The face that makes you laugh (The Province)


The face that makes you laugh

Jon Lovitz: Standup comedy saved star after close friend died

The Province, December 21, 2007

Jon Lovitz has a face made for comedy. Which made the former theatre student’s career choice that much easier.

When people ask him if he wants to delve into dramatic roles, Lovitz says he has. The only problem? “They laugh as soon as I come on the screen if they know me,” he said on the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “I don’t even say anything and they’re already laughing. It’s kind of funny. People go, ‘I just look at your face and I start laughing.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, great. Thanks.’ But I know what they mean. It’s a compliment.”

At least he got to play at serious acting during his five seasons on Saturday Night Live. His favourite character, he says, was The Master Thespian, based on cinema greats like John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather). Lovitz, a fan of early show business, would watch old movies and think, “I wish I could play that part.” So he’d go into work and make up a character based on what he saw.

His Pathological Liar character, whose catchphrase (“Yeah, that’s the ticket!”) was on everyone’s lips a decade ago, was similarly inspired. “I saw part of The Thin Man recently,” he said, “and I forgot how much I was imitating it.

“I like old movies because they had a lot of energy. I like people that tend to be bigger than life. I was just watching this thing with W.C. Fields and he was doing this bit with a pool table. It’s just the funniest thing ever. If you want to know what comedy is, it’s that scene. He does everything. He’s amazing.”

Lovitz teaches an acting class at the Laugh Factory comedy club and says that too many actors and comedians don’t know their history, which he thinks is a shame. “I say, ‘It’s not old school, it’s correct school!’ There are certain basics in everything. Once you know all that, then you can add your own thing on top.”

His own thing these days is standup comedy. Lovitz started out in improv and sketch but turned to standup a few years ago in large part to break out of a funk brought on by the death of former SNL castmate Phil Hartman.

“Phil was like my older brother,” he says. “I idolized him. And he was murdered and it was horrible. Basically I was depressed for five years. I did stuff but I kind of withdrew socially. And then one day I remember standing in front of my garage and I said, ‘I’m still alive.’ That’s when I started doing standup, to be honest.”

Lovitz brings his act back to the River Rock Show Theatre tomorrow. He played there last year and had a ball, even recommending the venue to his good friend Dana Carvey. But above all, he just loves the art form. There are no directors or writers telling him what to do and say.

“I really enjoy it,” he says. “You get to be funny the way you’re funny. All the responsibility of the show is yours. That’s the thing that’s hard about it for me. If it succeeds, it’s you. And if it fails, it’s you. You can’t blame anyone else.”

Not to worry, Lovitz fans, he’s not forsaking acting.

“I still want to do television and movies. But the thing is, you just don’t know when the other stuff is going to come, at least in my case. But the standup is always there so it’s a great thing to have.”

You'll laugh your Yak-off (The Province)


You’ll laugh your Yak-off

Pre-Valentine’s Show: Comedian giving love seminar for singles

The Province, February 9, 2007

When Yakov Naumovich Pokhis emigrated with his parents to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in 1977, he knew two things. One, he’d have to learn to speak English if he wanted to make it as a comedian in his new country.

And, two, he’d need a new name.

He accomplished the former by locking himself in his room and watching TV for three months straight.

“Then I realized it was a Spanish station,” he jokes.

As for the name, while working as a bartender in New York, he tried to figure out what would be a name Americans would respond to.

“They knew Krushchev but that wasn’t a good association,” he says. “But they had a smile on their face when they heard Smirnoff.”

Yakov Smirnoff went on to become one of the hottest comedy stars of the 1980s, featured in movies, his own sitcom, and Miller Lite commercials. As kind of an early model Borat, his observations on life in America compared with his former home, usually followed by his catchphrase “What a country!” kept him in the limelight until the fall of the Soviet empire.

“I thought it was very inconsiderate of them to do this to me,” he says of the collapse. “Not even a phone call! I mean, at least they could have said, “OK, get ready. Your mortgage is gonna be the same and your income is going to plummet.’”

But the resourceful comic moved shop to Branson, Missouri, where he owns his own 2,000-seat theatre and plays approximately 200 shows a year there.

“It was actually one of the best things that happened to the world and to me, as well,” he says, “because I needed it. I was too comfortable. I was doing Vegas, Atlantic City and was living high on the hog. It helped me to reevaluate and see what is it I really want to do.”

With the dissolution of both the USSR and his marriage, Smirnoff turned his attention away from east-west relations and toward human relations.

Taking a hiatus from comedy to get his masters in applied positive psychology from the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, he has now incorporated humour into the classroom, teaching a course entitled “Living Happily Ever Laughter.” He’s at Yuk Yuk’s Comedy Club on Burrard this Sunday from 6 to 9 p.m. with a pre-Valentine’s Day seminar for singles called “Let Laughter Lead You to Love.”

“The secret here is not that laughter creates love,” he says, “it’s that love creates laughter.”

He believes that cachinnation is the canary in the coal mine that monitors the health of a relationship.

Don’t expect a dull dissertation. He claims you’ll laugh your Yak-off.

“Laughter is a serious matter but it’s very much an entertaining workshop,” he says. “My goal is to pass on this information because I am personally so excited by this. My mission statement is ‘to experience happiness and teach it to the world with passion through comedy and sensitivity.’ So I’m making it very fun and interesting but mainly this information has to go out there because there are too many unhappy people.”

He could easily impart the same message within the framework of his standup comedy, but Smirnoff says people would just walk out laughing.

“What I want to give them is tools that they can take home and create laughter in their own homes. It’s kind of like the Home Depot of comedy.”

Conquering Canuck (The Globe and Mail)

Conquering Canuck

The Globe and Mail, January 5, 2007

Canada has produced its share of comedy superstars: Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and the casts of SCTV and Kids in the Hall, to name a few.

But in November, Vancouver comedian Damonde Tschritter did what no other Canadian has ever been able to do: The 36-year-old became the first standup from the Great White North to win the prestigious Seattle International Comedy Competition in its 27-year history.

This was no small feat. In fact, the first time Tschritter entered the three-week-long competition, in 1999, the event’s organizer, Ron Reid, told him that no Canuck would ever win it.

“He said it with a bit of sarcasm,” Tschritter remembers, “but I don’t know if he was joking or he was serious. It was a little of both.”

Tschritter’s style is that of a storyteller rather than a quick-hitter with one-liners. He eschews what he considers to be gimmicks, such as acting out routines or doing tried-and-true impressions, preferring to weave stories together from his life – about taking a Greyhound bus, wanting to be a firefighter and getting coerced into playing softball while stoned.

With only five minutes given to each performer in the first round, Tschritter ended up beating 31 comedians from throughout North America.

Although some Canadian comics shy away from any mention of their native country while working in the United States, Tschritter embraced his nationality during the competition.

“I decided I wanted to win it admitting I was from Canada,” he said. “I’d play the fish-out-of-water angle. I’m sure there are nights where the judges don’t pull for the Canadian, but what can you do?”

The 10-year standup veteran has done some big shows in his career, including the New Faces showcase at Just For Laughs in Montreal and his own Comedy Now! TV special. But Tschritter, an avid sports fan, says he loves the thrill of victory a competition provides.

Tschritter took home $5,000 (U.S.) “and a pretty good bundle of prestige,” he says, although he admits with a laugh, “It’s not like the phone’s been ringing off the hook.”

Perhaps the most beneficial byproduct of his first-place finish is being able to renew his U.S. work visa.

“You’ve always got to prove that you can do the job better than Americans and if you’re the champ, they can’t really deny that.”

Tschritter has done his share of touring stateside; already, he notices a difference in how he’s perceived.

“Down there, standup comics turn into TV stars, so [spectators] think this could be the next guy [to make it]. They give you that sort of respect. You’re living the American dream, whereas in Canada they just kind of look at you like you’re a garage band.”

If it’s true that you’re nobody until you’ve made it in the States, then Tschritter has taken one small step in that direction. But it’s a giant leap for Canadian standups.