I wrote this piece in the summer of 2015, when I was involved with a website about The Simpsons that ultimately never saw the light of day (because the guy behind it wrote a book instead, which is fair enough). The site would have had writers contributing to various A.V. Club-style discussions about Simpsons-related topics. The first piece was going to be about the point at which we believed the show began to decline. I initially wanted to write about ‘Homer’s Enemy’ (one of my favourite episodes – a deeply cynical admission from the writers that they could no longer maintain their integrity as Fox milked the show dry), but someone else involved in the project called first dibs. So, instead, I used this piece as an opportunity to exalt the great Phil Hartman, whose murder in 1998 unfortunately coincided with the show’s decline. (Which is not to say his death caused that decline – that would be dumb and insensitive and completely missing the point ). And, reading it back now, it’s a perfectly cromulent piece of writing, so why not free it from the tyranny of My Documents and publish it here?
Phil Hartman had appeared in fifty-one of The Simpsons’ then two-hundred-and-three episodes before his death on May 28th 1998, making him by some distance the show’s most prolific guest actor. (His final, fifty-second appearance was posthumous in season ten’s ‘Bart the Mother’.) Though the show has become increasingly concerned with shamelessly trotting out trendy guest stars in a bid to grab ratings, Hartman retains this honour eighteen years and almost four-hundred episodes later, and with good reason. Beginning with his first appearance as the sleazy Lionel Hutz in season two’s ‘Bart Gets Hit by a Car’, and ending with ‘Bart the Mother’, Hartman lent his perfect, shit-eating-grin of a voice to Springfield’s most magnificent bastards — the smooth-talking hucksters, the unabashed shysters, the narcissistic blowhards. Often pitched somewhere between sincere charm and devious smarm, his reassuring cadence imbued these characters — no matter how brief their role or singular their dimension on the page — with exuberance and a surprising degree of humanity, ensuring that even their most banal utterances (“Hi, I’m Troy McClure!”) would leave an indelible, hilarious mark on an episode.
Before Hartman joined The Simpsons in 1990 (his first episode aired on January 10th 1991, but he recorded his part before then), he spent seven years as a cast member on Saturday Night Live. During this time he acquired the nickname ‘The Glue’ — an acknowledgement of his remarkable ability to hold the show together. Whether playing a leading or a supporting role, he made everybody’s job easier by performing his flawlessly. He may have never attained the star-status of his younger, louder colleagues such as Mike Myers, Chris Rock, and Adam Sandler, but his versatility and professionalism were essential in keeping everything ticking over. Though he was initially brought in as a one-time guest — and was always credited as a ‘special guest voice’ thereafter — Hartman came to play a similarly crucial role on The Simpsons. One of the show’s original writers, John Vitti, articulates this best during the DVD commentary for season eight’s ‘The Simpsons 138th Episode’: “[Phil] did a lot of the funniest stuff on the show, but when you had a hopeless assignment that couldn’t possibly be funny, you called up Phil and he could always make something out of it.” It would be unfair to suggest the writers lost a crutch upon Hartman’s tragic death at the age of forty-nine — a drug-fuelled murder-suicide committed by his wife, Brynn Omdahl — but they almost certainly lost their glue.
See, Hartman was, by all accounts, one of the good guys: a consummate professional; someone for whom you’d strive to do your best work (just watch ‘A Fish Called Selma’, an episode written for him); a joyful and tremendously funny person who could illuminate any room. It’s impossible to fill the void left by such a presence, both in The Simpsons (the show retired his recurring characters, Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, after his death) and in the hearts of the friends and family he left behind. Of course, this void alone did not cause The Simpsons’ downward spiral, it would be absurd to suggest such a thing. There is no definitive cause of the show’s decline; among other things, it was increasingly afflicted by the paucity of fresh ideas in the face of its unexpected longevity, bitterness within the writers’ room provoked by network pressure and fan entitlement, and members of staff who failed to live up to the show’s once great name. And, in truth, the show had displayed some early symptoms of serious deterioration during season nine, the finale of which aired eleven days before Hartman’s death. Still, there’s The Simpsons with Hartman and The Simpsons without Hartman. The former is one of the great works of the twentieth-century, while the latter averages out at mediocre, if we’re being kind. So though not a cause of The Simpsons’ descent into creative bankruptcy, Phil Hartman’s untimely death instead serves as a significant and unfortunate marker of it.