Looking Back at Jon Lovitz’s 1998 Sitcom Pilot, ‘The Jon Lovitz Show’

“The Script Pile” is a biweekly column on Splitsider that takes a look at the screenplays for high-profile movie and TV comedies that never made it to the screen.

Back in 1998, Jon Lovitz co-created and starred in a pilot for an ABC comedy called The Jon Lovitz Show that was passed over by the network. The pilot was a multi-camera sitcom in which Lovitz played a fictionalized version of himself, as an actor who’s so self-obsessed that he’s cartoonishly jerky to everyone around him. Coming just a few years after ABC canceled Lovitz’s animated show, The Critic, he co-scripted The Jon Lovitz Show with Mike Langworthy, a writer/producer on ABC’s Cybill and their short-lived Fred Savage-fronted office comedy Working at the time. The Jon Lovitz Show pilot featured cameos from Ed O’Neill and Lovitz’s longtime collaborator and friend Phil Hartman, who was tragically murdered just a few weeks after it was filmed.

The Jon Lovitz Show (not to be confused with the comedian’s 1992 primetime Fox special, Please Watch the Jon Lovitz Special) is a little bit ahead of its time in the way it a) uses Lovitz as a fictionalized, monstrous version of himself and b) allows Lovitz to break the fourth wall and directly address the camera, which the other characters can’t see. Sure, Garry Shandling had done similar things with his series The Larry Sanders Show and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, with guest stars playing themselves on the former and him talking to the audience in the midst of a meta-sitcom in the latter, but Lovitz Show was still doing that stuff years before Curb Your Enthusiasm, Malcolm in the Middle, and The Bernie Mac Show came along.

Lovitz’s sitcom version of himself is a struggling actor who desperately wants lead roles but can only get supporting roles and cameos. He desperately wants to star in the new Hollywood movie The Handsomest Man in the World, which Tom Cruise is starring in while Lovitz is only being offered the part of the sidekick, who’s called Bud Ugly. He’s a single guy who owns his own nightclub/sports bar called Jonny’s and is always seeking attention in a self-absorbed way that makes him behave rudely to others.

While Lovitz’s character is oblivious to his jerkiness, it’s pretty impressive how Lovitz and co-writer Mike Langworthy refused to make the character even slightly sympathetic throughout the pilot, when I’d assume that was probably a note they were getting from the network nonstop. Lovitz’s character does wear a little thin and it might have been tough to hang a weekly show around him while keeping him that way, but it’s admirable how Lovitz and Langworthy stuck to their convictions and made him a Curb or Always Sunny-esque dick. Their joke writing is sharp too, especially for a ‘90s network sitcom. While their rapid-fire back-and-forth style of sitcom joke writing is a little outdated at this point (like any script from this era), many of the jokes are still smart and/or funny.

Here’s an excerpt from the script with Lovitz reconciling with a girlfriend:

Lovitz’s character is surrounded by a supporting cast that includes his doctor cousin Bob (Larry Miller, Seinfeld), his manager Cynthia (Lindsay Frost, Frasier), his friend/guy who works at his nightclub Ted (John D’Aquino, That’s My Bush), and his maid Elsa (Amy Hill, All-American Girl). The pilot follows Lovitz trying to keep his girlfriend Kim (Kristy Swanson) happy despite him constantly ignoring and being a jerk to her because of his own ego. While the supporting cast could use more development on the page and they’re all straight men to bounce off of Lovitz’s over-the-top vain guy, it’s hard to judge whether the ensemble would have gelled or not just off of the pilot as a lot of casts don’t seem that promising in their first episode.

Ed O’Neill, just coming off of Married… with Children at the time, cameos as himself, as does Phil Hartman, then of NewsRadio, who collaborated with Lovitz throughout their careers as they jumped together from The Groundlings in the ‘70s to SNL in the ‘80s to Hollywood in the ‘90s. If the production schedule attached to the version of the script I have is accurate, the pilot taping in front of a live audience took place on May 1, 1998, just four weeks prior to Hartman’s death:

Hartman makes a quick cameo in a scene at Lovitz’s club, Jonny’s, where Lovitz is desperately trying not to neglect his girlfriend but gets caught up when Hartman tells him he got some bad news in a letter from his doctor (Lovitz only really joins him because he has pie). It’s a scene that’s a little eerie in light of Hartman’s death but wouldn’t be something to even bat an eye at prior to it:

After the pilot was filmed, ABC passed on it in late May, opting to pick up Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, Norm Macdonald’s The Norm Show, and a bunch of one-season wonders as its new sitcoms that season instead. While Lovitz and Langworthy’s pilot script is funny throughout, especially for its time, and prescient  with some comedy trends that would grow more popular in the years that followed, I can see how ABC execs didn’t think a show like this (and with a main character as intentionally unlikable as this) was fit to join its the likes of more conventional fare like Spin City, Dharma & Greg and The Drew Carey Show. After all, Lovitz’s SNL peer Dana Carvey had failed with a bold, off-brand ABC sketch show just two years prior, and network execs may have been afraid picking up Lovitz Show would be making the same mistake.

Shortly after The Jon Lovitz Show fell through, Phil Hartman’s devastating murder occurred, and Lovitz joined the cast of Hartman’s show, NewsRadio, a month later after mulling over the decision for weeks. While Lovitz’s turn on the NBC sitcom’s final season may not have been well-received (he had gigantic shoes to fill), he took the part for the right reasons. “I’m doing this for Phil,” Lovitz told CNN at the time. “There’s nothing more to say.”

Photo credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Looking Back at Jon Lovitz’s 1998 Sitcom Pilot, ‘The […]