Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Day the Laughter Died

Words really can't express how shocking it was to hear 15 years ago today that comedian Phil Hartman was dead.

It wasn't really a shock to hear that someone from Saturday Night Live was dead. The public had already been conditioned to that to some degree with the deaths of John Belushi in 1982, Gilda Radner in 1989 and Chris Farley in 1997.

There was already something of a perception that people with SNL connections were somehow more likely to die young than their peers.

But Hartman really didn't fit the profile. He was nearly 50 years old, and he had neither a history of risky behavior nor a life–threatening disease.

What wasn't generally known was that his wife was unstable.

And, fueled by drugs and alcohol in the early morning hours of this day in 1998, she shot Hartman to death while he slept, confessed to at least two people that she had killed her husband, then turned the gun on herself.

Most of the people who have studied homicide and suicide will tell you that men are far more likely to use a gun than are women — at least when it comes to suicide. I'm not sure about homicides. I'm not really sure how one would classify this case — except to say it was a tragedy.

Frankly, I'm not sure I would have used the word tragedy to describe what happened 15 years ago. Most people probably would describe it as a tragedy; I guess it depends on how one defines tragedy. I think of a tragedy as being something that is beyond human control — a natural disaster.

In that context, it was hard to know how to classify the Hartman murder–suicide. Was it beyond anyone's power to control, like a hurricane or an earthquake? Or perhaps it could have been prevented if people who knew Hartman's wife was unstable had done something instead of remaining silent.

Such silence may have been the real tragedy. Or perhaps Brynn Omdahl Hartman concealed her condition from everyone. Maybe that is what made it tragic — the fact that there may have been no way for anyone to see it coming, perhaps not even Hartman's closest friends.

There are still — and will, I fear, remain — so many unanswered questions.

With Belushi, I think there were always suspicions that his life might end the way it did. Naturally, his death was met with grief but not necessarily shock.

Farley's weight issues were well known and, apparently, his substance abuse problems also were known among his friends and family. In hindsight, the two were a volatile mix.

Radner's ultimately fatal battle with cancer was not a secret — but neither was it widely known so her death might have been a surprise to some.

But Hartman's death was totally unexpected.

I remember when word of his death reached the office where I was working. Everyone seemed quieter, more subdued than usual. Even those who probably didn't watch SNL often, if at all.

There probably weren't many of them in those days.

Periodically, of course, SNL has had low ratings, typically when it has gone through major changes in the cast.

But back in the mid– to late 1980s and early to mid–'90s, I guess, just about everyone watched it — when Phil Hartman and Dana Carvey were on the show.

There were others, too, but everyone tuned in mostly to see those two. Personally, I always think of Carvey posing as Ross Perot and Hartman posing as his running mate, Admiral Stockdale, in an SNL skit during the 1992 presidential election campaign.

They were also funny in a brief but memorable segment of a longer skit when Carvey played Jimmy Stewart visiting his old Hollywood pal, Ronald Reagan (played by Hartman), in the White House.

But Hartman made a name for himself doing other portrayals. For example, I don't know if anyone else on SNL portrayed Reagan. I'm sure someone must have, maybe even someone I ought to know but whose name escapes me now, but I was just as entertained by Hartman's portrayal of the Gipper as I was by Dan Aykroyd's portrayals of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

And I thought his portrayals of Bill Clinton were side–splittingly funny. Of course, I grew up in Arkansas, and I watched from up close — I was a young reporter covering one of his gubernatorial campaigns — as Clinton's then–flagging political career got a jump start.

So I suppose some things that I found especially funny were things that most casual observers would miss. Hartman picked up on those things.

That was my first thought when I heard that Hartman was dead. I thought of him as Clinton, and I thought that I would miss that a great deal.

That was a rather selfish way of looking at it, I guess. And I have felt bad about that in the last 15 years, but the truth is that I did miss him in the last years of the Clinton presidency — and in the more than 10 years since Clinton left the White House.

I assume that, if Hillary Clinton is elected president in 2016, former President Clinton will come with her to the White House, which would have been a situation too rich with possibilities for Hartman and the SNL writers to ignore.

But that is speculation (and, too, it presupposes that a nearly 70–year–old Hartman would either remain with SNL for two more decades or return as a guest).

The real loss was suffered by Hartman's two children, both under 10 at the time and now in their 20s. They will begin to inherit their father's estate when they turn 25 — the oldest turns 25 next year — but they have had to grow up without their parents, and that is a loss for which no amount of money can compensate.