Read This: ‘You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman’

Phil Hartman You Might Remember MeYou Might Remember Me is the latest of the tragic Saturday Night Live biographies. A special emphasis on the word “might” is what makes it particularly tragic. Phil Hartman remains one of the most underrated cast members in the show’s history; seeing how he never quite achieved movie-star status and his Simpsons characters have been retired for more than a decade, it is entirely possible that he may fall into obscurity.

I admit that I did not fully appreciate Phil Hartman during his time at SNL. I was more drawn, like most, to the outlandish Adam Sandler and Chris Farley (and their subsequent movie careers). To me, Hartman was at best a notable member of a great cast. It was a maturity, a change in sensibilities, and a closer analysis of the sketches that brought that appreciation. It was pretty much everyone but the audience who knew how valuable Phil was, and the respect was limitless:

  • He could seemingly make any line, even throwaways, funny.
  • He could play any utility character or carry a sketch.
  • He had an endless bag of impressions.
  • He was a consummate professional who seemingly never broke during a scene (the only time that comes to mind is during a Frankenstein sketch: Fire Ba-a-a-a-a-d). Which one has to find appealing in the years after watching Jimmy Fallon giggle his way through dozens of sketches.
  • He would never “dog it” in a sketch during rehearsal or even read-through. Apparently this was a common practice, trying to push your own skits by sabotaging others.

It was this last bit of praise that really speaks to the Phil Hartman one learns about in this book (or The Glue, as he was affectionately known). Not only was he older than most of the cast members at the time, he did not have petty prima donna habits and pretty much shied away from conflict (sometimes to the detriment of his career).

His early life may come as a surprise. I would not have pegged him as a pot-smoking surfer but he loved both activities dearly. His interests and hobbies seemed to ebb and flow erratically, and a lot of his early career was spent trying to be a graphic artist instead of pushing his acting. An interesting tidbit is learning which album covers Phil designed, including a certain band’s logo that is still used today.

Most of the middle portion of the book is spent trying to explain how it actually took so long for Phil to become famous. And one can see it took a lot of external factors (and some internal) to keep him from the top. Yet even when he reached a steady TV gig with SNL, he still spent years trying to find a breakthrough character that would propel him further. It wasn’t until Bill Clinton was elected to office that he really locked down a household role and brought the political sketches to new heights.

Sadly, even after stepping away from SNL to pursue something bigger, Hartman was only finding more of the supporting roles and cinematic grunt work that had garnered so much respect through the years. His performance as Bill McNeal on the sitcom NewsRadio was critically lauded, but the show underperformed in the ratings. And The Glue again found himself to be the steady hand in a young energetic cast.

But as little as drama affected his work life, his family life remained turbulent. His third wife, Brynn (with whom he now had two children), was cause for concern by his closest friends, and it is this portion of the book attempting to humanize her that is the most difficult to stomach.

I personally never wanted to know more than the story that Brynn Hartman was a coke-addled psychopath (and many might still maintain that), but as the book delves into the details of what actually happened that night and the months leading up to it, one has to accept that things are never so cut-and-dry.

While not quite as crushing as The Chris Farley Show, fans of Hartman will enjoy learning more about his early years in the Groundlings and his SNL career that was only touched upon in Live From New York. I think what the reader is left with is a gigantic “What if…?” in terms of his career. Though it was said about Belushi and Farley, there is no doubt that Phil Hartman could have made a transition, like Jim Carrey or Bryan Cranston, into successful dramatic roles.

So please, pick up this book, and for the love of God, remember Phil Hartman.

 

 




Author: Eric Janeczek

Down with writing.

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