Friday, May 27, 2011

Remembering - Phil Hartman

Thirteen years ago tomorrow, my world became a darker place.  One of the few things I looked forward to, Phil Hartman making me laugh, was taken away.

Yeah, Thursday May 28th 1998 was a pretty sad day for me because one of the funniest people I knew of and a guy who played a role in three of my favorite shows was dead.

I'll never forget when I heard the news.

I was home for the summer and I just happened to catch the news about the tragic killing of Phil Hartman.  Of course in 1998, the internet wasn't as vital as it is today, so I had to actually wait until the news came on to find out more information.  And naturally the next day I devoured every newspaper I could find.

I felt really bad because, while Phil Hartman was one of my favorite comedians, I never seemed to find the time to watch NewsRadio (though in fairness, the geniuses at NBC moved the program around quite a bit.)  So hearing about his death made me lament the fact that I hadn't made the time to watch the show.

I'm want to say that the first time I was aware of how funny Phil Hartman was was when I saw his Phil Donahue impression on SNL.  I remember finding it hilarious, but not being able to articulate it or understand why.  Looking back I see it's because of the exaggerated mannerisms and his nailing of Donahue's cadence, but at the time I just knew that he was the funniest thing on an already funny Saturday Night Live.

His Frank Sinatra was equally epic and his Ed McMahon is practically iconic.  In fact, my Ed McMahon is just a pale imitation of Hartman's McMahon, similar to how everyone's Bill Clinton impression is just an imitation of Hartman's Bill Clinton.

I also remember finding his Lee Iacocca being funny, but I can't remember anything about it now.

And Hartman's SNL characters were equally funny.  The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Keyrock was played perfectly.  That's the character that I think of when I think of his time on SNL.  But Eugene the Anal Retentive Chef (and occasional Sportsman) is equally identifiable.

However I think that Hartman's Frankenstein is possibly his most underrated contribution to SNL.  It wasn't exactly filled with nuance, but it was hilarious nonetheless.

His work outside of SNL was just as funny.  On The Simpsons Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz were two of the best supporting characters in the show's long history.  Plus his turn as Lyle Lanley in "Marge vs the Monorail" is pure comedy.  Listening to show commentaries everyone always speaks glowingly of him.  For everyone who loves The Simpsons, just imagine how much better the show would have been if Hartman had lived.

While I didn't watch NewsRadio as often as I'd have liked, whenever I did catch it, I was never disappointed.  Bill McNeal is one of those all around awesome characters.  His self-centeredness was classic and always elicited at least a giggle.

Bill McNeal was also immensely quotable.  I've been known to drop "adequacity" in conversation.  And honestly, if there weren't already a couple blogs called "Half-Truths & Gorilla Dust" it what we were going to call Fish & Spaghetti.

I guess Phil Hartman was the first comic I "followed" in that whatever he was doing, I'd give it a shot.  And usually I wasn't disappointed.  He had the ability to sell any line and make it funny.  Fortunately for him he was usually already working with strong material.

Given his tumultuous marriage, he'd talked of retiring, there's really no way of knowing what Phil Hartman's career would have been like if it hadn't been cut short.  Obviously he would have been Zapp Brannigan on Futurama and he probably would have done a live action Troy McClure movie.

NewsRadio still would have been cancelled.  But I'm sure that Phil Hartman would have contributed to commentaries for both The Simpsons and NewsRadio dvds and I'm sure that both would have been hilarious.  

A couple years ago I started watching NewsRadio on dvd and it was so bittersweet.  On one hand, I was marveling and laughing at nearly everything Phil Hartman did.  But on the other hand I was literally counting down until I was through, because there's only a finite amount of Bill McNeal and I would eventually come to the end.

Phil Hartman made his mark on three shows that I love and that shaped my comedic sensibilities.  And Phil's death had an impact in my life.  I don't think about him often, but when I do, I want to laugh and cry.  But mostly laugh.


  1. I *really* enjoyed him in the criminally underrated comedy, "Greedy". He steals every scene he's in. One of my favorite forgotten films.

  2. It was a beautiful tribute that mirrors most of my own feelings both at the time, and at the present.

    The stencil that opens the article, is it of your doing? or do you know the credits? I'd like to save it, but I'd also like to give credit. Specially a fellow hartman fan.

    Thanks a lot.



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