The Real Phil Hartman

by Dish Staff

Bryan Curtis gets to the heart of the late, great comedian’s appeal:

When “Hartman” spoke, it was in a language of lies. Keyrock the Caveman jived his way through a closing statement; Clinton emoted feel-your-pain liberalism; for [Simpsons character Troy] McClure, it was the golden patter of the announcer reading a bogus script. “Hartman” affected a common touch: I’m just a caveman … As Steve Lookner, who joined SNL’s writing staff in 1993, put it, “It’s taking it to the limit of how cocky you can be and still fool people into thinking you’re simple.”

His con was ludicrously obvious: It’s more of a Shelbyville idea … But because we knew he was swindling us, that made the swindle easier to enjoy. “You appreciate the artifice,” [Newsradio co-star Stephen] Root said. “Even if you know what he is doing. Because he is doing it so well. ‘Oh, I don’t mind. That’s OK. It’s not that much money …’”

The final thing about “Hartman” is that he was just a bit remote. This is key to understanding why Hartman the actor may be tough to properly appreciate. We could spend a long weekend with Wayne and Garth, and tolerate at least a lunch with Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan. Hartman’s creations were highly polished and vacuum-sealed, easy to laugh at but harder to hug.

(Video: Hartman auditions for SNL in 1985)