Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert voiced animated versions of themselves in the Season 2 fan-favorite episode, "Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice"
The Critic premiered 30 years ago, on January 26, 1994, and ran on ABC for one season before moving to FOX.
Some actors are known for a certain role or performance. Not Jon Lovitz.
Jon Lovitz is known mostly for being Jon Lovitz, ever since he first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1985. But if Lovitz does have a defining role, it is arguably providing the voice of Jay Sherman, the bald, overweight, abrasive film critic and main character of The Critic.
Created by The Simpsons scribes Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who executive produced with Emmy and Oscar-winner James L. Brooks, this short-lived but beloved animated series first premiered January 26, 1994, on ABC before moving to FOX in 1995. (Atom Films did a short webisode revival from 2000 to 2001). When Sherman wasn’t reviewing a variety of fictional movies on his Siskel & Ebert-esque TV show, and dispensing his signature catchphrase (“It stinks!”), he was struggling with his relationships off-air, at work and in his personal life with his mother and young son. Despite the deep bench of animation titans working on the series, including executive consultant Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and future Oscar-winners Lauren MacMullen (2013's Mickey Mouse cartoon, Get a Horse!) and Rich Moore (Zootopia), The Critic never reached the ratings heights or pop culture impact of The Simpsons. But it did carve a niche for itself among its passionate fanbase — and with its star.
Lovitz recently spoke with the Television Academy in an exclusive interview honoring the show’s 30th anniversary, during which he discussed the series’ endearing legacy and his hopes for its potential future.
Television Academy: How did you get involved with the series? What are its origins?
Jon Lovitz: A League of Their Own [costarring Lovitz] came out, and it was a big hit. Then, like seven months later, [writer-director-producer] Jim Brooks called and said, ‘Hey, Al Jean and Mike Reiss — who I didn't know at the time — want to do a show with you.” So we met [first] about a live sitcom. They told me the idea, and I said, “Well, this sounds great. Is there a script?” Jim's like, “Well, we're not going to audition for you.” And I go, “Well, I'm not asking you to audition, but you're just telling me an idea. I don't know if what I have in my head is the same as what you have in your head, and you're asking me to commit five years to something without a script, you know?” I agreed to do it anyway, but we couldn’t make a deal work. They ended up writing the script, but said now we want to do it as an animated cartoon. So I read [the script] and I laughed out loud like 10 times. That never happens with a comedy script. It just doesn't. I thought it was hysterical. So I said, “Yeah, I want to do it.”
When they approached you, did you have any feeling one way or the other about it being animated instead of live action?
I wasn't sure that I wanted to do it. At that time, you had to either do movies or TV. Movies were seen as above television, and after A League of Their Own, I was offered North with Castle Rock, and then they offered me City Slickers II, so I was a little hesitant to do it, because I thought, “I've got a movie career going fine.” But I decided I can do both, and they said we can come to you. So, one time, actually that September, I was doing City Slickers II in Moab, Utah, and we had the sound guy on the movie, Jeff Wexler, record shows in my motel room.
It premiered on ABC, but after a year, the show moved to Fox. Few series did that kind of move back then.
ABC canceled it, and then the next year, it premiered on Fox, after The Simpsons. At the time, The Simpsons was like a 14 rating or something, and we had like an 11, and they canceled it anyway! Jim goes, “I've never seen anything like it. It's a hit show, but they canceled it!” Can you imagine a show getting an 11 rating now, and they cancel it? It held 90 percent of The Simpsons audience. It was disappointing.
That’s unfortunate to hear, especially since Jay Sherman is a pretty interesting character, with a lot of very particular flaws that are interesting to watch.
They wrote the part for me, and a lot of my humor is — I make fun of myself, which to me is funny. I can laugh at myself. Oh, and I'll tell you the funniest thing about The Critic. I just remembered. So, I go to record the first show, and I said, “Well, what's the character? Like, what do you want?” And Al [Jean] goes, “It’s you.” I said, “It’s me?” They go, “Yeah.” I said, “All right, is this the character?” And then I said, “Hello?” [Al] goes, “Yes.” I'm not even trying to do anything. I said, “Oh, man, this is the easiest job I've ever had! It's just me.” And the weirdest part about Jay Sherman was, I'm Jewish, and so was Jay! I don't know how that happened. That's just a massive coincidence.
Pretty remarkable. A fit like that.
Rewatching the show, I had forgotten how much you sing on it. Just about every episode, you belt out a little something.
The more they got to know me, the more they would put stuff in that that I would do. I like to sing, so they would put that in. It happens in sitcoms. One example, which was funny, was — we were reading a scene, and I had like two or three more lines, and the other actor cut me off. So I go, “Ah-chem,” cleaning my throat like, “Shut up.” They thought that was great, and the next week in the script, they have Jay going, “Ah-chem.”
There was a pretty spectacular amount of talent on that show: The Simpsons writers like Jon Vitti and Richard Doctorow, plus writers Judd Apatow and Steve Levitan (Modern Family) and Brad Bird were all involved in one form or another.
I remember Judd. He was a really nice guy, and a good writer. Steve Levitan wanted me to be on Just Shoot Me. I made a lot of mistakes back then. I read it, and I didn’t find it funny. They ended up getting David Spade to do it, and I said to David, “How's it going?” He was like, “It's not funny.” I go, “I know! That's why I didn't want to do it!” And then they finally started writing it for how David was funny, after like the sixth show. David was playing a different part. They wanted me for the photographer. I mean, there's so many opportunities, and people say, “You passed on a hit.” And I go, “No, I passed on an idea or a script. There was no show.” You don't know what's going to be a giant hit.
Everybody passed on Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Then Jim Carrey did it, and I said, “What made you do it?” Because the script was bad, you know? And [Carrey] goes, “Well, I said, 'Let me rewrite it for three weeks, and then if I like it, I'll do it.” So he totally changed it and created that character, who wasn't like that at all in the script. Rewriting it, that was smart. It didn't even occur to me. They offered that to everybody, but he made it his own.
It’s amazing to me how well the show holds up, three decades later.
There's something on Instagram, some guy started sharing clips of The Critic. I don't remember most of it, and watching now, I'm like, “Oh, this is really funny.” It's way funnier than I remember. I always thought it was funny, but the stuff I see now, I think it's hysterical. The writing was so good, but also, they cast it great. Charles Napier as [a Ted Turner-like figure] Duke, a really nice guy, and also the contrast between his voice and my voice is just funny. And then Doris, the makeup artist, was a woman, Doris, who really talked like that. She was an actual makeup lady, and they hired her because of her voice, smoking so much. And then Maurice LaMarche and Nick Jamison were just great at impersonations and did all those voices. For my son, Christine Kavanaugh, who passed away young, and Charles is gone, and Doris, but later Christine was the voice of the pig in the movie Babe. You had Judith Ivey, who's a great actress, doing the voice of my mother, and she's doing Katharine Hepburn. Gerritt Graham, who I knew from the movie The Last Resort — a really nice guy. They had him doing my father.
It’s interesting, too, watching it now and seeing the way Jay could make or break a movie.
That’s what the pilot is about. All the critics, especially Siskel and Ebert, had a lot of power over whether a movie did well or not. I remember, I did this movie before The Critic called My Stepmother Is an Alien. I'm watching Siskel & Ebert, and they started arguing about me, and it was just thrilling to hear them talk about my career, you know?
It sounds like this is one of your all-time favorite jobs.
Yes. It's always fun to have the lead in something. I started doing cameos. Like in Adam Sandler films, and I'm grateful. Adam has been great to me, and it’s helped keep my career going, so I’m not complaining, but then people just cast me in cameos, and I'm like, “I'm trying to do the whole job. That's my training, not to do one scene.” When you have the lead in something, it's just more fun, because you get to do a lot more different things. Whereas if you have a few scenes in something, you're trying to figure out [how] to make the one scene work and make it memorable. So it's a different approach, as opposed to when you're the main guy. You don't have to worry about having to score in the scene as much because you have 30 scenes, so you know you’re covered.
How do you feel knowing that the show is revered by so many people and comedy fans?
It’s very flattering, but at the same time, it's frustrating, because I wish the show would have kept going. It was a hit show, and they just canceled it. So it's one of those regrets, like: What would five years’ worth of shows that should have been, instead of just 23 [episodes], look like? I've been trying to do it again ever since, and they tell me it's complicated.
Jim says it’s a cult show, and we can't staff it; and then Mike is like, “Yeah, go ahead and do it, I don't want anything to do with it.” But Disney bought Fox, and the show’s at Sony, so I said, “Well, Sony is interested, why don't you just do a co-production? They’re bringing back all these shows, why not this one?” It'd be a great job for me to do again. It was so much fun to do.
It seems you really want to bring it back.
I would love to do it again, as just a regular sitcom. Because otherwise, I think you're competing with the cartoon, which is not good. But you had everything. You had the right writer, the right cast, not just my part, but every part. Can you recreate that? No, and it was a different time. But there’s so much you can work with. Would you want to see a reboot of it?
I would absolutely watch that show.
(Cups his hands around his mouth and yells) Put that in the article!