Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fifteen Years Without Phil Hartman

This is a piece I wrote for Flak Magazine back in 2008 for the ten-year anniversary of Phil Hartman’s murder. With Flak no longer existing, I thought I’d post it here for the 15-year. R.I.P. Phil Hartman.


An air raid siren blasts, with the caption "Important Homeland Security Message," as a man dressed in military fatigues and holding a rifle, while standing behind a toilet, says: "Did you know that, in the event of a natural disaster, there's enough water in your toilet to sustain you for three whole days? So, at the first sign of danger, whatever you do — don't shit."
In this 11-second sketch from the comedy troupe The Groundlings in the late '70s, the talent of the late comedian Phil Hartman was already apparent. It only took a few seconds to see something special in Hartman, whether it was in his brief appearance as a gun-toting airport pest to Chuck Barris in The Gong Show Movie in 1980, or as a crazed video game fan in an ad for Activision's Ice Hockey for the Atari 2600 in 1981, or as Captain Carl on Pee-wee's Playhouse. (Pee-wee Herman was, incidentally, a character Hartman co-created with Paul Reubens.) From there, throughout the early '80s, appeared other short examples of Hartman's talent. Then came Saturday Night Live, and everyone saw that it wasn't merely talent. It was genius.
On May 28, 1998 the world lost one of its greatest comedic talents. Fifteen years ago the Emmy-winning writer and comedy legend was shot multiple times by his wife Brynn, who later turned the gun on herself. Hartman left behind a Belushi-like legacy with his work on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, and the sitcom NewsRadio. The man affectionately referred to as "Glue" and "The Sultan of Smarm" by his peers was not only wonderfully talented, but, by all accounts, he was always a joy to work with.
As great as the Wayne's World or "Church Lady" SNL sketches were in the late 80s and early 90s, I was always most excited when a Phil Hartman sketch came on: his dead-on President Clinton impression, eating the food of patrons at McDonald's; the Anal Retentive Chef showing us how to properly dispose of perfectly good red bell peppers; and the doddering former Vice-Presidential candidate Admiral James Stockdale, out for a joyride with Ross Perot. And there was hardly anything more brilliant than Hartman as Frank Sinatra in The Sinatra Group, shouting at his guests, calling Sinead O'Connor "cue ball," "Sine- Aid," and "Uncle Fester" and telling Billy Idol, "I have chunks of guys like you in my stool."
In his eight seasons on SNL, Hartman was arguably the greatest talent of the shows' second golden era. His impressions were always spot-on, from Charlton Heston to Phil Donahue to Telly Savalas. His characters were no less ingenious, and often completely bizarre, such as Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and the host of Robot Repair.
During his stint on SNL Hartman began voicing characters on the FOX animated comedy The Simpsons. A master voice artist, Hartman spent seven seasons on the show, voicing shyster attorney Lionel Hutz and B-Movie actor Troy McClure. He voiced 17 others on a one-time basis, including Lyle Lanley from the Monorail episode; indeed Hartman became the key go-to guy for The Simpsons' writers.
Hartman's voice was unmistakable; yet, he brought something different to each character. In his career Hartman would do voice work on programs as diverse as children's animation (Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs), adult animation (The Simpsons, Ren & Stimpy), and live action series (Magnum P.I., Seinfeld). Prior to his death, Hartman was slated to lend his voice to the character Zapp Brannigan on Futurama. The character was eventually voiced by Billy West.
Upon departing from SNL, Hartman signed on to what would become one of the funniest sitcoms of the '90s, NewsRadio. Playing news anchor Bill McNeal, he was again part of an ensemble cast. It was a tremendous group of actors, but, like he was on SNL, Hartman was the glue. It was on NewsRadio that he got to show his acting chops.
The show was definitely not the same without Hartman, and indeed lasted only one season after his death, with Phil being replaced by fellow-SNL cast member Jon Lovitz. And Hartman's acting was finally acknowledged with a posthumous Emmy nomination in 1998.
One need only view the third episode of the series, titled "Smoking," in which McNeal tries to quit smoking, to see what a truly great comedic actor Hartman was. His portrayal of addiction, the hyperbole with which he played it, cemented this as Hartman's show. If it wasn't evident in the five-minute SNL sketches, surely it was here. NewsRadio was on par with the great American sitcoms of the last 25 years, from Cheers and Seinfeld to The Office and 30 Rock. Minus Phil's passing, the show could have gone on for years.
Hartman's characters, particularly Hutz, McClure, and McNeal, shared similar traits. They contained bluster, sometimes arrogance, which often masked other, unenviable characteristics. Hutz and McClure, though different in their own right, each had a self-conceit that concealed a sort of incompetence: Hutz the crooked, inept lawyer; McClure the hacky has-been actor. McNeal's bombast seemed to mask a rather sad insecurity, making the mask all the more comical.
The dichotomy in these traits was part of what brought the humor with Hartman. Similar clashes have been portrayed in comedy since the days of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields. But Hartman made the style his own, almost reinventing it. Watching his characters try to fool everyone, unlike, say, Woody Allen’s characters, which were just open mental wrecks, was always a joy and what made Hartman "The Sultan," with his picture perfect voice and cloak of sincerity and confidence.
The recent heirs to the throne, and to an extent the Hartman style, can be found in the  funniest television comedies of the last few years. The lead characters in both versions of The Office, David Brent and Michael Scott, have the same sort of pompous ineffectiveness that both Hutz and McClure showed, each to the point of being uncomfortable. While Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock, as well as Stan Smith of the animated series American Dad each bring McNeal's cavalier instability.
For whatever reason, Hartman's movie appearances were usually brief cameos. He never starred in his own film comedy, like so many other SNL alums, but his mark on the world of comedy remains varied and unquestionable. While Hartman never received top billing in a television program or movie, he brought hilarity and style to even the briefest of cameos, from playing the Alcatraz Tour Guide in So I Married an Axe Murderer, and his cameos in high-profile films such as Three Amigos! and Fletch Lives.
Having passed on at only 49, Hartman certainly had a lot of laughs still to deliver, whether it would have been by continuing his roles on The Simpsons and NewsRadio, starring in his own network variety show (his original post-SNL plan until fellow castmate Dana Carvey announced his variety show), or landing starring roles in feature films.
He was a multitalented man, fluent in German and an accomplished graphic artist. Hartman designed album covers for rock bands such as Poco and America, as well as the Crosby, Stills & Nash logo.
Former NBC West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer said about Hartman after his murder that he "was blessed with a tremendous gift for creating characters that made people laugh. But more importantly, everyone who had the pleasure of working with Phil knows that he was a man of tremendous warmth, a true professional and a loyal friend."
Fifteen years later he is still dearly missed, and he's still making people laugh.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Praise for Puppet Shows

Praise for Puppet Shows 
by Michael Frissore 

The stories in (Puppet Shows) are all randomly odd and bizarre. There is no whatsoever logic in it and strangely enough, you don't really need logic while reading this book. This in itself is what sets this book apart from all others. It ventures into the weird, the funny and sometimes, the gruesomely insane…Puppet Shows is like a brave foray into a well-defined territory in an attempt to bring something different, and indeed, this book really brings something entirely different!” – Dia Pelaez, Book Junkie Joint, http://book-junkie-joint.blogspot.com/ 

“These are the short stories that you would read to your teenage kid before bed…and the type of stories that you would read to just have a bit of a laugh once in a while. You could pick the book up, read a story, and it will brighten your day with its indirect humor. It's brilliant for spontaneous reading.”  

“Frissore has managed to create a very unusual collection of short stories indeed. Full of the imaginative and bizarre and just plain ridiculous and yet, he somehow pulls it all off and it just works. Go into this with the expectation of having some fun and keep your mind open and you will truly be taken on a magical ride where anything is possible and almost everything happens.”  
- Ali, My Guilty Obsession, http://myguiltyobsession.blogspot.com/ 

“A fun collection of crazy short stories. They are very well-written and entertaining, if a little out-there. Read this if you have a good sense of humor and an appreciation for the ridiculous.”  
Brinda, WiLoveBooks, http://wilovebooks.blogspot.com/ 

Only a mind that has somehow slipped the mold of what we deem normal could create such a deliciously twisted collection of ideas and combine them into this treat for the mind.” – Jeanette Kempton, Author of the Karynja series 

“This is not mainstream fiction. It’s not mainstream anything. This guy is weird, and the stories he tells are every bit as bizarre. But from page 1, they’re fun. The stories are so far off the wall they’re in the garden somewhere.  

Frissore should be praised for more than just his sense of humour though. There’s an incredibly fluent turn of phrase here; you can hear every word smoothly, without effort. The language is spare in places, but often lively and always interesting. It’s conversational, but if that conversation was being held by the two sharpest, wittiest people you know (who also happen to be loony tunes).  

I don’t know if Frissore bangs this stuff out without sweat, or if he agonises over each syllable, but the effect is prose that’s as rewarding to read as it is funny 

It’s a difficult plate to spin though, creating something both worthwhile and absurd. And in many of these stories, Frissore nails it. One or two heart strings are even plucked subtly, with a three word flash of emotion dropped in amongst a chaotic tale.  

But let’s not take for granted the most important point - the funny. Every story amused me, and all of them were cut off at just about the right time. .. Frissore reaffirmed my belief that such whimsy (that’s right, I used the word whimsy, what of it?), screams loudest and most perfectly in rich, short bursts.” 

- Gav’s Book Reviews, http://gavsbookreviews.blogspot.com/ 

"This was a nice side step from my normal genres that normally lack a lot of humor.
The stories did make me "lol," which was great. I kept wanting to know what silly
thing would happen next. And as a writer myself, I appreciated the fact that Frissore
poured his weird and boundless imagination onto the pages of this book seemingly
without holding back. Even his character names were hilarious."

"This is a great read for someone who just needs to relax and shed their
'taking life too seriously' skin. The stories were well written and nicely compiled."

"Buy it. Read it. Laugh a lot, and be grateful there are writers out there who can
create this type of material."

Neesha from Novellarella

Puppet Shows 
Stories by Michael Frissore 
Writers AMuse Me Publishing