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‘SNL’s’ Jon Lovitz, on Paul Reubens: ‘He was a real comedic genius’

Updated August 3, 2023 - 6:57 pm

The two iconic comedy characters intersected at the peak of their popularity.

Paul Reubens, as Pee-wee Herman, hosted “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 23, 1985. Jon Lovitz, in his first season on the show, performed as the pathological liar Tommy Flanagan.

In a sketch titled “Big House,” Pee Wee is seated in a jail cell as a guard leads Flanagan in for lockup. Pee-wee is wearing his classic gray suit with red bow-tie. Lovitz-as-Flanagan is also wearing a suit, his tie loose, common for the President of Pathological Liars Anonymous.

Flanagan has says he’s just spent five years in the organization. But it’s clear he hasn’t. Pee-wee tries to keep pace with Flanagan’s fibbing, as his new cell mate explains he’s incarcerated for bank robbery.

“I was a bank-robber when I was a kid. Yeah, I was 12 years old at the time,” Flanagan says. “I robbed five banks a day, six days a week. Then, on the day off, I was a pickpocket, yeah.”

“I never robbed a bank when I was a kid. My mom wouldn’t let me,” Pee-wee responds. “But I trained my dog to do it — haha! Yea, my he dog could sit, roll over and rob banks!”

Lovitz is back in Vegas to headline at the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

“Paul was a real genius, a comedic genius,” Lovitz said in a phone chat. “There’s a few, in my opinion. Not many. But he was one of them.”

Reubens was the rare “SNL” host to appear strictly in character through the entire show.

Lovitz and Reubens had worked with The Groundlings improv club in L.A. Phil Hartman, who created the Pee-wee character alongside Reubens, had also performed before breaking big on “SNL.”

Lovitz and Reubens first met the night Reubens hosted “SNL,” remarking to Lovitz he’d never seen anyone rise to the show so quickly from working The Groundlings improv club in L.A. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen it happen so fast,’ because I had just got into the company in September 1984.”

But Lovitz had actually caught Reubens performing then-new Pee-wee character in 1981, urged by his friend David Kudrow, brother of actress Lisa Kudrow. This was some five years before the cult film “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” was released, and the “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” Saturday morning show debuted on CBS.

“David said, ‘There’s a midnight show at The Groundlings, this guy Pee-wee Herman, you should go see it, it’s the hottest thing in town,’” Lovitz recalled. “I went, and that’s when I first saw Paul as Pee-wee. He was just hysterical. That wasn’t his only character, but that’s the one that popped.”

Lovitz had kept communication with Reubens over the years, especially via text. Lovitz’s 66th birthday was July 21. “He texted me this GIF of a Muppet, and he just sent a bunch, all day,” Lovitz said. “I’m like, ‘Jesus, what’s going on?’ He would send these little text gifts and I’d say, ‘OK! Lovely! Thank you!’”

Even Reubens’ friends and colleagues for decades didn’t know he was ill. Lovitz didn’t. After he heard of Reubens’ passing, he had lunch with his friend and comic contemporary Lynn Marie Stewart, who played Miss Yvonne on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

”Lynn was in The Groundlings and is a very good friend,” Lovitz said. “We just talked about Paul. It was such a shock.”

Lovitz says he’s not sure whether he’ll pay homage to Reubens in his upcoming shows in Vegas.

“I haven’t really thought about it; it’s all so new,” Lovitz said. “But I can tell you that we came from the same source. We had characters that came together at the same time. He was brilliant. He did it perfectly.”

Do you believe …

In a Cher return to Dolby Live? The “Turn Back Time” singer is the last remaining pre-COVID resident headliner at Dolby Live not booked to return to the theater. A lot of stops and starts, but nothing has moved.

This isn’t for lack of activity.

Cher is working on two new albums in the U.K. with her boyfriend, Alexander “A.E.” Edwards. Last month, she re-released her 1995 album “It’s a Man’s World” in a deluxe package, and there have been murmurs about another (don’t say “farewell”) tour. But nothing about VegasVille.

Ahern gets funny

Ahern Live Comedy Showroom is up and running at the hotel of the same name. with no-cover shows until Sept. 8-9, when Jimmie “J.J.” Walker headlines its grand opening.

Comic-magician and entertainment director Lorenzo Clark hosts, with stand-up vets Alan Bursky (Friday and Saturday), Rocci Silano (Aug. 11-12), Mark Merchant (Aug. 18-19), Kevin Jordan (Aug. 25-26) and Bob Zany lined up prior to Walker’s appearance. All shows are at 8 p.m. Rex Meredith (Sept. 15-16), Bobby Slayton (Sept 22-23) and Kathleen Dunbar (Sept. 29-30) are booked through next month. All shows are 8 p.m.

At 180 seats, Ahern Live is the first ticketed venue at the hotel, located on the second floor, or mezzanine, or terrace level. Pick one. You’ll find it.

Cool Hang Alert

Kelly Vohnn’s “Country Female Superstars” takes over Silver Sevens from 8:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday. Silver Sevens, formerly Terrible’s and the Continental before that, is going with high-caliber, no-cover entertainment. Free parking, value everywhere.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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