Behind a glass partition in a small, wood-paneled recording studio on the Sony Pictures Entertainment lot, Jon Lovitz reads and rereads some lines of dialogue into a big black microphone. Flanking him on the other side of the glass, giving him patient directions and guidance, are Al Jean and Mike Reiss, the two unassuming guys who wrote his lines.
Jean and Reiss, self-described nerds in high school, rose from staff writers to executive producers of "The Simpsons," which they left after last season to create ABC's new series "The Critic." The broad animated parody, premiering at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, revolves around Lovitz as a pudgy, balding and unlovable film critic whose gunky hair comes out of a spray can.
The show is yet another attempt by the networks to find a prime-time cartoon hit like "The Simpsons"--but this time with people who actually worked on Fox's breakthrough series: Jean, Reiss and co-executive producer James L. Brooks.
"A date for the theater. Let's check my little black book," Lovitz says spryly into the mike, sounding very much like the snobby character he developed for the "Get to Know Me" sketch he used to do on "Saturday Night Live." "Hmmm. AAA Escort Service. Sister Dominica. Glenn/Glenda." He's not happy with any of the names he reads. "Ahhh, hello, Helen!"
Unfortunately, according to the script, Helen is still trying to scrub her body clean after her last date with Lovitz's character, Jay Sherman. So Sherman tries to find a date by holding an impromptu trivia contest on his movie-review TV show.
"So, ladies, just call in if you know the name of Spielberg's adorable extraterrestrial," Lovitz says, still reading from the script. "I'll take the 29th caller." There's a pause. Lovitz appeals pathetically: "Cute little alien. Anyone? I'll give you a hint: E . . . Oh! We have a caller. The alien's name was?"
"Richard Dreyfuss," drawls an actress with a hoarse, throaty voice, standing beside Lovitz.
Lovitz sighs deeply. "Uh, do you have a sister?" he asks.
Reiss cuts in and says, "OK, that was good. Now, let's try it again."
"Well, if it was so good, why are we doing it again ? Let's cut through the crap," Lovitz says, affecting the pompous attitude of a big shot, turning his nose up and puffing an imaginary cigar. "And when are you going to rename this building after me, the way you promised?"
Jean and Reiss look at each other and bust out laughing.
In "The Critic," a half-hour comedy set in New York, Sherman reviews movies on his own cheesy cable-TV show, rating them from cold to hot on his "Shermometer." His big catch phrase is "It stinks." His only real fans are drunken frat boys who like to make fun of him.
The movies Sherman critiques are all parodies, such as "Rabbi P.I.," in which an Arnold Schwarzenegger knockoff plays a Chicago cop who goes undercover as a Hasidic Jew. In the film clip Sherman reviews, an animated Schwarzenegger holds a scalpel and stands nervously over a baby. A mob boss commands him: "All right, if you are a real rabbi, circumcise this child." Suddenly, the Schwarzenegger character hurls the scalpel, hitting the mob boss in the heart, and says, "Hava nagila, baby."
When he's not reviewing movies, the divorced Sherman is giving bad advice to his son, Marty; seeking advice from his hunky Australian actor friend, Jeremy; or trying to trade on his questionable celebrity for dates with women or a good seat in his favorite restaurant, L'Ane Riche (translation: the Wealthy Jackass).
Jean and Reiss, college roommates who started working together on the Harvard Lampoon in the late 1970s, know all too well the odds against success for a prime-time cartoon series. In one scene from the 1992 "Simpsons" Halloween special they produced, the camera panned across tombstones in a pet cemetery engraved with the names of the shows that tried to follow in "The Simpsons' " footsteps: Steven Bochco's "Capitol Critters" on ABC, "Fish Police" from Hanna-Barbera Studios and "Family Dog" from Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton on CBS.
Now it's time for Jean and Reiss, who have a development deal with Brooks, to put up themselves. Their credits included "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," "Sledge Hammer!" and "Alf" before landing at "The Simpsons" in 1989. They became executive producers, supervising the writing and all creative aspects.
"It is tough," Reiss said. "The other animated shows that came after us weren't very good, and they really got slammed, but it's a very hard process."
Indeed, "The Simpsons" is the only prime-time cartoon series to find lasting success on one of the networks since "The Flintstones" three decades earlier. In general, the networks have shied away from prime-time animation because it's extremely expensive and time consuming: A half-hour sitcom may air two weeks after shooting, while a half-hour episode of animation takes roughly nine months to produce.