Friday, January 19, 2007

A Strange Afternoon Re-Run
Recounting the Loss of A Great Comedian

Image:Phil hartman.jpg

I can still remember the day I heard Chris Farley had died. I was
over at my friend Jeff Dixon's house - It was a saturday
afternoon/early evening and we had just finished playing some
sega genesis. Jeff's mom announced the news to us as we were
congregated to start dinner with Jeff's brother Dave. Jeff and
Dave didn't really seem too bothered...but I sure was. After
dinner, I immediately went home to my basement and wrote a
song about the whole ordeal. It ended up being not that bad of
a tune, really, and I still like to crack it out every now and again.

For some unbeknownst reason, even though he was a comedy
actor from New York who I had never met, I was emotionally
affected by his death. I was 19 and I really honestly felt that he
had evoked such a multitude of laughs from me that there
would never truly be a replacement. To this day, I know that
no one will ever replace him and that the events of his death
were truly sad to the point of destitution. Call me a sap but the
movies we watch, the songs we love, and the athletes we
admire all play a part in shaping who we become.

This brings me to my current point. Phil Hartman, an SNL cast
member alongside (and friend of) Farley, died two years later in
1998 and was really the glue of so many cultural comedic
enterprises that one almost loses count when naming his jobs.
He was shot in the head, in a very strange and unexplainable
incident, by his wife who later shot herself after reporting the
incident to a friend. More recently, Phil played a pompous
news anchor on the sitcom NewsRadio (an amazingly casted
series which is worth renting or watching reruns if you've
never seen it) named Bill McNeal, winning him much
commendation among fans and critical panels.

Oddly enough, Sarah and I started watching the reruns of this
show this fall and winter on TBS as we have had that block
of time off most days. I had first learned to love this show
with my brother, back in the day, but Sarah had never been
introduced to its sweetness until recently Today, however,
was an interesting episode that I later learned (thanks to
Wikipedia) was filmed just after Phil's death as the writers
of the series thought it best to have Bill McNeal die on the
show as a way of dealing with what really happened. The
usual light-hearted and ridiculous banter of the characters
of the show (including Andy Dick before he became
annoying in a great character, Dave Foley - comic genius
and hilarious Poker host, Joe Rogan - now UFC and Fear
Factor host who is irreplacable on the show, Stephen Root -
an unbelievably gifted comic and the oddest of odd 'Milton'
in Office Space) was evidently dampened by the passing of
both the character of Bill McNeal and the real life actor
who gave life to the role.

In one particular scene, one could see the love and loss in
the eyes of all the actors, especially Dave Foley and Andy
Dick who were visibly fighting not to break down
emotionally, who had to read funny notes that Bill had left
behind for them. It struck me that obviously, to all these
people, Phil Hartman was more than just a comedic gem -
he was a person, a colleague and a friend who would be sorely
missed. Even tough guy Joe Rogan is seen choking back
the tears while the note reading occurred. It must have
been a tough scene to film - I could feel the real, awkward
and emotional tension coming right through the screen of
the television. Heck, I was nearly in tears watching the dang
thing nearly nine years after the fact.

Apparently Phil had an endearing spirit about him that
commanded both a love and professional respect from all
who he worked with. This was especially true with the
writers of the Simpsons who all loved his voice-over
characters to the point of secretly plotting to get as many
simultaneous Phil Hartman characters on the show as
possible. Interestingly enough, as a means of showing their
final respect to Phil's craft, the Simpsons' writers retired
all of his characters after his death. Phil will always be
missed and I'm sure there are those who still mourn his loss,
both in a personal and comedic sense. I know I will. Even
today, on an afternoon nearly a decade later, here I am...
writing this...affected by the work of another comedian.
As an addendum, and if he wasn't talented enough, apparently
(and thanks to the catacombs of wikipedia) Phil got
his start as a graphic designer in the late 70's and actually
did a few major rock band album covers for Steely
Dan AND even designed the actual logo for Crosby, Stills
and Nash. Crazy!

And now, as fitting means of ending my memorandum for
Phil, it is time for a quote from one of my crude colleagues:
'True friends are like ass cheeks. Shit might separate them
but they always come back together.'
Not the best visual but a solid point, there. Let us stick
together - all the messed up lot of us.

website statistics