Saturday Night At The Movies: Phil Hartman, Cheech & Chong, and Pee Wee Herman
How LA's comedy scene affected the NY institution
It's a good day for screenings of classic comedies here in LA, and the framing of the day gave me a perfect excuse to talk about one of my favorite things in today's column, the work of Phil Hartman.
Hartman was the co-creator of the Pee Wee Herman character during his days at the Groundlings with Paul Reubens, and he co-wrote the script for "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," which screened this morning as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival. Tonight, I'm heading into Hollywood for a triple feature of the first three films starring Cheech & Chong, the second of which, "Next Movie," features an onscreen appearance by Hartman in a small role playing another Groundlings character, Chick Hazard, Private Eye.
When "Saturday Night Live" went on the air, most of the talent that ended up in the cast was from the Chicago Second City scene or from Toronto, or from New York. There wasn't really the same sort of LA comedy scene at that time. It wasn't until later that the west coast talent pool started turning out performers who would graduate from the Groundlings into the world of "SNL," and quite possibly the greatest of the Groundlings was Phil Hartman. Lorne Michaels nicknamed Hartman "The Glue" because of the way he managed to play utility, able to turn any sketch funny. He was the consummate character guy, and they worked him mercilessly during his time on the show. What amazed me most about Hartman is how comedy wasn't his first calling, and how even though he came to it later in life, he left a huge mark on the comedy scene.
When you look at those first few Cheech & Chong movies, you get a cross-section of what was going on in LA comedy at the time. You'll see cast members like Edie McClurg and John Paragon and Cassandra Petersen and Paul Reubens and a very young Rita Wilson (grrrrrrrowr, Mrs. Hanks) all show up, and you'll be able to see the early seeds of some characters they've played elsewhere In "Next Movie," for example, Reubens plays a hotel desk clerk who tussles with Cheech & Chong and Cheech's cousin Red (also played by Marin), only to show up at the end of the film at the Battle Of The Bands in character as Pee Wee Herman, his first film appearance. He's also in "Nice Dreams," and that's the first time I really noticed Reubens as "The Hamburger Man," a crazy drug dealer who only says a few things, over and over. "I'm sorry" and "Hamburger" are the big two, and until you see how much comic mileage Reubens can get out of those two words, you don't really get how funny he is.
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Hartman wasn't the first LA comic to break through on SNL, but he embodied everything that the Groundlings (a comedy workshop/theater that's been a big part of LA's cultural life since 1974) try to teach their students. They emphasize the creation of characters in addition to improv skills, and that's one of the most valuable skill sets for a potential "SNL" cast member. If you can etch something memorable about a character through attitude and performance in a few short minutes, then you might thrive in the "SNL" environment, which demands that of its stars over and over again each week.
I've always wondered how much of the script for "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" was Hartman and how much was Reubens. I wish Phil had done more writing for film, because he had a great grown-up comedy brain. He loved the absurd, the surreal, the silly, and seemed above the basest jokes because he knew there was always something richer and more interesting if you dug further. The reason that film endures is because of the particular collision of sensibilities... Burton's cartoon eye and Hartman's surreal whimsy and the bad-little-boy attitude of Pee-Wee Herman... and the way they all create something genuinely new when combined.
I've never felt more sick about a celebrity death than I did the morning the news broke about how Phil Hartman died. Even now, I can't quite fathom it. He had so much more to offer us, and for his life to be cut short while he slept by someone he loved and trusted... tragic doesn't even cover it. I feel like Phil never really connected with the movie world, like they never quite figured him out. There was a script I heard a few people mention over the years for "Chick Hazard, Private Eye," a feature-length treatment of his hard-boiled private eye character that was one of the very first he created, and I wish he'd had a chance to make it. Instead, we've got his work for Pee-Wee and one very short appearance by the character in a Cheech & Chong film to make us wonder what could have been if things had only played out differently.
Next week, I've got a very special edition of this column planned. A friend sent me something I've never heard of, and I want to share it with you, so brace yourself as we prepare to take a look at the scripted-but-never-filmed "The Saturday Night Live Movie."
See you then.
Have you missed earlier columns in this series?
"Saturday Night At The Movies" runs here every Saturday night. Appropriately enough.
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