David Mandel, a former Saturday Night Live writer, was asked to name the favorite characters he created for Phil Hartman.
Mandel rummaged through his memory banks. “He’s probably in every sketch I ever wrote,” he said. “Yet at the same time, I’m trying to think, What is a specific thing?” He laughed. “It’s the very definition of Phil.”
No less than Lorne Michaels once wondered if Hartman hadn’t “touched greatness” more than any SNL cast member. Yet Hartman’s genius is the toughest to properly appreciate. “He was definitely a guy that was in everything,” Mandel said. “And he could play anything. Yet you never got a sense that everybody knew exactly who he was.”
Part of the reason Hartman remains fuzzy in our memories was his own doing. When he joined SNL’s cast in 1986, it was customary for a newcomer to declare he would be the next John Belushi. Hartman had a different ambition. He told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to be the next Dan Aykroyd.
But another part is the unusual nature of Hartman’s talent. Hartman was so good at playing smarmy, air-quoting, golden-voiced sharpies — “20 percent droid,” said the writer Robert Smigel — that it’s difficult to catalogue all the comic notes he left behind in the universe.
You know when Stephen Colbert jogs across the stage and gives the audience a significant look? Or when Ron Burgundy exclaims, “By the beard of Zeus!”? These aren’t quotations, or even conscious homages. But make no mistake. What you’re observing is Hartmanism — the art of being unctuous.
Mike Thomas has written a smart and rigorous Hartman biography, out next month, called You Might Remember Me. It fills in the life of a man who showed the world little more than a too-wide smile. He was born Philip Hartmann, with double n’s, in Ontario, Canada, in 1948. Thomas traces the first appearance of the trademark Hartman character to the comedian’s childhood. Hartman walked into his neighbors’ house and repeated a line he’d heard on radio: “Good morning, all you happy people!”
Hartman was the fourth of eight children. “Didn’t get a lot of attention,” he said later — and here the classic, overarticulate Hartman voice began — “that’s why I’m craving it so much now!” 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. He was raised on ’50s pop: Jack Benny, Phil Silvers, and 101 ersatz Philip Marlowes.
You might have guessed all of that. You might not have guessed, as Thomas reports, that Hartman was a diligent pothead. Or that Hartman was on a lifelong search for enlightenment, test-driving The Urantia Book, surf philosophy, Buddhism, and the I Ching. A friend suggests to Thomas that Hartman dropped the second “n” from his last name because it improved his I Ching “destiny number.”
Talk to the people who knew Hartman and the “real” Phil remains elusive. “The real Phil kicked in when he was drawing,” Stephen Root, who acted on NewsRadio with Hartman, told me. “He would draw a lot on set. That’s when he was most relaxed.” Thanks to the connections of his brother John, a music manager and agent, Hartman designed album art for bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash and America.
“He was my teacher,” said Julia Sweeney, who studied improv under Hartman at the Groundlings. “His voice was strong and loud and low. But then I got to know him as a friend and discovered his voice was really soft, and that was a really neat thing to know about him.”
That was all a lot of people knew about Hartman. He engaged with the ’60s strictly on sexual and pharmacological terms. (“I’m gonna ski my brains out till I get drafted,” he wrote to a friend.) Hartman had no moral creed other than living well and being funny. Thomas reconstructs a scene at California’s Mammoth Mountain, in which Hartman and a friend joined a bunch of skinny-dippers in the hot springs. A fog had settled over the area that night. Hartman began to perform. For the next few hours, the people gathered could hear a voice coming from somewhere in the mists, doing impressions.
In 1975, Hartman went to the birthday party of a pal who’d booked the Groundlings’ theater for a private performance. The troupe’s founder, Gary Austin, was sitting in the green room when he heard loud laughter outside. When he came out to investigate, he found Hartman onstage. After the show, Hartman asked Austin, “How do I join the Groundlings?”
Hartman’s basic training was very different than if he’d brought his bag of characters to, say, the Comedy Store. “People who go into improv to get laughs are on the wrong track,” Austin said. “You go onstage, interact with human beings, and out comes theater. Sometimes, it’s funny. Sometimes, it’s Chekhov. Which, by the way, is also funny.”
Hartman became one of the Groundlings’ go-to stars. He invented Chick Hazard, a tough-talking detective (“I wanted to shinny up one of [her legs] like a native boy looking for coconuts”), and Lightman, a mystic who came onstage and pointed flashlights at the audience. Hartman had an intellectual bent — it was as if he could take his humor and break it into its component parts. Sweeney remembered a classroom exercise in which Hartman asked students to choose a family member they felt particularly close to. Then he asked them to choose a Looney Tunes character. Finally, Hartman told his students to combine the loved one and the cartoon into a single character.
Around 1985, Michaels came to Los Angeles, watched the Groundlings perform, and pointed his bony finger at … Jon Lovitz. Few could believe it, most of all Lovitz, who told coworkers at SNL of Hartman: “He’s way better than me!”
Hartman pressed on in supporting parts. He did the movie Last Resort, in which he played a man trying to pick up Charles Grodin. “All I remember him saying is, ‘I don’t want to play the character gay,’” Grodin told me. “I said — and I wasn’t insulting him — ‘Just be yourself.’”
Hartman helped fellow Groundling Paul Reubens create Pee-wee Herman and his menagerie — Hartman was Kap’n Karl — and got a writing credit on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1985. When Reubens hosted Saturday Night Live that fall, Hartman tagged along as one of his personal writers. Michaels was impressed, and Hartman was invited to audition.
Hartman’s SNL audition tape may be the only surviving footage in which he is radiating nervous energy rather than merely affecting it. “You like impressions?” he asked SNL’s producers. “I know you do!”
He whirled through Jack Benny, John Wayne, and Jack Nicholson — though he did them in the guise of “German impressionist” Gunther Johann. Then Lovitz hopped onstage. Hartman seemed to relax, for his plastic men were better when paired with more authentic, schlubbier types. Here, Hartman played a past-prime actor from World War II propaganda films and Lovitz the head of a studio.
Hartman: If you’re unhappy with my work, tell me now!
Lovitz: All right. Everyone says you’re the worst actor in town.
Hartman: Don’t leave me hanging by a thread! …
Lovitz: All right, you’re through. You hear me? Through! You’ll never work in this town again. Your life is finished!
Hartman: What’s the word on the street?
To everyone’s relief, Michaels pointed his finger at Hartman. At 38, Hartman became the oldest member of the Saturday Night Live cast — the “grandfather of comedy,” he joked.
From the toy box containing Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer, Bill Clinton, and The Simpsons’ Troy McClure, it’s possible to extract and describe the classic Phil Hartman character. It’s close enough to the actual Hartman that we might call this fellow “Hartman,” with quotes.
“Hartman” was an authority figure in love with his own sonorous voice. “Like 60 years in the business of being an announcer,” said his SNL costar Kevin Nealon.
When “Hartman” spoke, it was in a language of lies. Keyrock the Caveman jived his way through a closing statement; Clinton emoted feel-your-pain liberalism; for McClure, it was the golden patter of the announcer reading a bogus script.
“Hartman” affected a common touch: I’m just a caveman … As Steve Lookner, who joined SNL’s writing staff in 1993, put it, “It’s taking it to the limit of how cocky you can be and still fool people into thinking you’re simple.”
His con was ludicrously obvious: It’s more of a Shelbyville idea … But because we knew he was swindling us, that made the swindle easier to enjoy. “You appreciate the artifice,” Root said. “Even if you know what he is doing. Because he is doing it so well. ‘Oh, I don’t mind. That’s OK. It’s not that much money …’”
The final thing about “Hartman” is that he was just a bit remote. This is key to understanding why Hartman the actor may be tough to properly appreciate. We could spend a long weekend with Wayne and Garth, and tolerate at least a lunch with Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan. Hartman’s creations were highly polished and vacuum-sealed, easy to laugh at but harder to hug.
The Saturday Night Live cast had a name for Hartman. “His nickname was Glue because he held all the sketches together,” Nealon said.
The Glue’s arrival found SNL mired in one of its customary existential crises. For the 1985-86 season, Michaels hired actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Randy Quaid, who weren’t natural sketch players. “The writers were vilified my first year there,” said Smigel, who joined the show in 1985. “Just a constant course of how shitty the writing was.”
The next season cut a new path from the start. One of the first sketches in the premiere was called “Quiz Masters.” It starred three newly hired actors most Americans had never seen before. Dana Carvey played a game-show contestant who happened to be a psychic. Jan Hooks was the other contestant. And Hartman was (of course) the host. As the crowd began to laugh, producer James Downey turned to Smigel and said, “The audience feels safe.”
Part of the reason cast members called Hartman the Glue was his authority. To have Hartman in a sketch meant somebody was going to be doing their job very well, even if the sketch’s conceit was an inch thin. “People like Phil make it safe for people to be crazier,” Sweeney said. “They’re the gravitas. It’s not going to go completely off the rails if Phil’s in the sketch.”
“There is no Costello without Abbott,” explained Mandel, who went on to become an executive producer of Curb Your Enthusiasm. “They called him Glue for different reasons, but one of them was you can’t have that Matt Foley character if Phil Hartman isn’t there to be the dad reacting off it.”
They also called him the Glue for his willingness to cloak his own personality — which perhaps came easy to Hartman. It’s the defining trait of SNL glue guys, starting with Aykroyd and running through Joe Piscopo, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Taran Killam. “That’s the way he was like Danny more than Belushi,” said Rosie Shuster, a former SNL writer. “He poured the Phil out and morphed into the madman inside of his character.”
Of the glue guys, only Aykroyd could carry as many sketches. And Hartman probably wore more hairpieces. He was Frank Sinatra in sketches created by writers Bonnie and Terry Turner after the real Chairman’s gonzo letter to George Michael; the character later mated with Smigel’s McLaughlin Group parody to form “The Sinatra Group.” He was Phil Donahue, introducing the author of the book Women Good, Men Bad — watch Hartman pound his head with the mic, a move that wasn’t in the script. He was Frankenstein’s monster, in his monosyllabic powwows with Tonto and Tarzan. (“Fire … baaaad!”)
Hartman was well aware of his own usefulness. “I’m Mr. Potato Head,” he would say. Or he would walk by the writers, put on his phoniest announcer voice, and say, “Hello, fellows!”
Nealon was another very useful SNL player. If he and Hartman met in the hall after not having seen each other in a while, they morphed into generic ad executives — organization men.
“Hey, Jed, how are you?” Nealon would say.
“Hey, Walt,” Hartman replied. “Meeting in R&D in 20 minutes. Catch up with you then!”
SNL cast members made an art form out of skimpy preparation, especially for thankless parts like “Corporate Executive.” Yet when they came to the Glue’s dressing room, they found Hartman had made a binder containing all of his scripts for a particular show. Each sketch was in a separate tabbed section; lines were highlighted, and Hartman had made annotations in the margins.
What the ’70s SNL offered in danger and snorting ambition, the early Hartman years matched with consistency and professionalism. In Carvey, Hooks, and Hartman, the show had three actors who might have time-traveled from a ’50s sketch show, and a writing staff that was happy — after updating a few references — to treat them as such. This was the era of “Master Thespian,” “Robot Repair,” William Shatner vaporizing Trekkies, and “Dukakis After Dark.” “We were docile nerds in our twenties and thirties,” Smigel said of the writers.
Starting with the 1988-89 season, a new breed of writer-actor arrived who could speak to the MTV generation. Mike Myers came aboard with a rough version of Wayne Campbell in tow. Within two years, he was joined by Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, David Spade, and Chris Rock. Now, the Glue’s job wasn’t just smoothing out a weekly comedy show. He was holding together two generations.
Recall the best sketches of the “new” SNL and Hartman is somewhere in nearly every one. He was the dulcet-voiced announcer preceding “Wayne’s World” (“You are watching Cable 10 …”). He was the dad in Farley’s maiden SNL turn as motivational speaker Matt Foley. As is now legend, Farley accidentally belly flopped through a coffee table during the sketch. Spade, Sweeney, and host Christina Applegate lapsed into laughter. Watch how Hartman turned to Sweeney and affected a father’s disapproving stare. He was still working a thankless part.
In the early ’90s, Hartman also remained an emissary of the “old” SNL, the era when you took a screwy Jack Handey idea like “Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer” and read it more or less straight.
“In the age-old fight between writerly concepts and performance, performance usually wins — especially with a live audience,” Handey wrote in an email. “It’s hard for Shavian wit to beat an actor dropping his pants. … Phil was great in idea-driven things because he was fearless. He would play an absurd character without racing for the door.”
But being the Glue had its blues, too. Hartman watched Myers and Carvey strike it rich with the movie version of Wayne’s World. Myers had Dieter from “Sprockets” and Linda Richman from “Coffee Talk.” Carvey had the Church Lady and Hans and Franz (with Nealon). Metaphorically and otherwise, Hartman was the Ed McMahon to Carvey’s Johnny Carson.
“You mean, does it bother me that I’m a loser?” Hartman told Greg Kinnear. “No, no, of course not. I enjoy the relative obscurity I’ve had. Why should I be concerned that 20-year-olds are running off and making $200 million movies?”
There are many theories as to why Hartman was confined to being the Glue. As SNL’s resident grandpa, Hartman got older parts — authority figures rather than subverters of authority. “He never wrote a character hosting a talk show, which is sort of the shortcut to a recurring hit,” Smigel said. Moreover, people wondered if Carvey and Farley could throw themselves into parts in a way Hartman couldn’t — if his orderly, bindered approach to comedy might be holding him back.
“He even talked to me about it,” Sweeney said. “It was the moment when Pat became really popular. He said, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky that happened. I’ve been trying to have a breakout character for years. Treasure it. That’s not something that happens all the time.’”
Nobody on SNL begrudged Hartman a movie tie-in. But they realized that getting their own movies was easier with the Glue being the Glue. “I felt we all understood how much harder his job was than ours,” Sweeney said. “We didn’t want that. We wanted him just as he was.”
On December 5, 1992, Hartman’s Clinton came jogging into a McDonald’s. Nealon’s Secret Service agent told the president not to tell Hillary. Here the classic Hartman voice replied: “There’s going to be a whole bunch of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton.”
The 1992 election brought Hartman his biggest wave of popularity. Carvey was playing George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot. Al Franken supplied much of the writing. And Hartman got to play not just Clinton but also Perot’s running mate, James Stockdale — which basically required him to wear the Phil Donahue hairpiece and talk like Frankenstein’s monster.
Inside McDonald’s, Hartman’s Clinton gobbled McNuggets off people’s trays while explaining his policy of sending aid to Somalia. The crowd roared — for Clinton was as accessible as any character Hartman ever played. He had a great closing line to the Secret Service: “Race you to the Pizza Hut!”
“If you remember that sketch,” said Mandel, who wrote it with Franken, “Phil’s eating so much food he literally starts to choke in the middle of it. Rob Schneider hands him a drink to help him wash it down. That was the level of commitment. He went for it.”
It’s interesting to compare Hartman’s Clinton with Carvey’s Bush. Carvey did impressions in the manner of a stand-up comic. He would seize on a line or gesture — Bush’s “not gonna do it,” say — and repeat it over and over to goose the crowd. Hartman had a different approach. He burrowed into a character in such a hyper-logical way that he unleashed a signature line — “I feel your pain” — only as much as the actual figure did. Here again we see why Hartman’s genius remains fuzzy. Hartman’s Clinton was the impression you admired. Carvey’s Bush was the one you quoted the next day.
Additionally, Carvey made Bush the Elder far more cuddly than he actually was. Hartman did for Clinton what he did for Ronald Reagan — he alighted on his huckster streak. After the (real) Gennifer Flowers said Clinton had a small penis, Hartman’s Clinton retorted, “I don’t have a small penis. Gennifer Flowers has a big mouth.”
Hartman claimed on talk shows that the gags didn’t go over well at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Paul Begala, who was a White House counselor to Clinton, said he remembered Clinton loving the sketch. “Those of us on the White House staff,” Begala said, “loved Phil’s impression as well — perhaps laughing a little harder when POTUS wasn’t around.”
By the spring of 1994, SNL’s old core of actors was drifting away. Hooks had left for Designing Women in 1991. Carvey followed two years later for movies. Hartman decided that he would leave, too.
We needn’t repeat the libel that the show lost its mojo forever, that Saturday Night Live was “dead,” etc. But it was changing. The sight of Hartman burrowed deep inside a character like Frank Sinatra gave way to Adam Sandler doing Adam Sandler.
“On ‘Weekend Update,’ no one’s pretending to be a newscaster,” Nealon said. “They’re pretending to be themselves telling jokes. Or the featured players, who are basically coming on doing their stand-up. It’s not bad, just different.”
“I feel like I got off the Titanic,” Hartman told TV Guide the next spring. Disclaimers aside, the 1994-95 season was a notable slog. The writers discovered Hartman had been doing the work of three or four actors. They lacked a go-to guy for dads and attorneys. SNL wasn’t just diminished by Hartman’s absence, as it had been with Aykroyd’s or Belushi’s or Eddie Murphy’s. It was unglued.
The Phil-less players opened the new season with a nod to their departed pal. In “Bill Clinton Audition,” the joke was that a generation had turned over and no one was left to play Bubba. Sandler did Clinton as whiny guitar player. Spade did Clinton as a sneering pop-culture critic. Farley, Chris Elliott, and Tim Meadows did their bits. “The sketch,” Mandel said, “was our direct response to, ‘Phil ain’t here and we got nothing.’”
As a free agent, Hartman played the Glue to the world. He lent his voice to cartoons: The Simpsons, The Smurfs, Dennis the Menace (he was born to play Mr. Wilson), Ren & Stimpy. Yet leading-man parts continued to elude him. 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.
So Hartman hopped to NewsRadio, a sitcom created by Paul Simms as a censor-friendly cousin to The Larry Sanders Show. He was once again the “grandfather of comedy” to nestlings Dave Foley, Andy Dick, and Joe Rogan. “Phil was the name on the show,” Root said. “We kind of looked up to him as someone who had been through the wars at Saturday Night Live to get his material on the air. We almost had to calm him down a little the first year. ‘We want to all come together, Phil — we’re not competing against you.’ It took him a few shows to realize, Oh, OK, you’re not going to trample on me.”
NewsRadio’s Bill McNeal was quintessential Hartman — somewhat remote and mostly unlovable, he masked his intentions with a newsman’s faux-grandiosity. “You wonder, are they really that way in real life?” Hartman told a writer. “Do they go home and say, ‘Honey, I’m home and I’m going to the refrigerator now to have a fine pilsner’?”
Speaking of Hartmanism: “Are they really that way in real life?” is Anchorman as an elevator pitch.
NewsRadio was pitted against ABC hits like Home Improvement, proving that Hartman would again be undercut by breakout hits. “Did I tell you about NewsRadio?” Hartman said to Letterman. “It’s one of the top five shows — in my opinion.” NBC reluctantly gave the show a fifth season on May 18, 1998.
Less than two weeks later, Hartman was dead. In You Might Remember Me, Thomas carefully reports the details of Hartman’s murder. But if early death felt almost inevitable for supernovas like Belushi and Farley, it hangs on Hartman’s biography like an unearned twist ending. Here’s what we know: His wife, Brynn, was concerned enough about her moods to take Zoloft. The Hartmans’ marriage was bad. Indeed, some friends only caught glimpses of the “real” Phil when Hartman complained about his wife. (Soon after, Hartman would revert to form: “I’m back with my blushing bride!”) As a husband, he could be distant, detached, and — when rough patches hit — strategically stoned.
On the night of May 28, 1998, or in the days before, Brynn ingested cocaine, alcohol, and Zoloft. After midnight, she shot Hartman three times. The best guess is that Hartman was sleeping and didn’t feel much pain. Some hours later, Brynn lay down next to her husband and killed herself. Thomas reports that when Hartman’s body was found by police, his mouth seemed to be curled in a smile.
Hartman doesn’t need a had-he-lived counterfactual. In all likelihood, he would have remained a tube of pop-culture Glue — not cast as the lead in Anchorman, but practically guaranteed a role as Ron Burgundy’s station manager. “Phil in that next level would have been the best dad in movies, the best boss in movies,” said Michael Gruber, one of his agents at William Morris.
“As older character actors, the reason we want to do something is because of a good script,” Root said. “It all starts from there. He was realizing that and starting to look at nice indie stuff and better parts. I think he would have gone in that direction.”
His comic notes are still drifting around in the universe, over-enunciated words and significant stares. “Colbert is like the closest thing to Hartman,” Smigel said.
“I would say at least once a month I hear something on the radio, or something on TV, and I’ll think, Oh, that’s Phil! They’re just doing Phil!” Sweeney said.
“I don’t know if it’s my own bias or if it’s real,” she said. “Of course he was mimicking voices like that. There’s like five layers there.” It’s as if the classic “Hartman” so perfectly aped announcers that the announcers now seem to be doing him.
Here’s why it’s difficult to properly appreciate Phil Hartman. Because his characters were 20 percent droid. Because he reminded you more of your dad than your best pal. Because Hartman’s biggest gift was a kind of comedic graciousness, which he used to hide the show’s seams and to make other funny people look good. As the writer Steve Lookner put it, “How many people can you say that about on Saturday Night Live?”
Illustration by Linsey Fields