A certain generation recalls Phil Hartman as a luminary of comedy whose light was snuffed before his time. He would create the gruff character of Captain Carl, first on stage with “The Pee-wee Herman Show” and then in the beloved TV series “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” the latter for only the first season before he and Paul Reubens fell out over a creative credit dispute. On the Howard Stern radio show, Hartman divulged that “We [the contributors to the stage show] had a contract that said that we get three percent of whatever happens with the show,” which Hartman claimed was not honored once CBS got ahold of it. Suddenly, folks like Hartman were out.
It was around that time that Hartman joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” building off of that chance meeting with “SNL” creator and producer Lorne Michaels. From there, Hartman became a fan-favorite and a mainstay during his tenure from 1986 to 1994. He did great impressions –- his Bill Clinton was a highlight of the weekly comedy sketch show. Though for this writer’s money, his greatest talents were on display when he was entirely straight-faced and working solo. It’s for this reason that characters like the Anal-Retentive Chef remain the best display of his talents, aside from his voice work.
As /Film’s Devin Meenan pointed out, Hartman was the voice behind two of the funniest characters on Matt Groening’s satirical animated sitcom and 1990s staple “The Simpsons,” first as grinning ambulance chaser Lionel Hutz, then as has-been leading man Troy McClure. Such was his talent that the character of Zapp Brannigan on Groening’s “Futurama” was originally written for Hartman before his sudden death in 1998. The role was recast with Billy West, but Hartman’s unwrinkled baritone would find its way into West’s performance anyway, proving once again that Hartman was always the funniest presence on anything he touched.