The Mysteries of Phil Hartman’s Creative Genius

Part of the reason Hartman remains fuzzy in our memories was his own doing. When he joined SNL’s cast in 1986, it was customary for a newcomer to declare he would be the next John Belushi. Hartman had a different ambition. He told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to be the next Dan Aykroyd.

But another part is the unusual nature of Hartman’s talent. Hartman was so good at playing smarmy, air-quoting, golden-voiced sharpies — “20 percent droid,” said the writer Robert Smigel — that it’s difficult to catalogue all the comic notes he left behind in the universe.

You know when Stephen Colbert jogs across the stage and gives the audience a significant look? Or when Ron Burgundy exclaims, “By the beard of Zeus!”? These aren’t quotations, or even conscious homages. But make no mistake. What you’re observing is Hartmanism — the art of being unctuous.

Bryan Curtis, in Grantland, on Saturday Night Live’s “glue,” the late Phil Hartman.

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Hartman’s original SNL audition: