The Classic Phil Hartman Saturday Night Live Character That Lorne Michaels’ Wasn’t Sure Would Work

The sketch’s success was particularly surprising to the show’s creator and showrunner Lorne Michaels, who was reportedly “not an initial fan of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer,” and was “surprised it was connecting with audiences.” Jack Handey, who wrote the sketch, told NYT Magazine about how Lorne told him at an afterparty, “You know, I heard people actually liked that!”

The skepticism makes sense: the sketch is both very dumb and yet surprisingly complicated. When you hear the pitch “what if a lawyer was also a caveman?” you’d expect the humor to revolve around the lawyer being unable to do his job due to his confusion over basic modern things. You’d expect the joke to be more along the lines of John Mulaney’s recent Monkey Trial sketch, where the monkey judge genuinely interacts with the world like a monkey would, and the lawyers in the room have to work around that to win their case.

The caveman sketch goes in a more inspired direction, which can make it a little confusing on first watch. You’ll notice that in the original sketch, the audience doesn’t actually laugh that much; at least, they don’t laugh to the extent you’d expect from a beloved sketch that’s now considered a classic. That’s because the central joke is way more layered than usual. As Jack Handey explained, “A lot of comedy is going the extra step. An unfrozen caveman was funny, but that’s not enough.” Hartman gives a great performance here, but it’s the surprising level of thoughtfulness to the script that separates this from the rest of the pack. “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” is an odd one, but it’s a rare SNL sketch that gets even funnier the second time around.

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