Phil Hartman’s Big Break Came From Crashing A Groundlings Show
We all love Phil Hartman — and if you don’t, please seek the help of some kind of specialist — thanks to his work in TV comedies such as Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and NewsRadio. Heck, he would still be a comedy legend even if his career was confined to only playing Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.
And when he showed up in minor film roles, Hartman usually stole the show, as evidenced in movies like Jingle All the Way and So I Married an Axe Murderer — not to mention the fact that he co-created the character of Pee-Wee Herman and designed every album cover in your parents’ shag-carpeted rumpus room.
Hartman famously began his comedy career with the legendary Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings, and as his close friend and former Groundlings performer, Jon Lovitz recently told Howard Stern, Hartman landed the gig in a highly unconventional fashion. In a story that we honestly hesitate to recount, lest it potentially ruin every live improv show for the rest of time, Hartman first went to The Groundlings as a spectator, seeing a show with friends as part of a birthday party. According to Lovitz, during the intermission, the actors were backstage when they heard the audience “dying laughing” for some reason.
It turned out that “Phil was onstage entertaining everybody” despite the fact that he was a graphic designer at the time, not a performer. In Lovitz’s words: “He’d never done it; he could just do it.” Instead of having security eject the hilarious interloper, the other Groundlings asked Hartman, “You wanna be in the group?”
The 2014 biography You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman describes the same incident but with a few minor differences. According to the book, Hartman hopped on stage before the show started, not at the intermission. And it was Hartman that asked the Groundlings how he could join up, not the other way around. But indisputably, Hartman spontaneously took the stage to “tell jokes and do impressions,” garnering laughs from strangers at a show that was not his own — inadvertently kickstarting a new career in comedy.
Again, please don’t try rushing the stage at other people’s comedy shows if you aren’t Phil Hartman in 1975.
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