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Jon Lovitz Bets on “Casino Jack”

Jon Lovitz Bets on “Casino Jack” (photo)

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It’s not unusual to hear that Jon Lovitz is the funniest part of a movie. It’s more so to discover that that movie isn’t a traditional comedy — it’s “Casino Jack,” George Hickenlooper’s caper-like take on the downfall of Jack Abramoff and the director’s last before his death in October at age 47. Lovitz plays Adam Kidan, Abramoff’s partner in a scheme to buy a casino cruise line in Florida. Unlike lobbyists Abramoff (played by Kevin Spacey) and his protege Michael Scanlon (Barry Pepper), Kidan is not in the business of self-delusion about his own nature. He’s a former mattress salesman with mob ties who likes strippers, cocaine and frank talk, and in a story in which so many of the figures involved have convinced themselves that their greed somehow works toward the greater good, Lovitz’s character is a breath of fresh air, an unabashed, amusing sleazebag. I got a few minutes to talk to the former SNL member about “documentary film acting,” faith and his stand-up work.

Adam Kidam isn’t as familiar a figure to the public as Jack Abramoff, how close did you feel you had to stick to him as…

…a real guy? I didn’t, because, like you said, there was hardly any stuff. I went on the internet, and there were a couple of pictures and footage of him walking, so I used that. I read the story, a couple quotes of his, everything that happened, but mostly I based it on the script and worked it out with the director, George Hickenlooper. He died, it’s horrible. He really made the movie, and I just — I feel very grateful that he left in all my scenes. You plan a whole character with all the scenes in mind when you read a part, and then you go to the movie and they cut a lot of the scenes, and you’re like “Uh? Now that’s not funny because they cut that, and no one know why I’m doing that…” With this, he left them all in, which I’ve never had before — I was thrilled. I got to make a whole guy.

I did the movie “Happiness” with Todd Solondz, and he was great to work with, but in the script I had three scenes — the first scene, one where I dropped the girl off and a third where I commit suicide. And I go “This is going to be dramatic, what’s more dramatic than that?” And then they kept the first scene and cut the other two. It’s his movie, his story to tell, but I was disappointed that the other two got cut, because then it would have been a character with a beginning, a middle and an end.

12232010_casinojack3.jpgDid you see the sequel, “Life During Wartime”?

I haven’t seen it, but I know Paul Reubens [who took on the role Lovitz played in the first film]. He actually called me and said “You know, I feel weird and honored, I’m playing your part.” I’m like, “What, are you kidding? Paul, I’m flattered you’re doing it.” I went to the Groundlings when I was 20 — someone recommended me to go and see him, Pee-wee Herman. He said he kind of imitated me [laughs].

How did you approach acting in a film that’s more of a drama than is typical of your work on the big screen?

I actually studied straight acting for ten years, I was a drama major at UC Irvine, here in New York I did an Oscar Wilde play. But when I was 25, I concentrated on the Groundlings. So I know acting, I just decided to concentrate on comedy. Ralph Levy came to [my acting] class to teach comedy for a summer, he used to produce and direct “The Burns and Allen Show,” “The Jack Benny Show.” I did a scene for him, and he said “Where’s all the stuff you did at Irvine?” I said “It’s the same?” “Of course it’s the same!” You do all the things you do in drama, and add the comedy on top of it. You the actor know it’s funny, but the character should be oblivious.

I hadn’t done a movie in a while, we’d be on the set and George kept saying “That’s good. Less, less.” And I finally said “You want me to do documentary film acting?” And he goes, “Yes.” Which is a term I kind of made up — how can you act in a documentary? I said that because he had made documentaries, and he knew what I meant, which was — you’re watching a documentary, and they’re interviewing, say, a farmer, and he’s having a tough time, he might lose his house, you’re like “Holy shit!”

12232010_casinojack2.jpgIf you said that guy’s an actor, he’s not really a farmer, well, that’s the best actor I’ve ever seen. You can’t tell the person’s acting, but at the same time you’re riveted. And that’s what film acting is, and it’s really hard to do because the camera picks up everything. That’s why there’s very few great actors — and I’m not talking about myself. [laughs] There’s Kevin Spacey, he was amazing. You have ten different things that you want to bring to each scene, you attempt that, but he does it.

As he plays Abramoff in the film, the character is a performer too. He’s convinced himself, rationalized away all the terrible things he’s doing.

Right! That’s why I say he’s a fake Jew.

Yes — he’s very devoted to his religion, but doesn’t absorb any of its moral lessons.

Exactly! Judaism especially is about trying to do the right thing morally. That’s why you have the Torah and the Talmud, which is 12 books of scholars asking questions — what does this mean, in a moral situation? What do you do? And then they have the Mishnah, which is 64 volumes of questions about the Talmud, it’s endless. That’s why I say “You fake Jew, you’re saying you’re all moralistic but you’re not,” but he keeps justifying it. In the movie — I don’t know the guy personally.

I know you’ve gotten into stand-up, and you have the comedy club in Universal City. Can you tell me about that, particularly coming as you have from an improv background?

I used to do Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce’s routines in my dorm. When I got “Saturday Night Live,” Dennis Miller goes “You could be a stand-up!” It was something I always wanted to do. About seven years ago the movie roles were drying up, and I said to my agent and manager “Can you get me work? I’m going to run out of money in a few years.” I wasn’t broke, but… They go “Why don’t you sell your house?” That was their answer. And one was building a mansion and the other was moving into one. So I thought, I have a better idea, I’m going to learn stand-up and fire both of them.

12232010_casinojack4.jpgIt motivated me to do something, to face my fear of something I always wanted to do but was too afraid to. I would get on stage and my heart would be pounding in my chest. I went to The Laugh Factory and said to Jamie Masada “You got to force me on stage. I want to do this.” He said “Okay, you’re on in 20 minutes.” It was the only way I could do it. Everyone was 15 years younger than me. But Dane Cook is at that club all the time and he was very supportive and encouraging, and that helped a lot.

Who’s working the stand-up circuit these days that you think is worthy of attention?

I did a Showtime special where I got to present four guys and I think they’re all great. Ian Bagg, Daryl Wright, Al Del Bene, who’s currently opening for Dane, and Quinn Dale. The special’s called “Jon Lovitz Presents,” and those four guys… they’re all great.

“Casino Jack” is now playing in theaters.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.