Phil Hartman’s ‘Simpsons’ Legacy

Later episodes of The Simpsons tend to unfold like Radiohead songs, starting off one way before taking an abrupt left turn. In stark contrast to this style, the plot of Season 2 gem “Bart Gets Hit By a Car” is thrust into motion within its first minute… when Bart gets hit by a car. Immediately afterward, the boy’s soul sheds its mortal shell and ascends the escalator to heaven, guided by a voice that is both pleasant and firm. It’s the kind of voice designed to convey trust during a commercial, and also the kind used during a fake commercial to mock such naked appeals for trust, perhaps on Saturday Night Live. If this hauntingly familiar voice wasn’t one that viewers recognized at the time of the original airing, it was one they would soon know very well: this was the first Simpsons appearance of Phil Hartman.

It is an honor to be invited as a guest voice on The Simpsons. Only after you’ve “made it” in some way within your chosen field will this gesture be extended. Athletes, actors, artists, and architects alike have been written in as guests over the 22-season run of the show, all contributing to its Guinness Book world record for Most Guest Stars. Only a fraction of these people, however, have been asked back a second time. In that regard, Phil Hartman is in an elite class with Albert Brooks, Jon Lovitz, Kelsey Grammer, and Joe Mantegna as frequent guests. (Coincidentally, this is also my Murderer’s Row dream-cast for a Glengarry Glen Ross stage revival.) As a frequent-frequent guest, though, Phil Hartman was in a class all his own: he was featured in 52 episodes over a period of eight years. To this day, that’s over a tenth of the total output of a show that also holds the world record for Longest-Running Sitcom of all time.

It’s no secret why The Simpsons producers and writers kept wanting to bring Phil Hartman back: the man was a comedic powerhouse. Hartman’s career in comedy began at the age of 27, when he spontaneously climbed onstage during a Groundlings show. In 1975, he would officially join the troupe as a performer. (Try jumping onstage during a show now, though, and see what happens.) As part of The Groundlings, Hartman helped Paul Reubens develop the concept of his Peewee Herman character, co-writing Peewee’s Big Adventure and performing as Captain Carl. Later, the two had a falling out, though, and Hartman went on to bigger and better things at Saturday Night Live. This is perhaps where he is best known, and rightfully so. His star turns on SNL were legendary, but so was his gracious willingness to take smaller roles and allow others to shine. Across eight seasons, Phil Hartman made an indelible mark on that show’s storied history as the ultimate utility player — although his range and talent were obvious even on his audition tape. Hartman Impressions of Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra co-existed on Saturday Night Live with original characters like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, and he was always up for any bit of weirdness that called for a stentorian tone. Perhaps the key to his success, in fact, was his voice.

There a certain quality to this voice that was both high-voltage and velvety, a sonic cocktail that was everything you needed it to be. The fact that Phil Hartman’s voice could sound so unctuous and slimy at times meant that he usually portrayed a villainous rival in family-friendly movies like Small Soldiers, Jingle All the Way, and Greedy. But he could also do heroic too, and in animated form, he was able to explore these types of characters on The Simpsons. There he played Moses on the mountain, Bart’s adopted father, Tom, and Charlton Heston’s likeness in the musical, Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off (featuring the showstopper, “Dr. Zaius, Dr. Zaius”.) He even got the chance to bring his Bill Clinton impression over from Saturday Night Live for a Halloween episode appearance. Mostly, though, Phil Hartman’s contribution to The Simpsons consisted of two characters, and these were anything but biblical, heroic, or presidential.

In the episode mentioned earlier, “Bart Gets Hit By a Car”, Homer hires bargain basement attorney Lionel Hutz to represent him. “Here’s my card,” Hutz says. “It turns into a sponge if you hold it underwater!” What started off as a barely embellished caricature of an ambulance-chasing shyster eventually devolved into a down-and-out drunken hobo who also happened to be an attorney. In that first episode, though, Lionel Hutz would have actually won his case against Mr. Burns if Homer Simpson wasn’t in fact Homer Simpson, and therefore physically incapable of allowing such an outcome to occur. Hutz was meant to be a one-time role, but the staff loved Hartman and wanted to use him again. Their next chance came just a couple episodes later, in the form of another new character in the Simpsons universe.

We are introduced to Troy McClure as he hosts the TV show, I Can’t Believe They Invented That. This show-within-a-show would frequently pop up in brief bits featuring washed up actor McClure and quack Dr. Nick Riviera hawking ridiculous products like Spiffy, a cleaning solvent strong enough to clean the grime off of Edgar Allen Poe’s tombstone. More often than infomercials, though, Troy McClure would be glimpsed starring in random educational videos filmed at various points in his career. Whenever there was an opportunity to include an instructional video of any kind, the Simpsons producers could always plug in Phil Hartman and get a laugh out of his perpetually changing catchphrase. “Hi, I’m Troy McClure,” he would always start. “You might remember me from such educational films as ‘Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly’, and ‘Here Comes the Metric System.’” According to interviews, Troy McClure was Hartman’s favorite character, and he used to entertain the crew on the set of his post-SNL show, NewsRadio, by doing the Troy McClure voice in-between takes.

As with Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman played the background a lot on The Simpsons, but he also had a couple of moments in the spotlight, including one of the widely agreed-upon greatest episodes of all time — the Conan O’Brien-scripted “Marge vs. The Monorail” — where he played Lyle Lanley, the colorful singing swindler based on The Music Man. Another starring performance of his came in the “Fish Called Selma” episode, which was developed to give Troy McClure more of a back story, albeit one in which his character has fallen on hard times due to an embarrassing sexual proclivity involving marine life. On the DVD commentary for this episode, the producers mention that Phil Hartman was interested in doing a live-action Troy McClure movie, an intriguing proposition which could have either been a star-making role or gone the way of MacGruber.

After Phil Hartman’s untimely death in May of 1998, the producers on The Simpsons wisely decided not to find a replacement for the characters of Troy McClure or Lionel Hutz. This move was both a display of respect to the actor, and an admission that he was impossible to replace. Although he was nicknamed The Glue for his work on Saturday Night Live, perhaps Hartman was also the secret weapon that kept The Simpsons together too. In order to maximize Hartman’s limited availability, nearly every episode that featured Lionel Hutz also featured Troy McClure and vice versa, thus guaranteeing at least a couple bankable extra laughs in every other episode. That may not seem like a lot, but it adds up. Phil Hartman was undoubtedly part of the reason why seasons 2-9 of The Simpsons are roundly thought to be the show’s best years.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.

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