for America, and served as a nice little throwback to the olden days of television as Jon and his cast perform an original play for the assembled audience (all in their formal clothing).
At the top, Jon, also in a tux, comes on stage and waves to the crowd, and greets them. (I’m going to do my best to convey the Lovitz manner of speaking here) “THANK you. THANK you. Whatta town, whatta crowd. Whatta town, whatta crowd. What a crowd. And have you seen the TOWN?!” Jon then makes sure to let us know that the reason we haven’t seen him in big Hollywood movies like his fellow SNL cast members is simple: he could, but he’s retired. With that in mind, he’s made it clear that he could leave the show at any time this evening if he gets a part in a big movie. And just by coincidence, the directors Rob Reiner, Jerry Bruckheimer and Ron Underwood are in the audience, seated right next to one another, with telephones installed on the backs of the seats in front of them which is connected to a phone on stage, allowing them to offer him a part in their next project immediately.
The play Jon co-wrote is called “The Tragedy of Johnny Lewis,” and of course, Jon is the lead. “How did I get the part? I slept with myself! And fun was had by all.” He describes it as “a taught emotional drama about a man in a quandary who must make a decision in order to extricate himself from the aforeMENTIONED quandary.” It opens in the locker room of the baseball team The Giants in 1954. Johnny Lewis has just won the game for the team and tomorrow’s the last game of the World Series. When asked by a reporter what they’re going to do to Cleveland tomorrow, the team responds in song, to the tune of “A Bicycle Built for Two.” “Cleveland, Cleveland, / We’re gonna beat ‘em bad. / And if they try to score on us, we’re going to get really mad. / We’ll sharpen our cleats and stab ‘em. / And where it hurts we’ll grab ‘em. / And they will yell / ‘You should rot in hell,’ / But we won’t because it’s bad advice.”
Suddenly, a doctor enters and tells him that he needs to talk to Johnny about something serious. The lights dim. A lone violin plays a sad tune. Johnny walks downstage to lament as a soliloquy. “Bad news! And it’s serious, too! What could it be?” Jon milks it for all the drama he can, before looking expectantly at the directors in the crowd. He throws his baseball glove down in frustration, stomps into the crowd, over to Rob Reiner’s seat, picks up his custom phone, which causes the phone on stage to ring. “Is that so hard?”
When Jon returns to the play, he’s now in the doctor’s office, being told that his constant sliding headfirst has caused permanent brain damage. If he slides headfirst one more time, the sudden stop could kill him. Thus begins an Abbot and Costello-style bit in which Johnny Lewis’s short-term memory loss is so intense that he keeps responding “I KNOW, but what are the results of the test?!” each time it’s explained to him. Suddenly, the phone rings! Jon leaps up, runs over and picks it up. “Hello, Mr. Reiner. Yes, it was a funny scene. And quite dramatic when you remember the brain damage aspect.” Suddenly Jon’s face sinks. He wants the doctor. But not to worry, Jon has an understudy. As Jon returns to the scene, the doctor’s understudy turns around revealing Married with Children and Modern Family’s Ed O’Neill. “Well. What?” are the only words he manages to utter before the phone rings again. As Jon starts to get up, Carl Reiner, from the audience tells him to slow down: “It’s for Ed.”
Back at Johnny Lewis’s apartment, his wife is on the phone with an unseen lover named Moe. She needs $100 to fly out to him, but she has a good idea as to how she can get it. Jonny enters with flowers for his wife. “I know these aren’t as pretty as you, but I hope you like ‘em.” She takes the bouquet and throws them out the window in one motion. He breaks the news to her gently but as it turns out, she already knows since he called her from the doctor’s office and then forgot about it. As their conversation continues, in between encouraging him to slide in the big game the next day, she keeps asking for $20 and he keeps obliging, while occasionally asking when they got a dog.
Johnny decides to go for a walk. A paperboy, played by Richard Belzer in a strange cameo, cries, “Extra! Extra! World Series Rides on Johnny Lewis’s Shoulders!” He tosses a paper to Johnny who ducks from it. “Watch the head!” An ice cream man rides by on his bike. “Have an Eskimo pie for good luck!” “Watch the head!” Suddenly two jugglers walk through tossing bowling pins back and forth. “Watch the head!” Johnny says as he cuts directly between them, perfectly demonstrating the comedy rule of threes.
At the game the next day, Johnny Lewis keeps striking out because he either keeps ducking away from the ball, or he tries to hold the bat with his feet to save himself. Finally, at the bottom of the ninth, he hits the ball. As he runs towards first, he enters into a conversation with his conscience that asks him if he’s truly done everything he’s ever wanted to do. One item on that list is shooting craps in Vegas. The stage rotates to reveal an enormous Vegas set. Johnny is the biggest star in town. Everybody loves him. He’s given the Presidential suite, and when he asks where the president is going to stay, everyone laughs at his joke. He’s on top of the world. As he’s shooting craps, he asks who the man is that’s getting a massage directly in front of the table. Of course that’s Moe Greene, the casino magnate from The Godfather, who also happens to be the Moe that Johnny’s wife is having an affair with. Johnny rolls his dice, and one accidentally flies off the table. Suddenly Moe Greene, played by Alex Rocco, just as in the film, clutches his left eye and blood pours from it. “Oh no! Not the other eye!” Suddenly, in one of the more unexpected cameos, we cut to James Caan and Robert Duvall, both in the audience who smugly high five one another. Johnny’s wife is hysterical. “Johnny! You don’t come to Las Vegas and do something like that to a guy like Moe Green!” Johnny of course responds, “I know! But what are the results of the test?!” Suddenly he notices his wife clutching the dead body of Moe Greene: “Hey, hey, hey! What did you do to our dog?!
We return back to the game, and Johnny makes the decision to slide. He reaches his arms out and tags the base. The Giants score and win, but at what cost? The doctor rushes out. He’s not dead, but if anyone ever moves him he will be. Suddenly, the phone rings. One of the other ball players picks up the phone. “Yes, Mr. Reiner. All of us?” Everyone but Lovitz runs off, who just taps his fingers on the stage floor and channels Jack Benny, saying “Oh… fine.” The play ends, and as the curtain closes we hear Johnny exclaim, “Watch the head!” one last time.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this special was how pure the voice was throughout. It’s absolutely Lovitz from top to bottom. There are even little mini-sketches at different points to cover scene changes and the like that are perfectly in his style of humor. For example, he introduces supermodel and actress Carol Art who comes on stage, and introduces a segment to the audience that he calls “Live THROUGH me!” Sexy lighting and smooth jazz plays and Jon and Carol embrace. “Oh, Jon,” she says. “You’re such a stud. Kiss me, you big hunk of man.” He does so, and then looks right into the camera. “Jealous? Don’t be! Live THROUGH me!”
Unfortunately, there would be no follow up specials for Lovitz on Fox. There’s not much about the special online, but one thing that comes up right away is a review from Variety that wasn’t too kind. It’s strange that an idea so rooted in the early history of television can simultaneously be ahead of its time, but that seems to be the ticket with NBC’s live musicals and Maya Rudolph’s recent variety show. Would Lovitz’s live play have been more successful if it aired today? I don’t know, but I’d certainly watch if he got another crack at it.