Home > Uncategorized > Happy Phil Hartman Day!

Happy Phil Hartman Day!

Happy Phil Hartman day!

You may remember him from such television shows as “The Simpsons” and “Newsradio”, or from such movies as Small Soldiers and Houseguest. Although he was never the main character, Phil Hartman was always the star, at least to me. I spent a large portion of my young adulthood watching Phil Hartman, whether it was as a continual second-banana on “Saturday Night Live” skits, Bill McNeal on “NeTwsradio”, or Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on “The Simpsons”. There was barely a week that went by when I didn’t see Phil in some version or another, and given my tendency of taping episodes of “The Simpsons” and watching and re-watching them, there was often not even a day that would go by when I didn’t hear his voice.

Whether I knew it at the time or not, Phil was a hero of mine, and his death on May 28th 1998 marked the first time that I was truly saddened by a celebrity’s passing.  I can remember talking with some friends in a deserted hallway after school where I first heard the news. There was a moment of hushed disbelief, before my friend and I simultaneously muttered, “I need a hug.” We hugged it out, and I went home a little while later to watch the horrific details reported over and over again on the news.

I still sometimes think back about that day with sadness. I try not to do it too often and much rather enjoy looking back and laughing at his life’s work. I’ve got all “The Simpsons” DVDs that have been released so far and also every season of “Newsradio”. While Phil is in every episode of “Newsradio” up to the fifth season, it always brings me a thrill when he pops up in an episode of “The Simpsons”. Watching a random episode of either show usually cures my melancholy.

Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure were never huge characters in “The Simpsons” lineup, and it wasn’t often that one of them would show up. If they do, my ears always perk up a little and a smile spreads across my face. Hearing Phil, in either form is hilarious, even if he only has two lines. Some of this is, of course, due to the writing, but a large chunk of it is because of the talent that Phil had.

Unlike some of the other cast members, like Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria or Dan Castallaneta, who could make their character’s voices completely indistinct from each other and their own, Phil’s voice was always Phil’s, yet he could also make the voices of Lionel and Troy different somehow. He wasn’t changing voices, just the style of speaking he used. This skill was used to great effect while playing various new characters from minute to minute in different sketches on “Saturday Night Live”, and it lent itself perfectly to Bill McNeal’s constant mood swings on “NewsRadio”.

I was watching a commentary for an episode of “The Simpsons” recently. Most of the commentaries involve a fair amount of required pats on the back amongst the writers, animators, directors, producers and staff. “Oh, this is one of my favorite jokes.” “I love this episode, because of the writing.” “We couldn’t do this scene without some great work by the animators.” “Dan gives such a great reading here.” Phil Hartman was always included in this repetitive kind of sincere, yet hollow complimenting whenever he appeared in an episode. However, in one particular episode the commentators got caught up in watching the episode (probably one they hadn’t seen in 8 years) and the conversation died down. Out of the silence, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons” creator) uttered with complete sincerity and more than a twinge of sadness, “Man, Phil was great, wasn’t he?”

Groening paid tribute to Hartman with his next show, “Futurama”. Hartman was set to do the voicework for one of the show’s regular characters, Zapp Branigan, who was a parody/homage to William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. After Hartman’s death, the job went to actor Billy West, who did his best to make Zapp’s voice sound like a voice Hartman would give. As such the character as much a tribute to Harman as it was a parody of Shatner. The show’s central character, Philip J. Fry, was also named after Hartman.

It appears that that’s the effect that Phil had on his coworkers. He was often called the glue of “Saturday Night Live” during his tenure; holding the show together by adding just a little extra to each skit that he was in, though he was hardly ever the main attraction.  He gave it his all every time and asked for very little in return.

Phil, we do remember you, and we miss you.

Phil died May 28th 1998. You can celebrate his life and work by watching clips, shows or even movies that he’s starred in. There are a number of Newsradio episodes available to watch on hulu as well as Netflix’s watch instantly service. There’s also a whole plethora of clips available on youtube that will come up with a query of Phil Hartman, including probably my favorite clip of Phil.

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  1. May 28, 2010 at 10:41 am

    Beautiful tribute! I was a bit young to remember Hartman’s passing, and it was years before I found out that the voice of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz died, but it still hit me when I did find out. He was a great talent.

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