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I'm a longtime arts and entertainment writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where I've written frequently about comedy and comedians. My last book was an oral history of the world-famous comedy theater Second City called "The Second City Unscripted." I've always loved Phil Hartman and he was part of the SNL cast when I first started watching the show in earnest. It occurred to me, though, that not much was known about his life, which was overshadowed by his tragic death. I spent three years learning about his colorful life and was aided tremendously by his family members, close friends and numerous colleagues. Read more about it at
THANKS, EVERYONE! Signing off now. Great questions. Hope I answered them fully and that you enjoy (or enjoyed) the book!
Phil Hartman was a comedic legend. What was one of the funniest things you learned about Phil? Thanks.
That he once gave close friends of his Dustbusters for Christmas and thought it was a great gift.
Favorite Phil skit?
It's a tie between The Sinatra Group and Bill Clinton at McDonalds, with Ronald Reagan Mastermind coming in a close second.
I read the detailed SNL History "Live From New York" a few years ago and Phil struck me as someone who--while a comedic genius--was quite content in his anonymity (with the Groundlings), and didn't actually want to do SNL. And that he was also an in-demand graphic artist, having worked with rock groups like "America."
In your reserach, what type of person was Phil Hartman before he became famous, and how do you think fame changed him?
Phil was a chilled out guy. Loved to surf, smoke dope, hang with pals, fly his plane, sail his boats. Leisure was every bit as important as career stuff. He didn't change much at all pre- and post-fame, according to friends. Although toward the end he became a bit more vocally ambitious about where he wanted to be professionally.
why do you think Chicago was such a breeding ground for comedy?
Performers in Chicago are given license to fail. They can try out new material and flop and make it better without fear of being scrutinized by industry folks--producers, directors, etc. It's generally about the work as opposed to where the work might take them.
What movie or show in recent years do you feel would have been made better with Hartman's humor? Why and how?
Learning of the circumstances surrounding his death was shocking to me, as I was too young when he died to know the details. Were there warning signs that this could have been avoided?
Maybe he could have played Walter White in Breaking Bad, which had flashes of tremendously funny humor amid the intense drama. But I doubt he could have made it better seeing as it's one of the best shows of all time. I can certainly see Bryan Cranston playing Phil in a biopic. Re warning signs, yes and no. Nobody could have predicted what happened to Phil, not even those who were privy to the discord in his third marriage.
What surprising or endearing story from the book do you think captures who he was offscreen best?
At the height of his SNL fame, he met and mentored two young comedy writers named Brian and Kevin Mulhern. They're in the book. He also wrote back to fans and famously gave at least one of them comedy advice: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/08/amateur-comedy-is-too-on-nail.html. Phil lived with what he called "an attitude of gratitude" and tried to pay it forward as best he could.
"I think World War Two was my favorite war" which Hartman role was that line from? If you're so smart.
Wait, let me Google that.
Hello, what do you think of today's comedy movies?
Not a whole lot. I generally prefer TV — cable dramas, mostly.
Hey Mike! Huge fan of Phil's since I was about ten or eleven (which, unfortunately, was around the time he died). I watched the dedication of Phil's star on the Walk of Fame on a livestream and bawled like a child.
The two people who deemed themselves closest to Phil while he was alive were Jon Lovitz and Andy Dick, who can't seem to keep from fighting (often physically) any time they are near each other, with Jon blaming Andy for Phil's death. What do you think Phil would say to them if he could say anything? And do you think any one person is really 100% to blame for his death?
Also, my husband had a theory while he was alive that Phil, though outwardly seeming like a chill guy, very well could have been one of those guys with a hair-trigger temper - one that, while it may have taken a lot for him to get to that level, could have been explosive once that line had been crossed. From the accounts of the people interviewed while writing the book, did anyone else get that impression or ever see him get really angry?
I never heard about Phil getting explosively angry. Just the opposite, actually. He'd generally retreat and get quiet, though I did come across a statement from his wife Brynn that he'd "yell" at her--likely out of frustration. Re Jon Lovitz and Andy Dick, I can't imagine that Phil would dig the discord. On the subject of his death, while there were many factors that influenced Brynn's behavior the night Phil was killed (drugs, alcohol, Zoloft, emotional issues, etc.), she pulled the trigger multiple times.
A real privilege for the AMA, thank you.
My privilege entirely.
If you had to pick only one thing. What do you think will make Phil Hartman enter history forever? What will be remembered from him in 100 years?
Certainly people will never forget his tragic death, but that's not what defined him. He was a truly decent guy and one of the best sketch comedy talents who ever lived--as well as one of the most generous in terms of letting others have the spotlight.
What's your favorite Hartman role that I probably haven't seen?
The patient in a short called "Cheeseball Yam's Disease."
Cool, thanks for the reply. I really do plan on buying the book, probably once the holidays are over (or I could ask for it for Christmas).
Thanks. It's a GREAT Christmas gift!
Hello! First-time-caller, long-time fan, long-time listener. What do you most regret leaving OUT of the book?
Ha! Thanks. Wouldn't say it's a regret, but wish I could have included some of Phil's drawings. Hell of an artist. At least I think so, but I can barely draw stick people.
Thanks for the answer! I remember watching a special about him after his death and he seemed like a really good person.
Thanks for your question. He was.
Show business is an incredibly tough and cutthroat field. While not everyone, a lot of people have to resort to being tough to succeed, or at least very firm to move forward. A lot of kind people get taken advantage of and his peers had drama on SNL for example. What was so unique about Phil that made him be able to be so well liked, laid back and still succeed? (I'm a huge fan, I think his immense talent alone could do it, but I still find it interesting.)
His talent had a lot to do with it--everyone wanted him in their sketches because he was such a great utility player. But it was also his age and life experience. By the time Phil got to SNL he was 38 and had already had two careers, as a graphic artist and a screenwriter. I think part of his confidence came from the fact that if the SNL thing didn't work out, he had fall-back options.
You bet. OK, so earlier I said it was a tie between The Sinatra Group and Clinton at McDonald's. But now I'm taking a stand: The Sinatra Group. Phil had chunks of guys like me in his stool!
Damn you a phoney, Small Soldiers bro. Next you're gonna tell me you haven't seen Jingle all the way and ask who's Troy MCclure? Pretty sure I know more about Phil than you do. Feel free to direct people to ask me anything you don't know about the man.
I thought the Google line was funny. Guess not. Who's this McClurg guy?