For too long, Phil Hartman’s genius has been appreciated in fits and spurts that reflect a general lack of closure following his tragic death. There’s great affection for the Saturday Night Live, Simpsons and NewsRadio key player, a recognition that his seemingly effortless comedic voice nailed even the most basic of characters. He was solid, committed and classy. “The glue,” as fellow SNL vet Jan Hooks once called him. But he nonetheless haunts the conscience of the comedy world with bittersweet regularity.
You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman is the answer to that vague unease, putting Hartman’s life and death in a thoughtful, well-reported context that only occasionally dips into the sort of casual language that would sink a lesser-sourced book.
Author and Chicago Sun-Times scribe Mike Thomas is an experienced comedy journalist who knows the ins and outs of this world. He formerly wrote the memoir-ish The Second City Unscripted and has interviewed the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Sarah Silverman, and Louis C.K. He also clearly admires Hartman, as a brief into and improbably detailed account of Hartman’s Canadian upbringing shows.
But does a nonfiction book about comedy need to crack jokes? Should the author reflect the tone of his or her subject? And where should the balance between reporting and commentary lie? Thomas’s answers in You Might Remember me are, respectively, no, yes, and more on the reporting side, please. You Might Remember does a fine job of bringing Hartman to life through impressively deep interviews with family, friends, professional peers and even crew members on Hartman’s shows. Thomas seems to capture Hartman’s heart and mind: an idealistic dreamer and insistent careerist who also hid his emotions behind an “ever-present veneer.”
Fans of Hartman will learn a lot from this relatively fast-paced (but never breathless) book. He was a naturally gifted mimic and changeling who tended toward SoCal hippie sensibilities. He surfed and smoked pot, wrote romantic letters to woo women, cherished his leisure time and toys, and overlapped heavily with the rock ‘n’ roll world (being a roadie, designing dozens of notable album covers, etc.). When his performing career began in earnest–first at the Groundlings, where he met Paul Reubens and helped develop all things Pee-Wee Herman, then in various slow-building TV shows and films–he developed a taste for fame that was often at odds with his laid-back personal aesthetic.
Hartman’s smooth professionalism and confidence extended to nearly every role and project. He was looked up to and leaned on as the most mature guy on set, from The Simpsons crew that considered him one of their own to the mid-Eighties and early-Nineties SNL players who reinvigorated the struggling show (think Dana Carvey, Mike Myers, Jan Hooks, Kevin Nealon). As good as he was, however, his unwillingness to make waves held his career back. He was an ensemble player to a fault. It also, less directly, created a maddening sense of passivity that may have contributed to his death, which came at the hands of troubled third wife Brynn, who shot him to death in bed on May 28, 1998 before taking her own life.
Thomas steps carefully through all these mine fields, avoiding quick judgments for his cast of characters. Pains are made to draw parallels and foreshadow. But too often, the author throws in a shopworn phrase that detracts from the careful work he’s done. Not that the language should be impossibly dry and intellectual, or flashy and hip. It’s just strange, given the care put into gathering this information, that the writing style sometimes comes off like a paraphrase of something fresher and more direct.
Still, there are plenty of details for fans and comedy nerds to chew over, from the well-cataloged (but endlessly compelling) pressure cooker that is SNL to fun facts about Hartman’s varied roles. (Simpsons’ character Troy McClure was his favorite.) Articulate, colorfully worded phrases from those who knew Hartman help blunt the inevitable tragedy. And the closing chapters are uncommonly thoughtful and touching, looking at the aftermath of Hartman’s death from all angles.
Despite the odd passage that comes off as stale, You Might Remember Me is the rich, moving book that Hartman’s legacy deserves, a tribute to a guy who was as sunny and sensitive as his best-known characters were slick and silly.