Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Fifteen Years Without 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.