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, May 19, 2013

Remembering the Road to the Celtics' 2007-2008 Championship

Five years ago when the Boston Celtics won their last championship, and first since 1986, I wrote a little piece for the now-defunct Flak Magazine about the breaking of the Curse of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. Since that mini-dynasty is now over, and since it's no longer online, I thought I'd post that story here.

The Curse of Len and Reggie is Broken

by Michael Frissore
Flak Magazine

In October 2004 a curse was finally broken. A curse placed many, many years ago by a man who was often too drunk to put his own pants on, let alone a hex on an entire baseball franchise, was lifted thanks to a bunch of self-proclaimed "idiots." The Boston Red Sox had somehow won the World Series. Then they did it again in 2007.

Only occasionally would those celebrating the wicked pissah victories of the Sox and the three-time "Big Game" champion New England Patriots stop and ask each other, "Hey, remember the Celtics?"
Lately, Boston's longing for the yesteryear of Bird/Magic, McHale/Worthy, and Parish/Kareem has given way to the excitement over Pierce/Kobe, Garnett/Gasol, and Allen/the Slovenian with the girl's name. How has this happened when the Celtics were basement dwellers last year? And the year before?

As the season progressed, some wondered: Could the Celts' own 22-year championship drought also be attributed to some kind of curse? A spell? An execration? Were the Celtics, like the Red Sox and Darrin Stephens, the victims of the voodoo that you do? It was obviously black magic that brought them 16 titles in the first place. The same can be said for the Lakers' 14 championships, but everyone knows longtime Lakers GM and NBA logo silhouette Jerry West is evil.

It was only days after the Celts' last championship win in 1986 against the Houston Rockets, and just 48 hours after the Celtics drafted him, that #2 pick Len Bias of the University of Maryland dropped dead from a cocaine overdose. And the mad genius with the giant cigar in his mouth quietly said: "Oh, shit."

Arnold "Red" Auerbach, former President and vice chairman of the Celtics, had dabbled in the black arts one too many times. And it killed young Leonard Kevin Bias. Crazy? Maybe. But we're talking about a city that dumped crates of tea into its own harbor. And how else could the Celtics get Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey? Or Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for whatever garbage they sent to the Golden State Warriors?

About Bias's death, Red himself would say that the city of Boston hadn't been so shaken since the assassination of JFK (which includes Bucky Dent's home run, but not the Bill Buckner unpleasantness). No less an authority that the Reverend Jesse Jackson compared Bias's passing to those of Mozart, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jackson said each of these men was "young, gifted, strong and militant, all taken in the prime of their lives...Lenny was vulnerable because all of us are vulnerable. He is being used by God to save a generation."

What could possibly take down such a man? Other than cocaine, of course.

Whether or not God saved Bias's generation, He stopped looking out for the C's. Between 1986 and 1993 the Celtics remained quite competitive, even after Larry Bird retired in '92. But then tragedy struck again in '93 when the heir apparent to the Big 3 (Bird, McHale and Parish), All-Star small forward Reggie Lewis, died of a heart attack. How could two talented men like Bias and Lewis both be struck down so young? Especially when old timers Russell, Cousy, Heinsohn, Havlicek, and especially Red, were all still alive?

After this one-two punch, the basketball gods had another idea: let's get rid of McHale and Parish and really watch this team sink.

And sink they did. McHale retired, and Parish signed with the Charlotte Hornets. Do you know how many losing seasons followed? Try eight. That's L.A. Clippers territory. Kansas City Royals even! The Celtics even brought in Dominique Wilkins and Rick Pitino, for Pete's sake. Nothing could help. They went 15-67 during the 1996-97 season! After that the Celts somehow lost out on drafting Tim Duncan, and then traded future all-star Chauncey Billups! How could the team of the aforementioned lopsided trades have this happen to them?

Eventually, in 2002, thanks to their holding onto young stars Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, and getting Kenny Anderson in the Billups deal, the Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1988. They lost to the New Jersey Nets, but it seemed the Curse of Len and Reggie was losing its power.

After this close call, the gods regrouped. That's when they sent former Celtics star and new Executive Director of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge to come in and make so many trades that the team, especially remaining star Pierce, wouldn't know who they were playing with on any given night. Walker came and went twice, Anderson was gone, and the likes of Vin Baker, Ricky Davis, Gary Payton, and Tom Gugliotta all appeared in green and then vanished in the blink of an eye.

After God knows how many trades, including one huge one with Ainge's buddy and former teammate McHale, now the Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Celtics finished 33-49 in 2005-06. They were back to their losing ways. The gods smiled.
Alas, they wouldn't be smiling for too long, because on October 28, 2006 Red Auerbach died at the age of 89. The gods panicked briefly. How would the curse continue without Red? The gods (which consists of, I don't know, "Pistol" Pete Maravich and several former Harlem Globetrotters) did manage to kill 52-year-old former Celtic point guard Dennis Johnson in February 2007 and give the team a 24-58 record, good for the second worst in the NBA that season.

But Ainge, the starting shooting guard on the 1984 and 1986 Celtics championship teams, was a trading machine. Undaunted by all the death and the losing, he sent practically the entire Celtics team to Seattle and Minneapolis for eight-time All-Star Ray Allen and 11-time All-Star and former MVP Kevin Garnett. "Thank you, Kevin McHale," Boston said. A new Big Three was born, and Boston was again praising Ainge, just as they did in his playing days.

Joining starters Pierce, Kendrick Perkins, and Rajon Rondo, Allen and Garnett brought the Celtics back to their former glory, winning 66 games, a 42-win turnaround from the previous year. Ainge added the likes of James Posey, Eddie House, P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell to build a team that was surely the greatest collection of Celtics since '86.

After three grueling rounds of Eastern Conference play, the Celts were on their way to their first NBA Finals in 21 years, and against their old rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, to whom they lost in the '87 Finals.

The Green took the first two games in Boston. Then, with celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Will Smith, Humphrey Bogart, Lizzie Borden, Magellan and more looking on, the Celtics took one of three games in L.A. and left the West Coast up 3-2 amid all of these powerful celeb Lakers fans, especially Jack (Apparently one of the bullets on Nicholson's bucket list is to be knocked back to Cuckoo's Nest by Celtic Head Coach Doc Rivers.)

Then the series went back to Boston and the Celtics destroyed the Lakers in Game 6. And so the curse was broken for good, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Or did they?


If you still don't believe there was a Celtics curse, consider this: Lewis, Bias, and George Herman "Babe" Ruth, were all born in Maryland.

What does this mean?

Nobody knows.

Maybe there was never a curse