They called him: “The Glue.”
That’s the thing I keep coming back to when I read reflections on Phil Hartman from his former Saturday Night Live cast mates. They called him The Glue. The origin of this nickname has been debated for a while; former cast member Jay Mohr claims that Adam Sandler came up with it, while others say that it was (the late, great) Jan Hooks who started calling him that after he helped her with her terrible stage fright when she joined the show. He could hold any sketch together, no matter how tenuous or shakily written it was, no matter how nervous the guest host was, no matter how much the others on stage might have been struggling to suppress their laughter. He was The Glue.
Alec Baldwin, the record-holder for most times hosting SNL (17 to date, not including his many recent appearances as Donald Trump) says that his favorite sketch he’d ever done on SNL was a soap opera parody when he hosted in the early 90s. The house was burning down, and Hartman just grabs Baldwin, looks him in the eyes, and says, “Take me with you.” Baldwin says it was the delivery, the right combination of desperation and absurdity, that got to him. It almost made him break character. He says that although many people might find “Schweddy Balls” to be the funniest thing hs ever done on SNL, for him, that sketch was not even remotely as funny as that moment when Hartman implored: “Take me with you.”
Hartman was on SNL during the years when I first discovered the show, and so many of my favorite sketches featured him, such as:
· The Anal Retentive Chef (with his tape dispenser cozy!)
· Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I’m just a caveman. I fell in some ice and later got thawed out by your scientists. Your world frightens and confuses me. Sometimes the honking horns of your traffic make me want to get out of my BMW and run off into the hills or whatever. Sometimes when I get a message on my fax machine, did little demons get inside and type it? I don’t know. My primitive mind can’t grasp these concepts. There is one thing I DO know… and that is my client is innocent.”)
· Frankenstein – where his only line of dialogue was “Fire Bad!” (True story: when I finally read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in high school, I was deeply disappointed to learn that Frankenstein’s monster was fairly eloquent in his speech and understanding of the world. I honestly was hoping to see page upon page of “Fire bad! Fire BAD! FIRE BAD!” I even voiced this objection in class, causing my English teacher to roll her eyes to the back of her head. Life is hard.)
· Any sketch where he got to display his incredible talent for impressions – Frank Sinatra (“I’ve got chunks of guys like you in my stool!”), Ed MacMahon (“YOU ARE CORRECT, SIR!”), Barbara Bush, Charlton Heston (“Soylent green is peeeeeeeeople!!!”) and, Phil Donahue.
· Speaking of impressions, how about his brilliant impression of Bill Clinton (I know most think Darrell Hammon’s later impression of Clinton is the definitive one, but I defy you to watch this sketch and not marvel at how well Hartman captured the essence of the early years of Clinton’s presidency (“Fellas, there are going to be a lot of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton…”) (Also, ouch).
· And hey, remember Ross Perot’s VP running mate in 1992, Admiral James Stockdale? That guy who was even weirder than Perot himself? Hartman impersonated him too, in this gem of a sketch (“Who am I? Why am I here? GRIDLOCK!”)
· And one of my all-time favorite sketches in the history of SNL – another political impression: Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan, pretending to be folksy and dimwitted, but secretly the mastermind behind the Iran-Contra scandal. Again, I defy you to watch this sketch and not be blown away (“BACK TO WORK!”)
He is often heralded as one of the best (if not THE best) SNL player that has ever come through the show. He had hilarious recurring characters, he did great impressions, and he performed almost all of the voiceovers for introducing sketches and for the commercial parodies that usually appear after the guest host’s monologue (“Compulsion… by Calvin Kleen”).
How did we come by such a comedy icon? Hartman was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1948. His family moved to the United States when he was ten years old. His parents were extremely Catholic, and Hartman mentioned in interviews that being raised in a strict Catholic household left him feeling devoid of real affection, so he started being a class clown in school in order to find love and attention away from his home.
Little known cool facts about Hartman’s life before his comedy career: He dropped out of college in 1969 to become a roadie for a band. He returned to school in 1972 and majored in graphic art, and eventually designed more than 40 album covers for various 70s-era bands, as well as developing the marketing materials and logo for none other than Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Hartman began his comedy career with the LA-based improv comedy troupe The Groundlings – a breeding ground that has been the origin of almost as many SNL cast members as Second City in Chicago. He found that the life of a graphic artist was pretty lonely and wanted a more social outlet, so on a whim while watching a Groundlings show he jumped on stage and joined the cast in performance. He won a spot in the troupe due to that random impulse. He met and worked with Paul Reubens, of Pee-Wee Herman fame, while at the Groundlings, and when Reubens got a television deal for Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and cast Hartman to play Captain Carl, one of Pee-Wee’s friends.
Hartman got plucked from the Groundlings to audition for SNL and passed the Lorne Michaels test. He joined the show in 1986 and spent 8 seasons there, creating a long-lasting, glorious legacy through his impressions and characters. He also was a brilliant straight man, leaving room for more flamboyant cast members like Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Chris Farley to push their work to the extreme. Hooks once said of him, “He was a team player… he was never insulted, no matter how small the role may have been… [he] knew how to listen… he knew the power of being able to lay back and let someone else be funny, and then do the reactions. I think Phil was more of an actor than a comedian.”
He left SNL in 1994 to pursue a film career. However, in 1995, he was cast as arrogant but loveable radio news anchor Bill McNeal on NBC’s wonderful and perpetually underrated sitcom NewsRadio (“Dave, there comes a time in every friendship when you have to say ‘I never liked you.’”) While the show was critically acclaimed, ratings were always low and the show was always on the brink of cancellation. That being said, the Bill McNeal character was always a fan favorite. (Rumor has it that Stephen Colbert modeled his “Stephen Colbert” character on The Colbert Report partly on Hartman’s portrayal of McNeal, but I cannot find a source that corroborates this. Nevertheless, it makes total sense to me.)
And alongside his work on SNL and NewsRadio, from 1991-1998 he also voiced many characters on The Simpsons, appearing in 52 episodes in total. He was originally cast for a one-time appearance but the writers loved him so much that they kept writing more parts for him. His two recurring Simpsons characters were Lionel Hutz, an ambulance-chasing lawyer with questionable lawyering skills, and B-List actor Troy McClure (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such educational films as Lead Paint: Delicious but Deadly and Here Comes the Metric System! Today I will be your narrator in this sex-ed film called Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide to You-Know-What.”). He also voiced the one-off character Lyle Lanley in what I consider to be the best Simpsons episode of all time: Season 4’s “Marge vs the Monorail” (also famously known for being written by Conan O’Brien prior to his late-night talk show career – O’Brien says that of all the Simpsons episodes he wrote, this was by far his favorite). Lanley is a fast-talking salesman, akin to Harold Hill in The Music Man, who cons the townspeople of Springfield into building a monorail via a song-and-dance routine and then randomly hires Homer to be the monorail’s conductor – only to have his true intentions to run away with the money and let Springfield’s population suffer from a badly-built train be discovered by Marge, who saves the town and the day.
This episode is so good that I’m just gonna urge you all to subscribe to Hulu so you can watch it in its entirety. It is sublime.
As you can see, Hartman is eminently quotable in pretty much everything he did in his career. All of the quotes you’ve seen so far? They are burned in my brain. Such is the genius of Phil Hartman. He is, by far, my favorite performer whoever came through SNL.
If it seems like I’m avoiding the elephant in the room, you are right.
It’s still painful to think about.
Phil Hartman was killed on May 28, 1998, at age 49, by his wife, Brynn. While their children were asleep in the house. She then killed herself.
To this day I am genuinely shocked by the brutality of this. I just pulled up Hartman’s Wikipedia page to make sure I was remembering the date correctly and my heart skipped a beat seeing a whole section entitled “Murder”, even though I knew it would be there.
My mother passed away seven months before Hartman was killed. I was in 7th grade. Shortly after my mother passed, my dad hired a woman, Sue, from a nanny agency, although I was a bit too old for a babysitter by that point. Her job was to pick me up from school, make dinner, confirm that I was doing my homework, and make sure the house didn’t burn down before my dad got home. Sue and I got along immediately – we had a similar curmudgeonly sensibility about the world – but getting used to this new arrangement in general after losing my mother took a while. But when the news of Hartman’s death broke, I was a mess all day long at school, even though most of my friends didn’t follow Hartman’s career and didn’t seem upset about it. That afternoon, Sue came to pick me up and she was in tears. Hartman was her favorite SNL performer too. At that moment, I knew that we were destined to be friends forever. (We are. She stayed with us until I went to college. I send her a card every year on Mother’s Day. I call her:“Mom 2.0”.)
Earlier this year I watched an ABC network special on the anniversary of Hartman’s death, entitled: “The Last Days of Phil Hartman”, where I found out more about the circumstances of the night he was killed. I knew the broad strokes already: Hartman and Brynn had been fighting a lot, mostly due to her jealousy of his friendships with female actors he worked with, and also her jealousy of his two previous ex-wives. She was verbally and sometimes physically abusive, and she once sent a death threat to one of Hartman’s ex-wives demanding that said ex-wife never speak to Hartman again. She also was threatened by his success as an actor: she was an aspiring actress who could never find her big break. Hartman tried to help her get work but she was bitter that she needed his help. (There is some speculation that Hartman considered retiring from acting to save the marriage.) The night of the murder, they had an argument, Brynn stormed off, Hartman went to bed, she returned at 3 AM, and shot him in the head, the throat, and the chest.
That’s what I knew. ABC revealed that she was taking Zoloft at the time due to depression and rage issues, and that night she had also been drinking and doing cocaine. She drove to a friend’s house after killing Hartman and confessed. Her friend didn’t believe her and went back to the house with her to confirm. When he saw Hartman’s body, he called the police. It was about 6 AM at that point. The police came to take the Hartmans’ two children from the house, during which time Brynn locked herself in the bedroom and shot herself.
ABC also spent a lot of time unpacking Hartman’s prior relationships. They spoke to many of his friends and family, and his ex-wives and some girlfriends. A common theme cropped up: Hartman could be distant with his loved ones and hard to connect with. As the seemingly never-ending slew of people kept saying this about him, I began to find it more than a bit disturbing that ABC was seemingly trying to draw a connection between his difficulties in intimate relationships and being murdered by his wife. The facts of their marriage reveal that it was not so simple. (Also, what the hell, ABC? Is this really what passes for journalism these days?)
There have been a couple of theories as to why Brynn committed this senseless act. In 1999, her brother filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of Zoloft for wrongful death, saying that side effects from the drug drove her to murder/suicide. Hartman’s best friend from his SNL days, Jon Lovitz, believed that Hartman’s NewsRadio co-star Andy Dick had given her cocaine at a party not long before the murder, knowing that she was in recovery, which caused her to relapse, having a nervous breakdown that night. Dick denies any culpability in Hartman’s death, but he and Lovitz do not speak to one another.
I have no idea what made Brynn do it. None of us ever will.
NewsRadio was renewed for a fifth season prior to Hartman’s death, and the writers had to write Bill McNeal off of the show (they had him die of a heart attack off-camera). Lovitz joined the NewsRadio cast in the fifth season to fill the void (surely making the set extremely awkward given his feud with Dick), but the show just didn’t work anymore and was canceled.
As much as I would love to write this piece in memory of the best aspects of Hartman’s career rather than having to address his death, it’s difficult. He would have been 72 years old on September 24, 2020. 72! I find myself thinking about how much more he had to offer the world. I find myself missing his presence onscreen, missing his voice. I find myself wondering how many other indelible comic characters he might have given us in the past 22 years.
NewsRadio seems to have vanished – reruns almost never run in syndication, and the show is next to impossible to find on streaming services. The Simpsons retired all of Hartman’s characters rather than replace him with another voice actor. The Simpsons have marched on and on ever since, and every year they are on TV is a bittersweet reminder of Hartman's time on the show. SNL reruns used to air on Comedy Central, and they could be downright haunting. Whenever Christopher Walken hosted and reprised his character: “The Continental,” they used the original voiceover introduction recorded by Hartman in 1990. (They even did this as recently as 2008 when Walken hosted, which gave me goosebumps.) During Hartman’s last few seasons on SNL, Brynn appears in the opening credit sequence, sitting at a table with him. You can only see her back, her blonde hair, her earrings swinging, but it is unmistakably her.
And then when he returned to host SNL in 1996, he thanked her in his monologue for being such a wonderful wife.
Sue thought that that particular episode should be pulled from syndication altogether, or at least edited to not include the monologue. I’m inclined to agree with her. But we got our wish, in a roundabout way: Comedy Central stopped showing SNL reruns. It is now on Hulu, but limited to Seasons 1-5 and Season 30 onwards. Seasons 12-20, when he was a cast member, seem to have disappeared into the ether.
Everything he did, when I think about it now, seems to be tainted by his premature death.
I wish it didn’t have to be this way. I wish there was a way to remember Phil Hartman without thinking about what Brynn did to him. What she did to his children. What she did to his family. What she did to his friends. What she did to us.
I wish we could have seen him grow old, playing elder statesmen on other sitcoms and in movies, returning to host SNL again and again. I wish we could have seen him do something resembling Bill Murray’s late-career reinvention as a serious actor. I wish I could watch the SNL compilation: “The Best of Phil Hartman,” (as I did before writing this – I have it on DVD) and not have to think about this horrendous tragedy. I wish I could just bask in the glory of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and The Sinatra Group and Admiral Stockdale and devious Ronald Reagan. I wish I could just enjoy him being the exceptional performer that he was.
In some ways, it is a perverse blessing that the only way to see him now is in YouTube clips.
His death is a reminder of how tenuous, how ephemeral, how jagged life can be. We are all just in pieces, trying to keep it together. It’s the human condition – especially these days. But for a while, on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, on SNL, on NewsRadio, on The Simpsons, when he was there, when he was alive, we could escape. We could marvel at his skill. We could watch him make us laugh.
He was “The Glue.”
Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.