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Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I'm just a caveman.
August 27, 2014 12:52 PM   Subscribe

His nickname was "The Glue." Coinciding with the unveiling of his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, Grantland takes a closer look at one of the most celebrated comedic actors of the 80s and 90s known primarily for supporting roles: Phil Hartman.

A multi-talent who gained fame voicing popular Simpsons characters like Troy McClure, co-writing Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and adding gravity to any Saturday Night Live sketch (even Jack Handey's most absurd creations) with his completely committed performances, according to those who worked closely with Hartman one of his most overlooked strengths was his ability to just step back and be the glue that held everything together.
posted by joechip (46 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just recently finished re-watching Newsradio for what I assume is the tenth time or so. Every single time, it's still such a shock that the next episode is "Bill Moves On," which I still can't bring myself to watch.

Phil Hartman was only three years younger than Philip Seymour Hoffman when he was murdered, which is a little odd to think about just because Hoffman was so much more youthful, but he just had so many more years of amazing work ahead of him and it tears me up inside each and every time I think about it.
posted by griphus at 1:02 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


Yes, Phil Hartman was AMAZING and it is honestly a tragedy that his life was cut short. I am really excited to read the bio coming out in September and hope that brings more (belated) attention his way.
posted by leesh at 1:04 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Older, Hartman was three years older.
posted by griphus at 1:07 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


Hartman was never short of delightful. Everything he touched got funnier than it deserved to be.

Mike Myers was on WTF recently and said that as his star was on the rise, he was offered a chance to move up the table at SNL. Pecking order was that the closer you got sit to the guest star at the table, the higher status you had.

Myers had been sitting next to Hartman and was offered a chance to move up. He turned them down. "No, you don't understand," they said. "This is a big deal." He said he didn't care, he wasn't moving away from Hartman because that's where he was learning the most.
posted by middleclasstool at 1:09 PM on August 27 [31 favorites]


Phil Hartman was the first celebrity death that really hit me. I was a senior in high school at the time and read about his murder in a headline on Prodigy and I swear everything just froze for a moment*. It was as if the world stopped. He was involved with so much of my favorite entertainment that losing him just hurt. It was strange to me, at the time, to grieve for someone I'd never actually met and didn't really know except through his work. I wouldn't be hit the same way until Robin Williams died.

* That's not a 56K modem / Windows 3.1 joke.
posted by Servo5678 at 1:12 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


I always think of him on SNL after the Rodney King riots playing Frankenstein. He was brilliant.
posted by uraniumwilly at 1:12 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


The family moved to the United States before Hartman was 10 and eventually settled in California, which relieved him of the burden of being Canadian.

Hey! Offside!

Hoser
posted by ODiV at 1:18 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


Every single time, it's still such a shock that the next episode is "Bill Moves On," which I still can't bring myself to watch.

I can make it through "Bill Moves On". What got me last time is the multiple jokes before that based on Bill being oblivious about a dangerous woman, which was just a series of gut punches.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:19 PM on August 27 [7 favorites]




I recite that to this day. The best thing about it is the reaction from people who have never seen it. You get great looks.
posted by middleclasstool at 1:24 PM on August 27


Mike Myers was on WTF recently and said that as his star was on the rise, he was offered a chance to move up the table at SNL. Pecking order was that the closer you got sit to the guest star at the table, the higher status you had.

And moving away from Hartman got you closer to the guest star?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:32 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


Again for reference, Phil Hartman's SNL audition. As posted by Bookhouse in the recent Simpsons thread.
posted by chavenet at 1:32 PM on August 27 [10 favorites]


Hartman was also an accomplished artist and designer who did album covers for bands like Poco and America, as well as for Firesign Theater.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 1:35 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


NBC offered him The Phil Show, a variety show Hartman said would do for the genre what David Letterman had done for late night. It was scuttled before it ever aired.

That sounds like something was actually filmed. Has this ever escaped the vault? A cursory google brought back nothing, but I'm not gonna search for torrents at work...
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 1:39 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]




His SNL audition - wow.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:53 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


It's just like that old saying, "Everybody loves a cane."
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:57 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


...I stole your cane, Bill.
posted by griphus at 2:08 PM on August 27 [6 favorites]


The best part about watch Hartman was his commitment to his character when he wasn't speaking or barely on screen. Watch his face during the Belvedere sketch when Farley is talking, he has these subtle psychotic strains like he's drifting in and out of listening to him then does this perfect comic take at the punchline. He very careful not to steal the focus off of his fellow actor - like Fallon did repeatedly, but just adds another layer to an already amazing sketch.
posted by any major dude at 2:09 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


I am going to be very disappointed if he doesn't clinch the Best SNL Cast Member vote on Grantland.
posted by ckape at 2:09 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


Phil Hartman is one of only a few people who I forget are dead, repeatedly. About every year or two, I remember that he's gone, and it's always a shock.
posted by peep at 2:10 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


"That's why you're the judge, and I'm the law-talking guy."
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:15 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


Jesus Fucking Christ, Phil Hartman in his SNL audition doing a German comedian doing impressions just

fucking

killed

me
posted by entropone at 2:23 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


Twelve years. That's all we got. He's been gone longer than the public got to know him.
posted by Etrigan at 2:51 PM on August 27 [3 favorites]


No performer brings to mind such stark sadness and irrepressible joy that Phil Hartman does, for me.
posted by clockzero at 2:51 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


The Simpsons never recovered from his loss.
posted by vibrotronica at 2:56 PM on August 27 [8 favorites]


The Simpsons never recovered from his loss.

That's really true. Hartman died in May 1998. The Simpsons' ninth season ended a few weeks before his death. And Seasons 9-10 of The Simpsons is generally considered the beginning of its downfall. So it was starting it's decline anyway, but really spiraled into it after his death.
posted by downtohisturtles at 3:02 PM on August 27


I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news that Hartman had died and how much of a blow it was.

He was THE performer on SNL for me back when I watched it religiously--the aforementioned Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein sketches, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, the Anal-Retentive Chef, the Sinatra group, etc., etc., etc.

I'm not sure a week goes by that I don't think about him and the performances that were so influential on what I found funny. When I get to to the bit in the English dub of "Kiki's Delivery Service" where they dedicate it to him, I lose it every time.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 3:06 PM on August 27 [1 favorite]


And moving away from Hartman got you closer to the guest star?

Well, if I remember the anecdote correctly, Phil didn't move up the table when asked, so Meyers was staying next to him and also following his lead on bucking tradition.

The Simpsons never recovered from his loss.

And we never got to hear his take on Zap Brannigan.
posted by history_denier at 3:07 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


Nothing is funnier than watching Phil break character while playing Frankenstein. NOTHING.
posted by entropicamericana at 3:12 PM on August 27 [4 favorites]


.
posted by billder at 7:57 PM on August 27


What shocks me is that it took this long for him to get the star. I mean, considering the caliber of many of those who have been honored in the past, I'll freely admit I thought he'd been there for years.
posted by TDavis at 8:54 PM on August 27 [5 favorites]


.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:08 PM on August 27


.
posted by gauche at 9:09 PM on August 27


Sometimes I think about what Phil Hartman's Zapp Brannigan would have been like, and then I get sad.
posted by nonasuch at 11:32 PM on August 27 [2 favorites]


I love Newsradio. It may even be my favorite sitcom, even the bittersweet, reeling, unbalanced washing machine of the last, post-Bill season that suffers in comparison, as if it is only filled with adequatulence. I always liked Hartman on SNL, but I thought he was particularly brilliant on Newsradio.

I take exception to the "mostly unlovable" characterization of Bill McNeil - the character is lovable in spite of all of those markers for unlovable, precisely because of the nuance Hartman brings to the role. He humanizes what could so easily be a caricature, opening windows onto the Bill's inner workings and slamming them shut again in a swath of Bill's intrinsic self-interest. Bill is a well-developed character in his hands instead of being only a paper-deep buffoon with a good voice and a god complex - both of which notes are there, but they aren't the end of the story.

It's really fine acting that makes the difference. Take the way he chooses to present the windows into his childhood - the dessicated sandwiches, the football team failure, the parental disappointment. Instead of going for what might be expected - a barrier he had to overcome and leave behind him, Hartman treat's Bill's childhood with nostalgia and conviction that it was the best way to grow up. It informs the viewer about his world view and why he turned out the way he did without being more of the same old, same old. It's a very thoughtful, studied performance that emerges naturally in Hartman's hands because he knows Bill so intensely.

I leave you with these parting words of wisdom: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and then toss it in the face of the person who gave you the lemons until they give you the oranges you asked for in the first place!"
posted by julen at 12:24 AM on August 28 [16 favorites]


For those who haven't seen Newsradio, you should definitely check it out. Even years after it was made it's still one of the best-written, best-acted American sitcoms ever.

For those who have seen it, and are fans, I recommend the episode-by-episode write-ups. done by Donna Bowman for the Onion's A.V. Club.

And yes, absolutely, Hartman was a remarkable comic talent and his death was tragic.
posted by Nerd of the North at 12:29 AM on August 28 [2 favorites]


Hartman had the misfortune of being on SNL during a period where the writing and direction was pretty weak. Everyone who was mildly amusing on the show during this stretch went on to be immensely funny and engaging in their post-SNL careers (except Dana Carvey and Victoria Jackson), and Hartman was a prime example.

Most of the sketches are "miss" during this period, especially the running gags. The two exceptions were Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, and Anal Retentive Chef, where Hartman takes center stage with a clumsily written monolog and kills with it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:21 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Having watched Phil Hartman's SNL audition (not for the first time) in the other thread earlier this week, I was struck by how utterly painful it is to watch. Not because it isn't funny (it's hilarious), and not because of the tragic loss of Hartman (although that remains tragic 16 years later), but because of imagining how horribly awkward and uncomfortable it must be for anyone to do that audition.

As a comedian/actor (or any performer, for that matter) to stand in front of a room of (mostly) stony-faced people and perform all your best curated material to a (mostly) silent room, and imagining the intimidating and especially stony-faced Lorne Michaels right in the center... ugh. Watching it brings forth nearly unbearable levels of anxiety, and I haven't auditioned for anything in over ten years.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:58 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Most of the sketches are "miss" during this period

Surely the Robot Repair show sketch gets an exception too!
posted by dialetheia at 9:24 AM on August 28 [1 favorite]


Oh, Newsradio is among my very favorite Funny Things ever. Everyone on that show was awesome: Stephen Root, Hartman, Maura Tierney -- confusingly, also the name of my third grade teacher who I had a crush on but who wasn't nearly as pretty as the actress -- and Dave Foley. OK, yes, Andy Dick and Kathy Griffin are ghastly, but that's what they were supposed to be. The timing was perfect, the stories were good, and I wished them many more years than fate saw fit to give them.

(The local NPR station is sponsored by "Raymond James Independent Financial Advisors" -- and every time I hear them say it, I immediately hear "Jimmy James Financials Services!" in Root's fabulous twang.)
posted by wenestvedt at 10:05 AM on August 28


God I miss Phil Hartman.

Newsradio--as proven by the last season--could not work without him, no matter how genius the show was.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:16 AM on August 28


Kathy Griffin wasn't on Newsradio. And there wasn't a bad performer in the cast, if you ask me. (Now bad people on the other hand... (andy dick rot in hell)
posted by entropicamericana at 10:20 AM on August 28 [4 favorites]


The "spunky redhead" character on Newsradio was played by Vicki Lewis, but as the show itself pointed out: there's one in every office.. your confusion is therefore forgivable. Even Joe Rogan was well used. Khandi Alexander wasn't given much to do but she did it well.

The crazy interplay between Hartman, Foley, and Root, though, was a thing of beauty.
posted by Nerd of the North at 7:15 PM on August 28


Kathy Griffin was the "spunky redhead" on Veronica's Closet.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:40 AM on August 29


Wait, no, that was Suddenly Susan. Lot of crap sitcoms... well, in the 90's, but all the time forever, really.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:47 AM on August 29 [1 favorite]


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