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.