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Jon Lovitz on Sing Your Face Off, Robert Downey Jr., and the SNL Character He Wishes He’d Created

Jon Lovitz. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

In the toxic slurry of aggressive reviews greeting ABC’s new singing-and-impersonating competition show, Sing Your Face Off, the New York Observer’s might’ve been the most shrill: “I hope I’m not exaggerating here, but Sing Your Face Off will lead directly to a Hunger Games–style dystopian future.” But our opinion is that anything that features Jon Lovitz hamming it up as Elton John and Pavarotti can’t be all that bad. The man’s record of humanitarian service — forged from characters like Saturday Night Live’s Master Thespian and The Critic’s Jay Sherman — has earned him the right to be showered with confetti and fanfare, not internet hatred and dismissal, even if getting upstaged by Sebastian Bach pretending to be Adam Levine is part of the deal. With Sing Your Face Off set to debut tomorrow night, Vulture talked to Lovitz about the SNL years, Robert Downey Jr.’s poetry, Lorne Michaels’s tennis game, and the first time he laid eyes on Adam Sandler.

Such an eclectic cast on this show — the teenage Disney Star, the former New York Knick, and Sebastian Bach. Shades of your first SNL cast with Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., and Terry Sweeney. Does the assortment feel as strange?
No, they’re all really great. They’re all really, really nice, and super talented. We all got along great. The show was more about having fun and imitating these people and the music and singing like them as opposed to a competition. So everybody was very supportive of each other.

That’s interesting that a reality-competition show was actually less competitive than SNL.
Well, yeah, Saturday Night Live, it was like every week you were auditioning to get on the show. Literally. You’d write scenes and you’d have a read-through and they’d pick ‘em, and out of 38 or 40 sketches they’d pick 13 that they would produce, and then you’d have dress rehearsal and they’d cut six. They only air eight. It was really competitive. You felt like you were auditioning for your job every week. That’s what it felt like. Where, with this, I knew I had it. I wasn’t competing to be on the show. I knew I was on the show.

If you think back to that first season of SNL where you were the breakout star, it was your lightning-in-a-bottle year. The other cast members that season didn’t fare as well.
I thought that that cast got a raw deal in the TV Guide. We had done 11 shows, but the guy only talked about the first three. And he didn’t mention the fact that by then my liar character was a big hit. I created my liar character, and after the first show, Lorne said, “Why don’t you write it with A. Whitney Brown?” And I give him 50 percent credit because he really helped me expand the character.

Did you expect Robert Downey Jr. to go on to have such a huge career?
I never knew him before I got that show. And I became friends with him, and he would make up these poems. “Wanna hear a poem I made up?” “Sure.” “They’re kinda different.” And he would tell me them and I just thought they were brilliant. I would go, “You’re a genius.” He had a way of speaking that I’d never heard anybody speak like that before. He was 20 years old at the time. I didn’t know Robert would become as big as he is now, but I thought he was brilliant then and a really nice guy. And Anthony Michael Hall I thought was brilliant. And Joan Cusack. And Randy Quaid, you know, was already established, but I thought he was a great actor. And Danitra Vance and Nora Dunn and Dennis Miller.

Do you think anybody on Sing Your Face Off will break out in the way you broke out back then on this show?
In my opinion, and I think everybody else’s on the show, China McClain, the 14-year-old, is one of the most phenomenal performers I’ve seen in my life ever. It was so exciting for all of us to see a talent like that in person. She’s only been on a show called A.N.T. Farm. She’s 14 years old. And she’s just amazing and she just blew everybody away over and over. And I think she’s going to be as big as any of the musical stars ever. Crazy great.

I knew that you had a certain kind of vocal talent — you can make it do unbelievably grating things. In some ways, your voice might be your biggest talent. But I didn’t know you were a song-and-dance man.
Well, I was 8 years old and my parents said, “You need to learn an instrument.” I picked piano.

Phil Hartman had hidden song-and-dance talents, didn’t he?
I wouldn’t say he was a great singer, but he could carry a tune. But he could change his voice to play anybody. And any style. Superbly. And he could change his face to look like the person he was playing without any makeup. Phil played guitar too. But Dana Carvey? He could be a professional drummer.

For a while, towards the end of your Saturday Night Live career, you had beef with Lorne Michaels. Do you guys talk?
Oh, yeah, I’ve been getting along great with him for years. We play tennis together. Everything’s fine.

Is he competitive?
Yeah, he’s into it. Whatever. We had our differences. I’m very grateful to him. He hired me on Saturday Night Live. I always say to him, “Thank you for giving me the life I dreamed of.”

Smigel did a great TV Funhouse on “That’s the ticket” versus “Isn’t that special?” called “The Life of a Catch Phrase.” In the spirit of Sing Your Face Off, were there characters on SNL either before or after you that you would liked to have had a crack at?
I remember in 1990, I was at the Improv Comedy Club on Melrose, and I saw all these comics and there was this one that was different than all the rest and he really made me laugh. His was odd and quiet and his jokes were ridiculously silly, but I was just crying laughing. And he just killed me. Anyway, it was Adam Sandler. So I talked to him and said, “Hey, nice to meet you, and I think you’re so funny.” And then when I left Saturday Night Live, they basically hired him to replace me. So I called him and said, “Hey, I heard you got the show. You want me to tell you how it works?” And he goes, “Yeah.” So I told him everything. But anyway, we became friends. So he was on the show and he was doing Opera Man. And I remember thinking, Oh, crap! I wouldn’t have thought of his other characters, but Opera Man! Why didn’t I think of that! I could’ve played the crap out of that character. Anyway, I called him and I said, “I never would’ve thought of your other characters, but Opera Man! I wish I would’ve thought of that one. It’s so funny.” And he goes, “Do you want to do it with me?” And I go “Really?” So I ended up doing it with him on “Update.” I think Glenn Close was hosting. And I played Opera Man’s brother. He was just really generous like that. None of the other people on the show would’ve ever done that in a billion years. But he’s not like them. He’s a great guy. And he’s put me in his movies. I can’t say enough about him.

One more thing: I love The Critic. One of the great animated characters of all times. And your character on The Simpsons, Artie Ziff, was also one of the best. I would relapse on The Simpsons Tapped Out if they sold him for 200 doughnuts.
Well, thanks. That’s the writers. Al Jean and Mike Riess created The Critic and Artie Ziff. I give them the credit for that.

They created both characters? Artie Ziff inspired The Critic?
I think so. Well, it helped. They were running The Simpsons at the time, and I did Artie Ziff, and they liked me. They became fans of mine. They wanted to do a show with Jon Lovitz, so they created The Critic.

Jon Lovitz on His New ABC Show, SNL, and Lorne