In SNL IN REVIEW, we look back at some of the notable cinematic efforts from Saturday Night Live alum, and place them in context of the actor-comedian’s career.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, we are all time’s subjects, at mercy to its whims. One of time’s assurances is its ability to give perspective through its constant measure.
Take the curious matter of “Houseguest,” released twenty years ago this week. Time was on my mind during a recent viewing of the sophomoric family comedy, which paired the late, great Phil Hartman with Sinbad. In the two decades since the film’s release, time has provided a critical question regarding the film: how did we ever let Sinbad star in a major motion picture? And, at the same time, how did we ignore Hartman’s potential as a bona fide comedy film star?
Meanwhile: the then top-billed Sinbad is now seen as a bizarre cultural tramp stamp from the early-mid ’90s.
How could we have ever lived in an era when the New York Times was allowed to dismiss Hartman in their review of “Houseguest” while claiming that “Sinbad survives with his dignity and comic reputation intact.” Dignity? Comic reputation? 1995 must have been a strange place, indeed. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we see what the Times did not: it is Hartman who escapes unscathed, while “Houseguest” and Sinbad doomed to be recognized as hallmarks of an era that also lent Pauly Shore a national platform. Rewatching “Houseguest” only confirms what I’ve always suspected: Hartman would have made a startling film comedian.
But let’s step back. “Saturday Night Live” was also in an odd place in the mid-nineties. After a well-documented ’80s renaissance marshalled by the likes of Hartman and Dana Carvey, the show had transformed into a showcase for the punk rock comedy of “bad boys” like Adam Sandler and, later, Norm MacDonald. Buoyed by the success of “Wayne’s World,” it wasn’t long before the show’s core sprinted for Hollywood.
As a surviving member from the ’80s Dream Team, Hartman was the show’s popular elder statesman, particularly with his pre-Darrell Hammond Clinton impersonation. By the time he left in 1994, his career possibilities seemed limitless. Both Garry Shandling and Jay Leno considered him for spots on their shows. NBC was mulling a variety show spinoff involving him, as well.
When neither manifested, Hartman was faced with two options: situational comedy (he appeared on “Newsradio” until his death), and a film career. If contemporaries Mike Myers, Dana Carvey and even Jon Lovitz found Hollywood success, why couldn’t he?
He was right to think he could make the transition. He’d co-written 1985’s “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” with Groundlings collaborator Paul Reubens, the film that launched Tim Burton. And like SNL co-stars Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, Hartman had spent the decade appearing in small comedic parts in other people’s films: “So I Married an Axe Murderer” with Myers, “CB4” with Chris Rock, “Coneheads” with Dan Aykroyd.
Each film showed Hartman’s knack for character work, and his role as the paternal figure in many SNL sketches made his casting as Gary Young in “Houseguest” a natural fit.
Hartman’s Gary is a good natured fool, an oblivious but well-meaning yuppie. Hartman’s grasp of the character can neatly be boiled down to Gary’s pompous laugh, and Cheshire cat grin, which he uses in many of the film’s reaction shots. After all, he’s playing second banana to Sinbad, who dominates the physical comedy. Watch Hartman’s smug but encouraging looks to his supposed friend are like seeing a live action Troy McClure—much of his work in the film utilizes the patented smarm that made his work on “Newsradio” and especially “The Simpsons” so memorable. “Houseguest” never ventures from even the broadest of cartoon scenarios.
Of course, in a year when both Sandler and Farley crafted modern comedy classics, “Houseguest” finished 68th in domestic box office. It joined other 1995 fare like “Major Payne” as the kind of midday filler you might find on cable when staying home sick from school. Hartman never starred in another film.
Some may say that Hartman never translated well for the movies. That the failure of “Houseguest” proved he lacked the necessary star wattage of, say, Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy. On the contrary, if the likes of Dan Aykroyd and even Martin Short were allowed multiple occasions to headline a movie, Hartman deserved better than co-headlining what was marketed as a “HouseSitter” knock-off.
Moreover, I think Hartman’s impressive range (displayed here in his SNL audition tape) would have made him well-suited for darker character work. His emerging persona – the self-satisfied EveryMan, solidified by his work in “Houseguest” — was a strong foundation better suited for dark comedy. Think Tom Arnold’s work in Don Roos’ “Happy Endings,” or even Robin Williams in films like “World’s Greatest Dad.”
That’s the biggest reason to watch “Houseguest”: it’s the one chance to see a bona fide comedy maestro during his single shot at cinematic stardom. Phil Hartman never got to follow up this now 20-year-old film, let alone try something darker on screen. His time was cut short far too early.