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On View : The Comeback 'Critic'

March 12, 1995|BETH KLEID | Beth Kleid is a regular contributor to TV Times and Calendar

"Get to know me," Jon Lovitz used to say with his distinctive voice as the snobbish character he developed for a much-imitated "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

In real life, the actor who has appeared in films ranging from "A League of Their Own" to 'City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold" doesn't live by the same maxim. At least when it comes to reporters, it seems Lovitz likes to keep some physical distance. Make that complete physical distance.

"It's not you personally. No, no, no. I don't even know you," that nasal, singsong voice says reassuringly during an interview, ultimately conducted by phone. "I just get shy. I've had articles written about me where the people meet me and they analyze everything you do. They cut you down physically. I'm just tired of that. You know, they try to be like psychiatrists."

So here goes, Jon. Just what you didn't want. (Amateur psychiatrists can tell a lot over the phone.) Lovitz is entertaining, he's good-natured and he's very funny. His extreme self-confidence is tempered by extreme self-doubt. He even helps out by analyzing himself, calling his own sense of humor "silly and immature." And let's not forget that he's also somewhat neurotic.

Sounds a lot like Jay Sherman, the character Lovitz lends his voice to on "The Critic," the animated show from James L. Brooks and former "Simpsons" executive producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss that will have a new life on Fox after its short run on ABC last year. Sherman is the nebbishy cable-TV film critic who gets his hair out of a spray can and has a jiggly paunch. But the insecure Sherman is confident about one thing: When he sees a movie, he knows if "it stinks," his beloved catch phrase.

Lovitz won't acknowledge any similarities between himself and Jay Sherman. None at all? He snickers for a few minutes. "Hmmm. We have the same voice," he deadpans. C'mon, that's it?

"Do you really think the thing looks like me?" he whines. "It's not supposed to. My one stipulation was that I said it can't look like me. But the fact is, when I watch it and hear my voice coming out of it, I start going, 'Hey.' It starts looking like me."

It's not that he has anything against Jay Sherman. In fact, he's glad the character is making a comeback from TV exile. "I like the way they write him. He's very honest and he tries to be morally right."

This time around, Sherman will be "less of a loser," Lovitz says. "All I know is that they made him thinner because it takes seven months to complete a show, so they figured if they made him thinner it would save two months coloring his belly." Lovitz himself has lost some weight. "But that has nothing to do with the cartoon."

Yet, Lovitz has a lot to do with "The Critic." The show was tailor-made for him. Brooks had wanted to do a live-action sitcom starring Lovitz, but the actor was busy with his film career and didn't want to make the time commitment. So the creative team decided to animate the show and work around Lovitz's movie schedule.

"They really just wanted me. It was very flattering," Lovitz says.

He first learned the joy of being noticed at summer camp when he was 13. "I was lost all day in the forest. I was scared. I thought I was going to die," he recalls. "When I got back to the camp everyone knew who I was. And the prettiest girl in the camp kissed me on the cheek. So, suddenly, I was like somebody."

Now, getting noticed, at least by fans, "can be weird." He says that most people who recognize him are nice, but some say strange things. "I finally decided I was going to start saying stuff back. This guy said to me, 'I think you're really funny, but most people think you're kind of a geek,' " he says. "I just laughed and said, 'Oh, that's what they say about you too.' "

Overall, fame is a good thing, though. "Yeah, it's a great life. You get to sit in the front at basketball games. You get to eat in good restaurants." Jay Sherman, who gets preferential treatment at his favorite bistro, L'Ane Riche (the Wealthy Jackass), would probably agree.

Lovitz struggled for seven years after graduating from UC Irvine, then joined the L.A. comedy troupe The Groundlings before landing a spot on "SNL." He still still worries that success might be fleeting. "You have to continue to work very hard," he insists.

Before signing on for "The Critic," Lovitz was afraid that he would be pegged because of his voice. "I said I was afraid of becoming like Mr. Magoo. ... I just didn't want people to see me in movies and think of a cartoon character." But that didn't happen, Lovitz says jokingly, probably because enough people didn't see the show.

He does consider his voice to be his trademark. "In college they kept saying you should develop your own idiosyncrasies and your uniqueness and use you. And I just started noticing the way I talked. And I would pick things up from my mother and grandmother. My mother is so funny, she speaks like a Neil Simon play."

"I like old movies a lot and I kind of speak in those rhythms, too," he explains. "It's all just placement and breathing. If I breathe and don't get nasal, then I could talk down here, like an actor," he says, lowering his voice an octave.

Actually, Lovitz, who is trained as a classical actor, would like to do dramatic roles in addition to comedy.

"Well, I'll just say it. As funny as I am, I'm actually as good at drama, if not better."

These days, he's writing a movie to star in and direct. With that project and "The Critic," life must be action-packed. But Lovitz describes his typical day as full of several massages, a few long naps and big meals.

And avoiding reporters.

"The Critic" airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

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