Phil Hartman by Stanley Moss

BOMB 34 Winter 1991
034 Winter 1991
Phil Hartman photographed live from the television screen by the author.

Phil Hartman photographed live from the television screen by the author.

For the past five years, Phil Hartman has kept an active notebook of comedy ideas. The 3-ring binder sitting on his desk in his tiny office on the 17th floor at Rockefeller Center contains a random list of 200 numbered topics, which he uses to stimulate his thinking process. With the psychometric concept called divergent production, dissimilar groupings of thematic matter come together to form humorous ideas. Hartman chooses items, i.e. #31 Barbara Bush and #181 Godzilla and presto—he’s pummeled by the muse and laughter follows.

Phil Hartman professes to be a mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, but the Clark Kent disguise conceals a performer who labors on his craft, who spent 10 years developing improvisational skills before transmigrating to television’s Saturday Night Live .

Comedians generally come from another planet to begin with. The sense of otherness (Hartman was once referred to as “an android” on SNL ) may have originated in Ontario, Canada where he spent the first decade of his life. To gain friends in the alien nation of Los Angeles, where the family relocated, young Phil developed a talent for making light. Later he pursued a career designing album covers, but ultimately joined the L.A.–based improvisational troupe, The Groundlings, moving to Saturday Night Live in 1985. Currently, he’s surfing a wave of hilarity in his final season on NBC’s popular late-night comedy show. Phil Hartman jets back and forth between coasts like greased lightning. I caught him in a rare week when his television program was on hiatus, pre-empted by female mud wrestlers. He proved a candid, open and multidimensional subject, a riddle wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in mirth.

[To research this interview, BOMB designer Stanley Moss watched an entire season of Saturday Night Live and four screenings of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure .]

Stanley Moss The intriguing thing about successful performers is not their depths, but their surfaces.

Phil Hartman That’s the only part that people get to see. I can tell, from the faces of people I meet on the street, that they really like my work; but they also look at me suspiciously, because they don’t know who I am. One of the neat things about doing Saturday Night Live is, as a fan, I get personal insights into all these major stars. I’ve done 73 shows now, I get to see how they dress, how they talk, what’s funny to them, what their inhibitions are, how they do their fingernails …

SM Are there any tried-and-true jokes which you know of that endure through the ages?

PH Take my wife—please. Um … anything that Mork ever said. Look, you can’t really quantify humor, because there’s an emotional element. It’s all right-brain. You can write the perfect joke, as delivered by Milton Berle, and give it to someone else, and it won’t work at all, which is an indication of the fact that personal comedic style comes into play. As much as any other form of literature, you’re relying on inspiration, you’re relying on that part of your personality that you can’t quantify.

SM You’re intuiting how to deliver? Is that how you put the spin on a joke?

PH You’re consciously opening yourself to that intuitive side of your personality. I feel even in attempting to answer a question like that you’re skirting around this tremendous mystery of why people laugh. It’s a more socially accepted form of hostile expression. Almost all humor is angry. It strikes out at something, whether it’s with a baseball bat, à la The Three Stooges, or just sarcasm and defamation, debunking taboos, à la a Friar Clubs roast, where it’s all references to penis size and blatant sexism. I personally love humor that comes out of characters being so stupid and pathetic that you just have to laugh. But, mind you, humor is entirely subjective.

SM Orson Welles said, “There’s no logic in character.” And Heraclitus said, “Character is fate.”

PH I believe character is logical. In order for a play to be good, and for the premise of that play to be proven, you have to believe that those characters would do the things that they did.

SM You’ve written a couple of movies. Was Peewee the same character all the way through in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure?

PH Well, yeah. When we cowrote that script, we knew who Peewee Herman was. And we consciously determined that this not be a sketch but that its story carry for feature length. So we calculated that here would be the point where Peewee was the most happy, devil-may-care; this would be the point where he was almost insane with suspicion; this is where he’s most terrified, where he’s most brave, where he’s most cunning and snide. But in this boy-child puer eternis kind of personality, we got to explore a lot of emotional dimensions that gave him breadth and depth and it was appealing to the audience, we were really showing a person.

SM You think of Peewee Herman as Saturday morning entertainment, and yet the movie did have the added dimension of adult humor.

PH So did the Saturday morning show.

SM You were Captain Carl for a season.

PH I really loved it. I have tremendous admiration for Paul Reubens as an artist. He came to The Groundlings, where I met him, in ’79, and continued to evolve several fully realized characters that were all hilarious.

SM Who is he besides Peewee Herman?

PH He’s a very eccentric individual.

SM I’m interested in your origins, in the theatrical arena.

PH I actually took my first drama class when I was in the 8th grade and was exposed to Molière and Shakespeare at that tender age. As a senior in high school, I made the conscious choice to become an art major instead of pursuing acting. It was largely because my brother had attempted to be an actor and I was exposed to the slimy underbelly of Hollywood life, It was important to me to make a living, because I wanted independence. I didn’t want to get into a career that involved a lot of effort for no return, period.

SM And so you chose art?

PH Yeah, well … I discovered, through serendipity, The Groundlings. Some friends took me there for a birthday party. I thought it was so exciting, I knew I had to be a part of it. So I joined The Groundlings in ’75.

SM How did you do that? Did you go through an audition?

PH First, you go through a workshop program. There were tremendous internal obstacles to be overcome. I’d done plays, but you always have the material to cling to, the script, the written word. In improvisation, you have to really concentrate in order to be successful. And anyone who’s ever seen an improv show knows that a lot of times it’s an exercise in failure and futility to try to entertain people. But when it does work, it gets a response that no other kind of theater gets, because people know that this was just created in the moment, like witnessing Franz Kline splash black paint across a white canvas.

SM The element of a charmed moment, a magic moment.

PH Improvisation is self-exploration. I noticed in the beginning that a lot of my characters had a tremendous amount of rage. I had never had any therapeutic experience, but it was all welling up and coming out of me because I was in an environment where it was O.K. to do that. One of the things that really amuses people is extreme anger onstage. When we did improvs we used to play a game called “Changes.” Four actors would be onstage and the director would say, “All right, everybody has about four lines.” We would create a simple scene, nothing inherently humorous about it—maybe something clever would be said—a scene of maybe 20 seconds. Then the director would go back and say, “Do it again, only everyone’s extremely euphoric.” And then you do the same scene but everybody is extremely sad, and that would be funnier. Now, everybody is extremely angry—and that would always get a geometrically greater response. There’s something about rage, we all have it, too many of us don’t have a healthful way to express it. Mr. Henderson suddenly murders a guy in a bar, and he was the last guy you would have expected to do that. I’m convinced, from my therapeutic experiences recently—that we need wholesome ways of expressing our rage, or we suffer the effects of disease that are incumbent upon repression. That’s why I think this whole exercise boom society’s going through now is fantastic, because it gives a way for people to just—mmmggghh mmmmggghh mmmggghhh—exorcise demons from their bodies.

SM You eventually became a teacher.

PH And it was the most magnificent experience. I’m convinced, based on that experience, that there are brilliant performers out there walking the street who don’t realize it. Many, many of them. And, moreover, when I get to the point where I’m directing feature films, I’m gonna be looking for nonprofessionals who have a physical type that intrigues me, and get them to achieve the right emotional tenor, and the right voice and the right body language.

SM One of the things I like about going to see live comedy is the ability to stamp my feet and hoot at the performers and egg them on—that contact with the performer. We live in such an insulated society now, TV culture. We sit at home and we turn on the box.

PH That’s what we work for, you know? It’s part of the process, that audience response and the synergistic energy that’s created. I sometimes feel cheated here at Saturday Night Live, because we have a largely invited audience, and they tend to be elitist friends of the staff who sit and observe the show rather than getting involved. And we don’t have a laugh track. What you hear is what is there. I’ll give you an example, we’ll do a dress rehearsal before we do the air show. The dress rehearsal we did for the Mel Gibson show, a year ago, was one of the hottest we’ve ever done. The air show is always 50% hotter than the dress rehearsal. So we thought, this will be the greatest show we’ve ever done. The audience of that air show was packed with fashion models, producers, directors, choreographers, and through the whole show the response was cut in half and we were completely taken aback and deflated. It was because people were checking their makeup, choreographers were trying to get a shot of Mel’s butt, producers were trying to figure out how they could finagle him into a deal at the party. We should get real people in those seats, John Q. Public is the hottest crowd you could ever work for.

SM What you’re doing at Saturday Night is such an extraordinary thing. I can’t think of another national comedy show where it’s a real time broadcast.

PH There is none.

SM So in that it’s remarkable. And, now, you’ve just sold your own series to NBC, and you’re going to lose that last vestige of the live audience.

PH I’ll always miss Saturday Night Live, and I’ll always miss working for a live audience, and I’ll probably be doing The Tonight Show more and more—finding ways to get in front of an audience again.

SM I’d like to talk a little about how Saturday Night Live is crafted.

PH When Lorne Michaels created the concept of Saturday Night Live, he determined that the shortest possible amount of time it would take to do the show was two weeks, and then he compressed everything into one week. We meet the host on a Monday. We have an informal meeting where Lorne calls upon each writer and cast member and they present ideas.

SM About 30 people in an office?

PH Sitting, informally piled up on sofas, on the floor and on arms of chairs. From behind his desk, Lorne orchestrates this meeting. A lot of times the humor comes out of people expressing the fact that they don’t have any ideas, but they do it in such a funny way that it creates an atmosphere of congeniality. Tuesday is the writing day, and it’s people milling from office to office, kicking around ideas. The writers usually stay up until at least three in the morning. Wednesday is read-through day. The entire staff meet and we read all the scripts that were written last night. That usually takes about three hours. Then Lorne and the head writers and the host go through all the scripts. Usually, at read-through, the obvious winners emerge. Marginal things that are deemed to have potential are also put into a preliminary show lineup. Then the production juggernaut is launched. The set designer starts designing the sets. Costumes are planned, wigs are ordered. So Wednesday night we have a sense of what the show is in roughed-out terms. Thursday they do a sound check with the musical group, and then later in the day we start camera blocking the sketches down on the stage, usually with a few flats up, with some bare furniture, so we have a sense of where our marks are. And that process continues all day Friday until late at night. Sometimes any pre-tapes are done Friday night—transition pieces and so on. The costumes are starting to come together, rewrites are taking place. Saturday, we come in around 1:30, and the studio is bustling with activity: sets are stacked up in the hallways, hammering and nails and saws, painters are painting flats, and props are being set and sets are being dressed. From 1:30 to 5:30 we go through what is called “run through”: we re-rehearse all the camera blocking. Now we’re trying on our costumes, making sure they fit, trying on wigs, and we’re rehearsing everything pretty much in real time. They do stop and start, but sometimes they go through a number of sketches to see if they can make those transitions. Frequently people will complain that we have so many commercials on the show. But what they don’t realize is, that we need that time to make costume changes, to get this big Chapman crane and all these little cameras from one end of the studio to the other. By 5:30, we have a catered meal, where everybody gets a chance to relax and then retire and go over their lines. We get into makeup at 7:15 and then eight o’clock is our dress rehearsal, which is videotaped with a live audience. It’s very much like the show.

SM A different audience, though.

PH Yes. And it usually runs two hours. So between ten and 11:30, right after dress, Lorne and Jim Downey and the head writers retire to Lorne’s office, and decide what’s going to be cut. Normally two or three sketches are let go. Then the cast is called in, and they’re given notes on the sketches that are left, technical notes are given on sound and lighting problems and so on. Sometimes they will say, can you take two minutes out of that sketch?

SM And they leave it to you, the performers, how to …

PH The writers. If the writer happens to be a performer, then so be it. That’s when we find out what the show is and what order it’s gonna be in. When the order is changed, we make sure that we don’t have problems, if we have a lot of makeup or wigs or costumes changes. Then we do a show, and it’s all downhill from there. All the blood, sweat and tears are behind us and we just go and have fun with it. At one o’clock it’s all over, we clean up and go to a party at some restaurant or bistro in Manhattan. This week was our first show of the season, so they had a big do at Tavern on the Green, which was pretty fantastic. Usually it’s a place like Wilson’s or the Odeon or Sfuzzi.

SM Is that more for blowing off a little steam and relaxing, or are you doing business?

PH (laughter)

SM I mean, you do it every week for every season, so is it primarily a way in which to meet sponsors and affiliates and industry people?

PH Nah. It’s a way to unwind and get loose. And also to have a moment with the host and/or the musical guest, and thank them for participating in our craziness. It’s completing the process rather than milking ‘em dry and then sending them on their way. While we’re doing the show, there’s very little opportunity to get up close and be personal with your host. It’s something like being in a firefight. You are in it up to your eyeballs.

SM I asked you if you used any technological aids in which to research or develop the characters you perform and you answered in the negative.

PH It’s always different. I’m a voice guy—so the first thing I work on is the vibration. If they happen to have a voice that is in a similar tonality or range to mine, then chances are I’m probably already doing their voice. Like my best impersonations are John Wayne, Jack Benny and Jack Nicholson because my voice is similar to all of theirs. But sometimes I just can’t get the voice. For example, in a case like Phil Donahue, I had never done an impersonation of him before, and I really had to work on it. The writers coached me. Jim Downey, our producer, had a grasp on his speech patterns and the nuances of his voice, and he worked with me. Then they got me a videotape, and I watched the videotape over and over again. And while watching that, I made little drawings of his hand gestures, and how he pushed his glasses up his nose, and how he cocks his head when he’s listening to somebody. I recorded his voice, and I played it over and over and over again.

Appearance says so much about a person. Sometimes we experiment with facial appliances, a new nose or when I first did Reagan, I used to wear a turkey jowl under my neck. But there was a point of diminishing returns, it called attention to itself. So I stopped doing that and relied on other elements of the impersonation. My favorite impersonations are the ones that are very close in vibration to the real character, as opposed to an impressionist’s approach. An impression is painted in broad strokes and the strokes are amplified, too charactery, too broad. Rather than do John Wayne with a, “Well, howya doin’, pilgrim?” I really like to sound just like him and say, “I’m sorry, son—you flunked your depth perception test. We’re gonna have to ground you.” Actually act while I do it.

SM The line between character and caricature.

PH Right. I’ll punch it a little bit. Like when I do Ed McMahon, Dana’s doing Johnny Carson pretty much on the mark. And my character is just a joke, all he ever says is: “Yes, yes! You are correct, sir, yes. Yes, in all the world, there’s none other like her. No, sir! Yes!” I come from that school of comedy acting where less is more, and I’d rather not mug too much. In general, I play it toned down.

Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan.

Phil Hartman as Ronald Reagan.

SM This summer you also did the talk shows.

PH Oh, yeah. I did The Tonight Show with Jay Leno four times.

SM How do you approach going on a talk show?

PH It’s about one thing if you’re a comedian, and that is performing. It’s something that has to be prepared for. And I learned that the hard way. My first year on Saturday Night Live four years ago, I did my first talk show, The David Brenner Show. They did a pre-interview, and I gave them some straightforward questions, and I went in and he asked me them. And I gave the answers. And when I watched the tape, I came off as pretty much what I am, you know, a nice enough, amiable, average guy. It was a disaster. I mean, as an opportunity to promote myself, I completely blew it.

SM Do you have any mnemonic devices that you use when you go on a talk show? Do you focus on anything, or do you look your host in the eye?

PH If I’m nervous, I’m going to act confident. This last one, on David Letterman, I waited a bit and then I strolled out. I just took my time. I had one hand in my pocket, looked at the band, looked over at Dave. And the music was playing, so I was relaxed. I was so committed to that attitude that I had no nerves whatsoever going out there. And, I’m telling you, there’s nothing for me, nothing in the world that’s been as scary as doing a talk show.

SM Well, it’s certainly at odds with what you’re judged as professionally any other time.

PH And so I’ve been working on my Phil Hartman character. And this time life imitated art, because when I went out there I really felt relaxed. When a comedian does a talk show—it’s not an opportunity for someone to have keen insights into the personal workings of his character. See, talk shows aren’t really talk shows, they’re comedy shows.

SM Heading toward the summer and fall of next year, you start your own show.

PH Mmm-hmm. It’s comedy noir in an urban setting.

SM With LSD mixed up in the water supply.

PH Yeah. Yeah, metaphorically speaking, that’s exactly what it is. Because I’m gonna shake up the whole idea of what it is to do a TV show—the film noir style is one of the most predictable forms that you could ever find. I’m gonna be completely unpredictable, talk about breaking the fourth wall. It’ll be shot on film, half-hour, with no live audience, because I want to play other characters. I want to be able to come on as Trump or Sinatra or Saddam Hussein if I want. I think technically and artistically, it’s gonna be fun, but nobody will ever accuse it of being the same old crap. (laughter) All of that has to be taken in the context of network television, it’s NBC. They’ve already made the commitment for a pilot plus six episodes. Here at SNL I’m a cog in the machine, and I feel like I’m well-utilized and I love it. But I need to take that next step.

SM … exercise your imagination in a whole new arena.

PH Mmm-hmm, yeah. When I watch television, I see a sameness to everything that sort of nullifies it all for me. I see numerous sitcoms shot with four cameras in front of a live audience, an audience that is so hyped and warmed-up that they’ll laugh at non-jokes, and there’re shills in the audience who spark-plug that laughter. And if you really become your own critic, you realize, what are they laughing at? What is so funny? Twin Peaks is much more interesting to watch and much funnier, too. They leave it to the audience to figure out what’s amusing. It’s so offbeat. Last night they’re all at the police station discussing the case, sitting around a table, and there’re about 60 donuts on the table.

SM And the camera pans over the donuts.

PH No other comment on it. If that were on a sitcom, it’d be, “Have I got enough donuts there, Officer Cooper? (nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, nyuk, whoo whoo whoo whoo! whistles, hoots)”

SM You finished up, the last time we spoke, by saying to me, “There’s one thing I want to make clear in this interview. I’m a clown.”

PH I remember. I said that what I do isn’t really important in the overall scheme of things, and you challenged that.

SM I said to you that here you are dealing with a show that is revolutionary and unique in its presentation, that deals with social issues and political commentary every week, and that you are upsetting the apple cart. It is important.

PH Yeah, I suppose if viewed in those terms—what I wanted to get across is my personal feeling that what I’m doing is basically having fun. I’m one of the lucky people who gets to do something silly, and that’s the way I like to hold my life, because that state of mind allows me to be closer to that creative wellspring which comes out of looseness and freedom. People need to take a few moments and let go and escape from the burden of their day-to-day lives. Entertainment is diversion. And my role is that of a clown. And I love the job, but it’s something light. It’s important for everybody to get light about life because you can worry yourself into terminal illness. When I started performing at The Groundlings in 1975, I did it because I wanted to have fun. I did it for ten years every weekend, for free. And it just happened to turn into a new career where I can apply myself in the same way and make a living doing it. And I feel very lucky, because I’ve worked in the corporate world, and I know how hard people out there work and the kind of pressures they endure. And I also have the sense of what the pay structure is out there. A clown in the Middle Ages probably would be begging door-to-door for tidbits to eat, and here, somehow, in our society the most successful clowns end up living in Greenwich, Connecticut or Bel Air or Malibu and are next-door neighbors to corporate magnates and political giants and what have you. Kind of amusing, that.

[Editor’s Note: Since this interview Phil Hartman has decided to stay on with Saturday Night Live for at least one more season.]

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Originally published in

BOMB 34, Winter 1991

Featuring interviews with Romulus Linney, 2 Black 2 Strong, Jessica Hagedorn, Phil Hartman, Tod Wizon, Lari Pittman, Terrance Simien, Gran Fury, Raul Ruiz, Yuri Lyubimov, and Whit Stillman.

Read the issue
034 Winter 1991