The 75 Greatest Phil Hartman ‘SNL’ Sketches, According to His Castmates and Writers
It’s bittersweet to imagine how the late Phil Hartman would have celebrated this month on what would have been his 75th birthday. It’s not difficult to picture him partying with contemporaries Steve Martin and Martin Short as part of the ensemble on Only Murders in the Building, perhaps playing an unctuous long-time tenant with impeccable taste in linens and a penchant for murder. Then again, Hartman might have been indulging some of his many interests outside of comedy — drawing, surfing philosophy, classic cars. Certainly he would have been a member of Saturday Night Live’s Five-Timers Club by now, a man who “has done more work that’s touched greatness than probably anybody else who’s ever been here,” according to no less of an authority than Lorne Michaels.
Instead of collecting 75 candles for a massive cake, we enlisted Hartman’s former castmates and writers, including Nora Dunn, Al Franken, Robert Smigel and Chris Farley’s brother Tom, to help compile a list of Hartman’s 75 greatest sketches. (The fact that a number of sketches needed to be pared away to get to only 75 speaks to the greatness at work here). Whether Hartman is singing lead vocals in a sketch like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer or providing the steady bass beat in classics like Van Down by the River, the sheer breadth of his work is unequaled in SNL’s nearly 50-year history.
Here then, in no particular order, are 75 of the man’s greatest. Take it away, Phil…
President Bill Clinton at McDonald’ s
Hartman was famously nicknamed The Glue “and you can see part of it in this sketch,” Franken tells me. “He's unbelievably flawless. This was the first one we did after the election so you have the most confident Clinton there is. He knows every bit of policy. We had a full three-dimensional character who Phil embodied beautifully and understood and added to. And when we say he’s The Glue, think about how many people he interacts with and how his rhythm was holding it all together. That was the perfect take on Clinton at the time, if I do say so myself because Dave Mandel and I wrote it. It was a political sketch that wasn’t a debate, it wasn’t a press conference, it wasn’t him meeting with a head of state. It was him in his element, which is McDonald’s. I just watched it again and I went, ‘Holy shit, this is perfect.’”
Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer
“That's an amazing sketch. It was so funny and so smart,” says Robert Smigel. “There are a lot of sketches that are funny and smart that don’t get big laughs, and Lorne likes them enough that he puts them on the show but they’re usually on at like five minutes to 1 a.m. Some of (writer) Jack Handey’s funniest sketches would be relegated to that very late time slot. Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer was a very dry concept, so there weren’t that many gigantic laugh points. It wasn’t a jokey sketch. But it was so brilliant that Lorne didn’t bury it at the end of the show. Phil just played that beautiful kind of innocent but sleazy guy.”
Only in New York
“My most memorable sketch with Phil and myself is an obscure one,” says castmate Nora Dunn. “It was called ‘Only in New York,’ and the characters were two real gossip columnists in New York City, Cindy and Joey Adams. I wrote the sketch with Bonnie and Terry Turner, and we recorded the opening song with Phil in a sound booth. It was so much fun. Phil’s character told jokes that were not ‘bad’ jokes, they were ‘non’ jokes. He’s the only one who got that. They were funny because they weren’t funny. We never did the characters again, but we should have.”
Like the “Only in New York” sketch, bits like “Hal Jerome” show off Hartman’s ability to expertly embody old show-biz tropes. Here, he’s the smarmiest of emcees, effortlessly segueing into a show tune about his wife leaving him. Nobody could do insincere sycophant like Hartman.
Love Is a Dream
Hartman and Jan Hooks were always down for something different. “Not putting them down, but we were around all of those stand-up comics (at SNL) who wanted a quick, cheap laugh,” Hooks explained in the excellent You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman. “And Phil and I were kind of different animals in a way. We were comic actors instead of comics.”
Those comic acting skills were put to work in this short dream of a film. “It’s not exactly jokey, or a laugh-a-minute,” director Tom Schiller told You Might Remember Me author Mike Thomas, “but it shows another side of their acting ability that I perceived in (Phil). I thought he had a lot of depth and sweetness.”
“I wrote Colon Blow with Tom (Davis) and I think Aykroyd had the name Colon Blow, which was half the thing,” says Franken, who serenades me with the commercial’s jingle, “Colon Blow and you… in the morning.” Who sang it? Somehow, Franken was able to convince Phoebe Snow to do the trilling vocals. “Isn’t that amazing?”
The Anal-Retentive (Fill in the Occupation) series of sketches were written by Bonnie and Terry Turner, the latter of whom may have shared some of Eugene’s anal-retentive tendencies, according to Franken. It was one of the first sketches that gave Hartman an original recurring character.
Hartman “was just amazingly good,” SNL writer Jack Handey told Mike Sacks on the Doin’ It With Mike Sacks podcast. “He could do just about anything. Some writers wrote for people like Adam Sandler who had a definite character. But Phil could just do anything so you could write anything for him.” Including robots fighting for clear syntax.
So Long Farewell
“I just really remember the last farewell thing,” says Tom Farley, brother of Chris. “That is so vivid in my mind. It was so beautiful. It was a special relationship. Chris had his guys, his buddies. But Phil was something different. Chris looked up to him, he respected him.”
“It was the last thing (Hartman) was going to say on Saturday Night Live as a cast member,” remembers Jay Mohr in his book Gasping for Airtime. “The sight of Phil’s eyes getting moist was stunning. His voice quivered as if he might cry, and he paused for a second to collect himself. Chris cuddled up into Phil, and Phil sang, ‘Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.’ The camera angle on the last ‘goodbye’ switched to the crane camera that swung through the studio. Phil was looking up as he sang. Farley nuzzled in closer to Phil and moved his head from Phil’s lapel to his shoulder. The sketch ended like that, with Phil Hartman and Chris Farley sitting onstage together, sleeping and singing ‘Goodbye.’ It was glorious.”
Phil Hartman’s Real Views
Because he was such a comic chameleon, even castmates would find it hard to understand who the real Phil Hartman was. In this sketch, he pulls back the curtain to play Phil Hartman, who, of course, is just another character in his endless repertoire.
Ronald Reagan: Mastermind
“The Ronald Reagan mastermind sketch is one of the sketches that I worked on that I hear about over the years more than most,” says Smigel. “That was something that (James) Downey and Franken and George Meyer all helped me with, but it was my concept. I was fed up with Reagan being portrayed as a doddering fool. It just seemed so easy. So I had the idea of what if he’s behind the scenes just pulling all the strings? It was a perfect use of Phil because he could go from sweet doddering Reagan that the public sees with the little school girl to angry, scary Reagan snapping into action and pulling out a war map, barking orders to all of his aides about how they’re going to divert money to the Contras.”
Only Hartman could have pulled off this sad-sack therapy patient whose anguish over an adulterous wife turns into a full-blown blues number. A tour de force.
Acting Workshop: Bobby Coldsman Teaches His Techniques
A Grantland contest to determine the greatest SNL cast member of all time came down to Hartman and Will Ferrell, with Ferrell taking the crown in that version of the horse race. Your mileage may vary on who’s the SNL GOAT, but enjoy this rare opportunity to see the two all-timers face off in a 1996 sketch featuring Hartman as a name-dropping acting coach.
Donahue: Exploited Women
“All I remember about his Donohue was the writing of it,” says Franken. “I think it was (writer Jim) Downey. I might have kicked in or something, but his use of terms like ’not a little’ when he meant ’a lot.’ He would say, ‘He’s not a little afraid’ was his way of saying someone was very afraid. Of course, (Phil’s) Donohue was spot on.”
“There was a picture of Halston. I said, ‘Phil, did you see the picture of Halston on Time Magazine? You look just like him,’” Jon Lovitz told Dennis Miller on an episode of Larry King Live. “So he played Halston in it. Nora and I are singing ‘Send in the Clowns,’ and I’m playing this French guy, this idiot. ‘Isn’t it rich? Isn’t this gay?’ And they cut to Phil. He did this little move, and it was just hysterical.”
Sassy’s Sassiest Boys
A one-joke sketch becomes something else entirely in Hartman’s hands, all due to his ability to find several dozen ways to savor the word “sassy.”
The Sinatra Group
“Bonnie and Terry Turner had written a sketch with Frank Sinatra earlier in the year where he was just a hilarious bully to George Michael,” says Smigel. “He had written a bizarre editorial in the Los Angeles Times excoriating George Michael for his behavior and telling him, ‘You’re blowing it, kid! Show business is going to eat you alive if you keep this up!’ And so I just thought, ‘a group thing with Frank Sinatra.’ That's really the one that everyone remembers. Phil was just a runaway freight train in that scene.”
"You had these funny impressions like Sting as Billy Idol and Chris Rock as Luther Campbell, but they all got to play straight man to this crazy incarnation of Frank Sinatra. He just had so much charisma and confidence that it was a classic,” Smigel continues. “It’s interesting — the Sinatra family did not like it. Joe Piscopo had done Sinatra many times. It wasn’t dark at all. He didn’t really touch on the tough guy, kind of reactionary guy who in concert would say things like, ‘If Sinead O’Connor wasn’t a chick, I’d kick her ass.’”
One More Mission
Hartman’s “sketch with Jon Lovitz as a washed-up movie star is a gem,” marvels Dunn.
“We loved old movies from the 1940s,” Lovitz has said on the Fly on the Wall podcast. “‘Why for two cents I’d …’ ‘Yeah, what would you do for a nickel?’ ‘Just cross that line.’ ‘You’ll wish I hadn’t!’ You can see us doing that in (Phil’s) audition!”
“The inept drill sergeant was a parody of Full Metal Jacket, which is one of my favorite movies ever, especially the first half where the drill sergeant is just so hilariously abusive,” says Smigel. “My wife may have come up with the initial idea here. In the movie, the drill sergeant is constantly giving degrading nicknames to soldiers. In ours, Phil Hartman is doing that as a drill sergeant, but he’s just inept at coming up with nicknames. Phil was so funny doing this brilliant performance. He never let up.”
This longer sketch was perfect for showing off Hartman’s acting skills. “I think he would have done fine in any era of the show,” says writer Jim Downey in You Might Remember Me. “But there were certain things that I’m really glad we were allowed to do — pieces that were long enough (in which) you got to see Phil’s subtlety on display.”
Darrell Hammond nailed Trump in the 2000s, and Alec Baldwin practically became a cast member with his version. But Hartman got there first, another in his very full trick bag of celebrity impressions.
“One sketch I’d like to mention, because Phil wrote it himself, was ‘Discover,’” says Smigel. The Discover series of sketches parodied Peter Graves, the star of Mission Impossible in the 1960s and the pilot in Airplane! “There’s one with Jon Lovitz, the first time he ever did it. The first one is probably the funniest one, like most SNL sketches. It’s just a classic, old-fashioned kind of construction that’s very deadpan, and Phil is doing that brainless, vapid spokesman voice, not that different than Troy McClure on The Simpsons. It was very different than your typical Saturday Night Live sketch because it wasn’t a super-pointed, satirical kind of parody.”
Joy Ride with Perot and Stockdale
“My wife helped me with Admiral Stockdale with Ross Perot,” says Smigel. “He wasn’t very vice presidential in his debate. At one point, he said, ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ And he meant it in a rhetorical way where he was putting himself in the mindset of people watching. But it came out to a lot of people that he looked crazy. He wasn’t polished. He was the anti-Ramaswamy, more substance than style, to put it nicely. So I had this idea with my wife where Ross Perot realized that the debate was a disaster.”
So Perot takes Stockdale on a ride in his car. “And I believe it was my wife who said, ‘What if he just dropped Stockdale off at some point in the woods?’ My wife’s original idea was that he was going to shoot him like a lame horse, which was funny in a really dark way, but we decided to modify it and we just had Perot drop off Stockdale and start speeding away. And that got a huge laugh. And then we had Stockdale, because he was a general, we just had him have superhuman strength and speed so he runs and catches up to him.
“It was a huge hit. On the one hand, it’s an all-timer in terms of the laughs it got. But on the other hand, I know Phil had mixed feelings about it. He respected Stockdale and he knew why it was funny, but he had mixed feelings about it. Maybe this is a little unfair or harsh, but we did it anyway.”
Liberace in Heaven
A full 30 seconds of laughs before Hartman utters a single line of dialogue. That’s a “whoa.”
Church Chat: Jimmy Swaggart and Pat Robertson
“I looked this up recently because Pat Robertson died,” says Franken, who played Robertson in this Church Lady sketch. “Phil’s Swaggart comes on. His Swaggart is fucking hilarious, and I did a pretty definitive Pat Robertson. And Swaggart has been with a hooker in a hotel or something, right? And the waterworks, it’s fucking hilarious. It’s a perfect Church Chat.”
Sexiest Man Alive
Hartman’s dimwitted Peter Graves, one of the show’s mostly unlikely celebrity impressions, is back to host People’s Sexiest Man Alive contest. Check out how closely this sketch resembles the infamous Chris Farley Chippendale audition, with Lovitz in the Farley role.
Matt Foley: Van Down By the River
“There is no Costello without Abbott,” writer Dave Mandel told Grantland. “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.”
“Phil isn’t the guy that needed to be funny,” Tom Farley tells me. “He just knew what he needed to do to make the entire sketch work.”
Lothar of the Hill People
“I was close to Phil Hartman,” says Mike Myers in Live From New York. “We both kind of came from the same place, which is we loved doing characters and came from ensembles. I just worshipped Phil. I looked up to him. I think he’s one of the best character-based comedians ever. My office was next to his. I used to just check in with him all the time, just pop into his office and shoot the breeze. He was extremely, extremely supportive and hilarious. He never gave up on a sketch and his work ethic was amazing and I just dug him. I enjoyed everybody, but if you’re asking me who was special, I would say Phil Hartman.”
Hartman was the king of the commercial parody, mostly for his ability to mimic the oily intonations of ad pitchmen. But here, he shows off another of his invaluable glue skills by once again becoming the Ultimate SNL Dad.
A Beastly Blind Date
“Phil and I were in the backseat of a car making out; he was the Beast, I was the Beauty,” said Jan Hooks in Live From New York. “At the end of it, they cut to the commercial, and Phil had to rush off and be, you know, whoever. But first Phil said to me, ‘You gave me a huge boner. Oh God. I’ve got to run!’ So there’s like this mountain of manhood, and he had to go on and, you know, make a change with a big old boner.”
Thanksgiving Greetings from Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein
For three guys who mostly speak in grunts, SNL got a lot of mileage out of Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein. “I think we started it as a talk show,” Handey says on the Doin’ It With Mike Sacks podcast, “with people just talking in monosyllables. But it branched out into a soap opera version. Mel Gibson played Frankenstein’s brother, who was very loquacious.”
Don’t Pray So Much
“Christian Slater championed a sketch of mine,” writes Tom Davis in his memoir, 39 Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There. “Victoria Jackson was the housewife in an evangelical Christian family, and Slater appears to her as Jesus. It went over very well, but between dress and air, Victoria announced that the scene was blasphemous and her own religious beliefs made it impossible for her to do it. The next week I showed it to Sally Field, who loved it. I cast Phil Hartman as Jesus: her character constantly prays to Jesus about everything (‘Dear Jesus, please help my daughter with her math test,’ ‘Jesus, help my husband drive his car carefully,’ ‘Jesus, help me get my shopping done quickly so I can get home in time to watch General Hospital, and please help Luke and Laura get back together again’). Poof! Jesus appears before her in the kitchen.”
Hartman is back as Jesus once again, this time trying to get past Dick Clark’s dismissive personal assistant. “He had so much range as an actor,” says Smigel. “He could play really benign, like he played Jesus in David Spade’s receptionist sketch. He was so funny, and he has this moment where even He gets fed up with this snotty receptionist.”
Larry King Live: Burt Reynolds and Loni Anderson
People rightly remember Norm Macdonald’s hilarious Burt Reynolds, er, Turd Ferguson impression on the Celebrity Jeopardy sketches. But watch this one and ask yourself: Is Norm doing an impression of Reynolds or an impression of Hartman doing an impression of Reynolds?
Steve Martin Cold Open
In this musical ode to not phoning it in, Hartman makes fun of the idea that no one knows who the real Phil Hartman is behind his cavalcade of characters. “I hide behind these wigs and this makeup,” he sings. “But tonight I’m going to let myself shine through! Yes, they’re going to see the real Phil Hartman tonight!”
“I wouldn’t do that, Phil,” cautions host Steve Martin.
“Okay,” agrees Hartman.
“Johnny likes some of the sketches we did. The one that was called ‘Carsenio’ he liked because he saw we were poking fun at Arsenio Hall as much as at him,” says Dana Carvey in Live From New York. “When you play Carson, when I was in the moment with Phil, what really comes through you is sort of just charm, just incredible likability and charm.”
The Environmentally Sensitive One
This send-up of Brando’s The Wild One starred Alec Baldwin with Victoria Jackson as his love interest and Hartman as the girl’s father. “In the end, when the chemical factory is exploding and killing everyone in tow, I’m offering Victoria a chance to ride off on my motorcycle with me,” remembers Baldwin in Live From New York. “Phil Hartman beseeches me, he says the line, ‘Take me with you,’ and it was the just way he said the line, I always remember that as one of the times I almost cracked up on camera. He just grabbed me and with this incredible yearning, this incredible panic, said, ‘Take me with you.’ I thought I was going to piss my pants in the middle of the show.”
One of the very first sketches for the cast that included Hartman, Carvey and Hooks was Quiz Masters. Carvey was a psychic contestant with Hartman as the game show host (one of the go-to roles for SNL glue guys). According to Grantland’s Hartman profile, “the crowd began to laugh, producer James Downey turned to Smigel and said, ‘The audience feels safe.’”
Hartman could even nail cameos, like this one in an episode with L.A. Law’s Corbin Bernsen as host. “For some reason, Kevin Nealon was the defendant, and he was being represented by actors who played lawyers on TV,” says Smigel. “It started with Corbin Bernsen and then Jan Hooks did a brilliant Susan Dey. Andy Griffith was playing Matlock at the time, and there's no way Phil had ever played Andy Griffith before. He must have learned the impression in two days. He’s just hysterical for literally 45 seconds and he’s done.”
Another one from Hartman and Carvey’s first-ever episode. Carvey is the comic focus of the scene, but it’s Hartman as a clueless record executive who puts it over the top with his reactions. “The cutaway to Phil?” laughs Will Ferrell on the Fly on the Wall podcast. “Everyone just going ‘this is the worst song ever,’ and then Phil Hartman just going YES!’”
Soap Opera Digest
“I wrote a sketch for Phil when I was there like my second year called Soap Opera Digest, and it was with Alec Baldwin and Phil,” Tim Meadows has told Jon Foss. “In the scene, Phil played a soap opera actor, and the lines that I wrote for him were not funny. And there were points where they do close-ups of the two actors, and there’s a musical sting under it. It’s just a camera shot of Phil looking at Alec Baldwin and doing that soap opera thing. Phil got a huge laugh just on his staring at Alec Baldwin, and it was a revelation to me. You don’t have to be big. The comedy will come if you just commit to it. That’s what Phil was doing during those camera shots, he was committing to the idea.”
Sincere Guy Stu
Jan Hooks may have been Hartman’s secret weapon, the yin to his yang. Sincere Guy Stu is just another example of their extraordinary chemistry. “I’ll tell you who was really instrumental in getting me through was Mr. Phil Hartman. He was my rock,” Hooks said in Live From New York. “Luckily, I had a lot of stuff with him. He was just, you know, the Rock of Gibraltar.”
Gossip Show with Julie Brown
With his hilarious imitation of arts critic Rex Reed, Hartman nails another disingenuous phony. “Phil had a total bullshit thing going,” Jack Handey says in You Might Remember Me. “Lorne Michaels said it reminded him of Bill Murray — that fake, unctuous sincerity. He knew how to play an oily guy.”
MTV Spring Break
Add Ted Kennedy to Hartman’s impressive list of canny political impressions. Speaking of impressions, doesn’t Victoria Jackson’s Christina Applegate sound an awful lot like Victoria Jackson?
Church Lady Meets Saddam Hussein
While Church Chat was undeniably Dana Carvey’s baby, he often found himself playing off Swiss Army knife Hartman, who could play virtually any figure currently in the news. “There are certain people I was never competitive with, like Phil Hartman,” says Carvey in Live From New York. “He was so brilliant, and it was almost as if he was uninterested (in comedy); he was interested in this Evinrude motor for his motorboat and he would be painting and talking about motorboats and airplanes and then turn around and be brilliant (on the show).”
Circle Mad Dog Food
Hartman famously avoided the heavy makeup jobs that some SNL impressionists used to embody the celebrities they were trying to parody. A simple mustache and a hat were all he needed to become Wilford Brimley. “He didn’t want the makeup to be a joke,” writes SNL makeup artist Norman Bryn in his memoir, Makeup and Misery. “He wanted it to be part of the character, but he didn’t want that to get the laugh.”
Wilson Countersink Flanges
Chris Farley wanted to be John Belushi, but Hartman told Lorne Michaels he wanted to be the original Glue Guy, Dan Aykroyd. He’s clearly channeling his inner Aykroyd in this sketch, effortlessly spewing technical specs that would leave lesser comics with their tongues tangled in knots.
Church Chat with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker
On his Fly on the Wall podcast, Dana Carvey told Molly Shannon that when he got nervous on SNL, Hartman had a way of soothing him. “I’d come out and I would see the Church Lady set and I would see Phil in his costume and obviously Jan and they would calm me down,” he explained. “Like these are my people.”
Sentimental Value Pawn Shop
The Farleys and Sandlers of SNL were known for playing over-the-top characters, but often it was Hartman’s underplayed gems that highlighted a show. As the pawn shop owner who doles out cash based on sentimental value, Hartman uses subtlety and heart to win over the crowd.
Gonna Be A Better Cowboy
Leave it to Hartman to lend a little emotional gravitas to a goofy song about underachieving cowboys. Carvey’s twang is funny, but Hartman somehow makes us believe he got his heart broken somewhere out there on the range.
Phil Hartman’s Host Monologue
Disconcerting for a number of reasons: The vague sense that Hartman isn’t completely comfortable performing as Hartman, a monologue based on the not-so-crazy notion that he works a lot and the fond words for his wife Brynn, who would later be responsible for his death.
Bad Idea Jeans
Can we all agree that in a group of stupid friends wearing ugly jeans, Hartman has the worst ideas?
Barbara and Nancy
Hartman and his work wife Jan Hooks are together again, but they’re not married this time. What’s remarkable about Hartman’s Barbara Bush is that he never plays the gender-switch for laughs, granting her the grace and gravitas that made her a more popular First Lady than her nah-ga-do-it husband.
NFL Today: Black Pride
Few people today remember the racist ignorance of football analyst Jimmy the Greek, but somehow Hartman’s performance still resonates as an out-of-touch white guy trying to prove that he’s enlightened enough to save his job. We swear we saw this guy on Bill Maher just last week.
“I had a really strong take on what I wanted to do with Johnny, and Dana had some great observations,” Smigel says in You Might Remember Me. But the whole business relied on Phil’s Ed McMahon. “Dana would do all these subtle, observant riffs on Carson, and the audience would not really laugh. They would laugh at Ed validating them. ‘Yes! You are correct, sir!’”
Musicians for Free-Range Chickens
The next three sketches show off either SNL’s laziness or the ubiquity of all-star celebrity singalongs for good causes in the 1980s. It’s probably a little of both as Musicians for (Fill in the Blank) were always a good excuse to give the entire cast a little air time. In Musicians for Free-Range Chickens, Hartman shows off what was likely the world’s first Kenny Rogers impression.
The stage is full of fake celebrities once again as Hartman tries on mid-1980s Elton John for size.
Recurring Characters for Unity
But the best one imagines Hartman’s Frankenstein as the world’s biggest pop star, punctuating the chorus with his signature wail, “Fire bad!” (It was also a very strange response to the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles.)
Thanksgiving with the Keisters
Remember Marge Kiester from Quiz Masters above? She’s back with her whole family for a Thanksgiving sketch, shared here as one of the rare occasions when Hartman cracked up on the air. What made him break? That would be lifting his ass cheek to fart after an overabundant Thanksgiving dinner.
Ten Weeks in Jail
Ten Weeks in Jail is a very simple concept — really, the title tells you everything you need to know — but Hartman didn’t need much to make it work. “Phil was like the center point of the show. He was the thing that held everything together,” says writer Terry Turner in Live From New York. “He could make the simplest stuff brilliant just by reading it a particular way, by his posture, by his look.”
“Get ready to hate someone with all your might because this guy is stoned on pot right now!” There’s an obvious comic choice when playing a stoner but of course, Hartman zigs where others zag. He’s neither Cheech nor Chong — just a mild-mannered librarian who needs to mellow out after a hectic day shelving books.
Adults Living at Home
Chris Rock’s run on the show began just as Hartman’s was ending. “There’d be no Chris Rock Show, I never would have had the success that I had with that, if I hadn’t been on SNL learning how to run a show,” says Rock in Live From New York. “I didn’t go to college so it was all school to me. Everyone was a professor — Professor Al Franken, Professor Phil Hartman.”
While Hartman specialized in the smug intellectual, he had no problems portraying a punchdrunk ex-boxer delivering a eulogy for a fallen corner man. Like with his Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, Hartman proves he had few peers when it comes to bawling like a baby for comic effect.
Could Jon Lovitz have credibly played a tough guy? Could Dana Carvey? Having a guy like Hartman in the cast allowed writers to come up with just about any scenario, knowing they always had Hartman to turn straight roles into comic treasures.
Frank Sinatra Acceptance Speech
Hartman’s “Frank Sinatra was killer,” says Nora Dunn. In fact, everyone loves Phil’s Frank — again, except for Sinatra’s relatives and Joe Piscopo. “The Sinatra family was not happy with the impression Phil was doing at all, again rest his soul,” Piscopo says in Live From New York. Needless to say, Piscopo wasn’t happy with it either: “There was a meanness there to the Hartman thing. That was Lorne too, man. And I think there’s some kind of law: Don’t even attempt to do Sinatra unless you’re Italian.”
Yelling in the Kitchen
Another sketch where Hartman’s stellar dramatic skills come into play, the strained smile on his face barely concealing the rage he lets loose once he’s off camera. And we get it — we can’t stand Nicole Kidman’s AMC Theaters pre-roll either.
Clinton Town Hall
“(SNL) had two different great imitations of President Clinton,” says comedy expert Rudy Giuliani in Live From New York, praising both the Hartman and Darrell Hammond takes on the former president. “Yeah, I think their political humor has been absolutely terrific.” (It’s possible that America’s Mayor may have changed his opinion about SNL political humor since he made those remarks.)
Magic Fish Town Hall
One hallmark of being the Glue Guy is playing the authority figure, whether that’s the dad, the boss at work or the mayor of a magical fairy-tale town. Once again, Hartman lets all the crazies do their stuff while his somber dignity holds the scene’s reality together.
Lincoln High G.E.D. 10-Year Reunion
Here’s Hartman again as the authority figure, but this time colored with the anger and resentment that comes with being the principal of a night school. It’s not hard to imagine this guy drinking alone in the faculty parking lot right now. Once again, Hartman effortlessly directs the scene’s traffic.
Jon Lovitz and Hartman worked together in the Groundlings and Lovitz fought hard to get his old friend to join SNL. It probably cost Lovitz some airtime. “Because Phil could do anything, he had more stuff,” Lovitz says in Live From New York. “He’d be in like eight sketches, you know. He used to go, ‘God, it’s too much,’ because I’d have like five sketches, which was great, but he’d be in like eight or ten every week.”
Jiffy Pop Airbag
More evidence that Hartman was king of the commercial parody, doing his best cheesy sell of an auto safety product that uses popcorn to keep passengers safe. Delicious.
“Phil Hartman was built by NASA to make every bit he was in better,” Bob Odenkirk wrote in his memoir, Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama. That’s certainly the case in Apex Novelty, with Hartman putting his slow burn to good use versus Jeff Daniels, not quite as stupid as in Dumb and Dumber mode but close enough. Even though Hartman’s executive finds the new novelty ideas ludicrous, he treats them all with the seriousness needed to let Daniels’ idiot shine.
New York Word Exchange
Troy McClure was one of Hartman’s signature Simpsons characters, but SNL fans probably believed they heard McClure first on Saturday nights. If McClure ever said, “You might know me from sketches like New York Word Exchange…,” we’d nod in recognition.
Co-workers sometimes used sports analogies to describe Hartman’s ability to score with sketches like Thugs. “Just like baseball fans and baseball fanatics put together the best Yankee team ever, so the Saturday Night Live dream cast is another game that the writers play,” says writer Andy Breckman in Live From New York. “Phil Hartman makes almost every list.”
Jay Mohr says Hartman was “easy like Sunday mornin’” in You Might Remember Me. “He just came in and got it done and left. He was like a closer in baseball.”
Helmlsey Spook House
Jan Hooks was often cast as Phil’s spouse thanks to their easy chemistry together. “I loved Phil, even though it was only on-screen,” Hooks said in You Might Remember Me. “But that bleeds into real life, too. It was a very unique relationship. I knew what it was like to kiss him and hug him. And even though it was only make-believe, it was real to me for that moment.”