Thursday, May 28, 1998

Phil Hartman's Lasting Impression

He was in a different league than the rest of the comic actors on "Saturday Night Live." When you think of the characters that inhabited that show over the years, you remember that Gilda Radner was Roseanne Rosannadanna, Jon Lovitz was Tommy Flanagan, John Belushi was the Samurai, Nora Dunn was Pat Stevens, Eddie Murphy was Mr. Robinson, and Chevy Chase was Chevy Chase.

Phil Hartman won't be remembered for a single character he created on the show. His idiotic and overrated Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer is as forgettable as the entire 1980 cast of SNL.

However, Hartman will be remembered as, by far, the best impressionist the show ever had. Sure, Aykroyd did a good Tom Snyder. Yes, Dana Carvey did the definitive George Bush and Ross Perot. Of course, Billy Crystal had Sammy Davis Jr. down pat. But in watching Aykroyd or Carvey or Crystal, their impressions were just transparent enough to guarantee that you saw their own personalities as part of the people they impersonated.

Not so with Hartman. He really was Bill Clinton at McDonald's. He captured Donahue's ego and persona perfectly. His Johnny Cash was right on the money. He became Ed McMahon when he belted out, "You are correct, sir!!" In nearly every instance, his was the definitive impression.

No one has ever done a better Sinatra, not even Paul Anka. Joe Piscopo had been the leader in the Sinatra imitator field, but his was too passionate a tribute to Frank. When Hartman started doing his bitter, worn down by the years, chip on his shoulder version of Sinatra, he didn't just find a new angle on the man, he also left poor Piscopo in the dust (where he still languishes, by the way). I recall falling off the chair laughing while watching the "McLaughlin Group" sendup with Phil/Frank asking a question of panelist Sinead O'Connor (Jan Hooks in a bald cap), and calling her "Sign-aid" and "Cueball." Merciless and hysterical.

I was never a "NewsRadio" fan, and don't think that's where Phil did his best work. His talent was also wasted in movie trash like "Greedy" with Michael J. Fox, "Jingle All The Way" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and "Sgt. Bilko" with Steve Martin (the latter was incredibly bad, and didn't even take advantage of the fact that Hartman did an amazing Phil Silvers!). His best work was undeniably on "SNL" and also on "The Simpsons," where he was a great utility voice. In particular, his unctuous Troy McClure character was a riot.

Until his death, I didn't know much about his pre-"SNL" days, except that he was part of the legendary Groundlings improvisational troupe in Los Angeles. It was there that he met Paul Reubens, with whom he wrote "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." Before doing comedy, he had been a graphic designer, working on album covers like Poco's "Legend." He also created the logo for Crosby Stills & Nash, among others. I'll bet that with a visual mind like that, he could actually picture the people he was imitating, which probably facilitated his ability to become them.

In any interview, Hartman was a money-in-the-bank guest. He was always inevitably persuaded to do an impression or two. When he did, he would slip in and out of them seamlessly, sometimes changing from one voice to another at a moment's notice. It was that natural feeling that made his work so appealing. It never seemed forced; it never had a "hey, look at what I can do" quality.

That ability to subvert his own personality within his impressions kept him from being considered a "star" in the public's eye. It's a miscarriage of comic justice that Chris Farley led an overblown tabloid life but in death was hailed as "a brilliant comedian," while Phil Hartman was truly a brilliant comedian in real life who, in death, will now be nothing more than tabloid fodder.

It's said that just before Hartman tried out for "Saturday Night Live," desperate for work, he had auditioned to become the prize announcer on a new version of "Let's Make A Deal." For whatever reason, they turned him down, and Lorne Michaels hired him instead. If it had gone the other way, we would have all missed out on quite a deal, and some damn good comedy, too.

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Too Close For Comfort

I'm sitting in the corner of the restaurant having lunch with my friend Mark when, all of a sudden, there's a tap on my shoulder. No voice, just a tap.

I turn and look up and there's a guy with slicked-back hair and a gold medallion hanging over his paunchy gut, looking at me with a goofy grin as he asks, "Hey, how ya doin'?" As I answer, "Oh, hanging in there," he rubs my shoulder in the way close friends do. Then he says, "Well, as long as you're above ground, there's nothing to complain about, right?"

While I ponder the complete banality of that remark, he rubs and pats my shoulder while he follows it up with, "You know, the universe can't deal you a bad hand, because you're better than that." I'm completely lost, and we're only half a minute into this baffling exchange.

Unable to work up the energy to even care what this guy is talking about, I blurt out, "So, how are you?" To which he replies, "Hey, you know me. I'm like s**t, I'm everywhere." He accompanies this with a you-know-what-I-mean shoulder shove. All I can muster in response is a single syllable: "Right."

Obviously feeling he has gotten his important message across, he tosses me a "You take it easy, now!" and winks as he walks away. I wait almost a full second before turning back to Mark and telling him, "I have absolutely no idea who that was."

Mark does a spit-take as he laughs, and then asks me, "You don't know that guy? You've never seen him before?" I tell him, "I may have met him somewhere, sometime, but no, I don't know when or where. That's why I didn't introduce you to him." Mark wonders aloud, "Why didn't he introduce himself, and what's with the shoulder rubbing? That seemed inappropriate."

Even if I did know this guy from some previous encounter, how presumptuous it was for him to assume I'd know who he was just by looking up at him. We're not talking about a poker buddy or some celebrity whose identity is immediately obvious. That blank look on my face meant he had to give me a name, a clue, something to help me place him in my mental rolodex.

Hi, Paul, I'm Jim Schmendrick. We met at the "Guess How Many Cheez Doodles Anna Nicole Smith Can Fit In Her Mouth" contest last year. Oh, yeah, Jim, good to see you again. Thanks for the help.

What about the wink? Who winks at anyone anymore? What is that supposed to signify, "I'm a little creepy, but I think I'm ultra-cool"? Yeah, you're about as cool as the guest star on the new Love Boat.

As for the touching, it's more than inappropriate. I have friends who I've known for years, and a handshake is just fine when we greet each other. For instance, Mark and I have been having lunches together for almost a decade, yet we've never thrown our arms around each other before sitting down to a bowl of mongolian barbecue. Sure, really old friends and relatives get a hug if we haven't seen each other for a very long while, but that's reserved for people we're close to; certainly not some casual acquaintance. There has to be more than a passing familiarity before you go past the handshake stage to the rubbing-and-patting-my-shoulder stage.

In the meantime, back off to arm's length and give me some room here, Paco. And leave those empty bromides where they belong, at Mr. Superficial's College Of Interpersonal Communication. That's the school where, on graduation day, Dean Hair-Gel gives you your diploma and gold medallion, plus a shoulder rub, a high-five, and a big old pat on the butt. Whoever that guy was at lunch today, he must have graduated summa cum laude.

Tuesday, May 05, 1998

Lesbians And Live Shots

Months after anyone cared, "Ellen" has been yanked by ABC, but Ellen DeGeneres just can't see why. In this week's Entertainment Weekly cover story, DeGeneres says that ABC fired her "basically because I'm gay." Wrong, Ellen. ABC canceled the show because it wasn't funny anymore and the ratings went down. You did something admirable in becoming TV's first gay lead, but you blew it when you made the entire show about being gay.

No show can keep pounding the exact same theme week after week and expect the audience not to grow weary of it. "Mad About You" had the same problem earlier in the year when they did too many episodes in a row about the Buchman baby. Then someone wised up and realized that while it's okay to make that an important element, it shouldn't be the only focus of the show. Other sitcoms have broken controversial ground before you, but "All In The Family" didn't do an entire season about Edith's breast cancer, nor did "Maude" spend month after month discussing her abortion.

What makes it worse, Ellen, is that you had a remarkable opportunity to show a lesbian character living her life the way she wanted to, without shoving it down the audience's throat (if you'll pardon the expression). And remember that ABC did back you up in the face of a lot of vitriolic criticism and pressure. They deserve credit for giving you so much rope. Too bad you hung yourself with it. It'll be interesting to see if Diane Sawyer challenges you at all when she interviews you Wednesday on "PrimeTime Live."

Speaking of ABC, Monday's "Nightline" was about the TV coverage of the guy who killed himself on an LA freeway last week. There's been a lot of inside-the-biz handwringing about this, because all the Los Angeles TV stations and at least one cable network had helicopter live shots of the guy blowing his head off.

Ironically, in the middle of "Nightline," there was a promo for "NYPD Blue," with the usual disclaimer about "violent scenes." Remember when that was supposed to be a parental warning? Now, it seems like more of a tease.

The stations defend their coverage, saying they were providing a public service because two major freeways were blocked off for hours. Baloney. If those freeways had been blocked by construction crews instead of a nut with an agenda, those newschoppers would never have left the ground.

This wasn't journalism, this was voyeurism. They have the technology to go live, and they know it's going to grab viewers, so context be damned. Their worst nightmare isn't that the guy's going to kill himself on the air, it's that they won't have a clear picture of it but the competition will. No one would have covered OJ's Bronco chase if they knew he was just going to drive home at the end. They stayed with it because they thought he might off himself.

Those news directors and anchors were all shocked and apologetic in the moments after it happened: "We didn't mean for you to see that." But now that the numbers are in -- ratings were up a full two points across the dial during the fiasco -- they're singing a different tune: "We're sorry, now here's a replay." I'll bet that Fox is already working up a TV movie or at least a special: "When Live Shots Go Dead!!"

The brilliant movie "Network" was on some cable channel last week. Watching it again, I couldn't help but wonder at how this figment of Paddy Chayevsky's imagination has become the reality of everyday television.