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.