Picture it. SNL’s 1987-1988 season. I was fresh out of college, had a perm and Madonna’s music on the brain as I carried myself in big shoulder pads and big dangly earrings. After a few NBC internships, I found work within the network’s Program Standards department. Within a year and a half after getting that BA, I was the assistant to the censor of the show. His name was Bill Clotworthy. The entire staff called him “Dr. No” because, well – he was the guy who had to say “no” to stuff.
I was also lucky to be there because back then, I was slightly obsessed with SNL. I loved the cast at the time: Kevin Nealon, Nora Dunn, Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, A. Whitney Brown, Jon Lovitz, Phil, Dennis Miller and Victoria Jackson. Characters like the Sweeney Sisters, Hanz and Franz, The Church Lady were extremely popular with catch phrases that were on the lips of comedy fans everywhere. Among all these fun characters was Phil Hartman. I had a very big crush on the man. I don’t know when it happened, but I do know why. He was the most sophisticated, the most mature of the entire ensemble. Plus, he had the ability to melt into roles seamlessly. They used to call him The Glue – because he was a utility player that held a sketch together with his chameleon-like talent. The job was really fun – at least for someone like me who claimed herself a writer, and a fan of this legendary show.
Bill would always attend the Wednesday script read-through that usually lasted late into the evening. Thursday morning, I’d find a pile of scripts on my desk, split into two categories – the scripts that were dumped, and the scripts they were going to use. I’d type up Bill’s notes and file away the discarded scripts – but still read through them with curiosity.
Back then, writers like Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel and Bob Odenkirk graced the top page of various scripts, credited with sketches that were either accepted or rejected. I didn’t realize what a force they would become in the entertainment industry. Who knew that tall, lanky, weird looking red headed guy I’d see on his way to the Commissary would replace David Letterman on “Late Night”. “That guy?!” I remembering saying when the network named Conan the new host of the post “Tonight Show” slot. “The guy I’d see in the hallways and elevators at 30 Rock who I would also see in my neighborhood?” Yup. That guy. It was like hearing about that guy in Accounting you always run into whose name you never knew – suddenly get a big television show. Who knew Odenkirk would be the dad of all alternative comedy with “Mr. Show”, “The Birthday Boys” and “Breaking Bad” (not to mention, “Better Call Saul”) ? And Smigel, the man who created Insult the Comic Dog and host of “TV Funhouse” cartoons for SNL? He’s a legend.
Back to Phil. I’d see him from time to time walking around the building, or on the close circuit televisions where you could watch tech rehearsals Thursdays and Fridays while you were at work. During this time, I tried to keep a level of professionalism, curtailing from any kind of girlie fandom, or chatting on about how dreamy he was compared to the others. No. I kept it to myself, this lust for Phil. Yes, I knew he was married. In fact, he married his wife Brynn just as I started my job with Bill. In fact, it was Bill himself who mentioned that Hartman was on his honeymoon with his bride, and said so with an air of resignation, and a slight eye roll. Apparently, his wife was known to be difficult.
Perhaps my little secret was driving me crazy, but I spilled the beans to someone about my crush on Phil. Perhaps it was to another secretary I worked with – or maybe to Bill himself. Bill was (and is) a splendid, fair minded, personable man who, in addition to being a family man himself, was like a dad to us at work. So, I may have admitted it to him.
One day, Bill’s boss Rick called me into his office. I never really dealt with Rick, so this was out of the ordinary, but not particularly odd.
Rick said, “See that bag over there?”
I looked over and a Macy’s shopping bag was sitting there on the floor. There was a tennis racquet poking over the edge. Rick was an avid tennis player.
“Can you please take this bag to Phil Hartman’s office?”
My heart skipped. What? I looked at Rick. He had a little twinkle in his eye. Oh, Bill told him. Definitely. Rick has his own assistant who could have done this. She sat right next to me. Yes. This task was deliberately assigned…to me.
Oh, hell yeah, I’ll take this down to Phil’s office.
The story goes – Rick was chatting with Phil at that previous Saturday’s SNL after party. Phil was an major hobbiest – always finding something new to do during his off time. Boating. Surfing…now it was tennis. Rick was there to supply him with some of his old equipment. So…off to the 17th Floor I went!
My stomach was churning. “It’s not a big deal, you idiot. Calm down!” I heard my inner voice say. “You’ve seen him so often in the elevators. He doesn’t give a damn about you. It’s not a big deal. You are just an assistant going into the office of your idol and handing him some tennis stuff. Don’t sweat it.”
I got off the elevators on 17, and walked through the dark, dingy lobby to the offices that were almost as dark and dingy – but more like a college dorm kind of dingy. Lots of weird posters all around. Toys, boxes of goodies, food was layed out on tables in the main room where there was a big communal table where I guess all the writers and cast would work, riff, eat, bullshit until they could compile a decent show by Saturday night dress rehearsal. I was familiar with the SNL offices. Many errands were run there – but not to Phil Hartman’s office.
There was the hallway – the one where all the offices were. How would I address him? Phil? “Oh, Hi, Phil. I work with Bill, Phil. This is from Rick. Bye Phil. Thank you Phil. I love you Phil.”
And then – suddenly – there he was. I didn’t even had much time to think of more greetings. There he was, hanging at the doorway of someone else’s office I approached him.
“Phil?” He turned around and smiled. “This is from Rick Gitter.”
“Oh! Thank you!”
“Sure!” And that was it.
He walked into his office, and I turned around to head to the elevators with my ears burning from the aftermath of composed freak out simmering below the skin. It was one of the coolest moments of my life. That – and meeting Michael Palin of Monty Python in Hair and Makeup at Studio 6A before he went on to guest on Letterman. But that’s another story. This is my story about Phil and that brief moment. Here’s hoping he’s acting like the glue in that great sketch with Jan Hooks in that great comedy show in the sky.
January 3, 2015 at 2:32 am
The Anal-retentive Chef and the Sweeney Sisters were fabulous in their time.