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Phil Hartman, Comedy Helper

Dateline: 05/28/98

"In Los Angeles, comedian Phil Hartman is dead, shot in an apparent murder-suicide involving his wife," or words to that effect came blurting out of my radio. I was motoring up the Interstate this afternoon. I felt like I had been slapped.

Several things about Hartman have popped into my mind since I received the news.

Phil Hartman was one of those guys I watched up on screens doing his schtick over the years; but I never gave him much thought -- until now. I don't make this statement to be unkind, just the opposite. I say it as a compliment. Hartman's gift was his ability to meld into a scene or sketch. He would forego pandering for laughs, opting to fade into the infrastructure of a comedy piece.

He may not have been the dazzling show-off, dancing on wobbly sketch constructions. Those laughs would usually be credited to obvious crowd-pleasing clowns, such as Dana Carvey or Jon Lovitz, and so many others in that endless blur known as Saturday Night Live. Phil Hartman was somewhere else in those structures, doing goofs with his loopy restrained characterizations. More times than not, simply, he was the "straight man." In comedy, though, that is often the most difficult, trickiest part to build. Phil Hartman was a girder. He was the steel in his scenes.

During his eight years on SNL, he achieved much acclaim. Behind the scenes, television and movie businesses sought him for projects. He became bankable. There were stories of his being able to sign for any TV series he wanted to do. There was a drive to get a Phil Hartman Show, any Phil Hartman Show on the air. And, recalling his amusing talk show appearances on either Letterman or Leno, he almost bit on the feasts offered up to him.

Instead, he made a decision not to front his own show. He didn't particularly relish the idea of having to carry such a burden on his shoulders. He knew his strengths were surer, safer in numbers. He had also worked heavily in comedy improvisation performances, notably with The Groundlings, in his formative stage years. He decided to be one of many, not the one.

NewsRadio called. Phil listened. He took the job. Folks wondered if he had suffered a comedown in the entertainment industry. Where was that Phil Hartman Show we all were expecting? Phil saw the potential of playing egotistical, weirdly maniacal radio anchor man, Bill McNeal. He knew the program could be funny. He felt he might enjoy the experience. That was enough for him, thankfully, for NewsRadio has been one of the grossly unheralded gems on the air during these past few seasons. Hartman stood out in a heavyweight ensemble cast, one of the all-time top-notch crews, in a show that compares favorably to our loving memories of Newhart, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Fawlty Towers, even The Honeymooners and The Jack Benny Program. It offers some pleasure to note Benny was a favorite of the comedian.

Phil Hartman said many times, his talent as a performer dealt with his easy ability to create voices and exhibit impersonations. His wonderful vocals are all over many episodes of The Simpsons, not as the leading characters, but once again in the backgrounds, providing believability, parody, and delight. And for those of us who have seen him, Phil Hartman is Jack Nicholson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, and Ed McMahon -- who might add, "Yes!! You Are Correct, Sir!"

He made movies, too. There's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Greedy, Blind Date, Three Amigos, Coneheads, Quick Change, Sgt. Bilko, Jingle All the Way, among others -- again, supporting actor. His largest film role is in Houseguest, co-billed with Sinbad.

So, when I say Phil Hartman didn't make me think about him too much, I realize it's because of his dedication to the craft of creating funny. He sacrificed his laughs, possibly greater fame, for the work. His comedy was a team sport; and, remarkably, he could execute every role.

We may not notice, but we'll miss him. He was good. He was accurate. He was funny. He made a difference.

Phil Hartman -- Most Valuable Player.

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