Like millions of others, I watched the SNL 40th anniversary show on Sunday night. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed SNL and how influential it was to me as a young person who did stand-up sets on my parents fireplace and was sure I’d find a life in comedy. For years I wasn’t allowed to watch SNL or it’s slightly hipper cousin In Living Color. I’d sneak away and watch as much as I could, but it wasn’t until my last few years in high school where I really was able to enjoy it. SNL inspired a whole generation of sketch comedy shows for kids in the 90s like Roundhouse and All That. These were proving grounds for young funny people, there by the grace of older, more powerful individuals who saw what SNL could do and knew it could be done for kids as well. But to steal a phrase, there ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.
I devoured SNL. I had the “Best of” DVDs. I stayed up late so I could watch live, the way God intended. I saw Superstar in theaters. No one saw Superstar in theaters. I was committed.
So on Sunday night, I was giddy like that teenage kid as they did new versions of old favorites and revisited sketches and catchphrases that are so iconic and classic, I’d be able to recite them off the top of my head. But the part that really caught me? The ‘in memoriam’ section. I don’t tend to get upset when celebrities die. While people can do great things and contribute to something larger than themselves in a notable way, it’s hard to have true sorrow and remorse when you don’t know someone. Like, know them. But I have genuine remorse that Phil Hartman and Chris Farley have passed on. It probably has some to do with how they died and that I knew them during my formative years. There was just such a genuine enthusiasm for life and comedy that thrived in them that made anything seem possible if you could get someone to crack a smile. That was my default position for so much of my youth. It protected me. If there’s laughter, everything will be okay. The movie ‘Tommy Boy’ speaks to this pretty directly. Tommy doesn’t have any luck with sales for the family business until he embraces just being himself, an earnest and loveable goofball. His humor endears him to people and earns their trust. Phil Hartman did this, too, with an air of authority. Always professional, always the straight man with a wink and a smile, even if he was talking about Colon Blow.
In their characters and in their lives, these two men taught me that I could be taken seriously, even if I was being funny. Humor had an important place and value in our lives and how we communicate. Laughter was essential. In a selfish way, when they passed away I felt robbed, as anyone may when they lose someone they care about. I was also so disappointed because they would no longer be allowed to enjoy the craft they so clearly loved. While we’ve lost a lot of funny people over the years, we haven’t had anyone quite like those two. It was a shame then and it’s a shame now. At least we were able to enjoy what they were able to share with us.
You should watch Love is a Dream, which features Phil Hartman as well as Jan Hooks, who passed away in 2014. It isn’t a comedy piece, and I know I just spent ten minutes talking about comedy, but the short film will undoubtedly bring a smile to your face. You can view it at hulu.com.
UPDATE: I normally don’t amend posts like this, but after I wrote this up, the comedy community lost another great talent. Harris Wittels died earlier this week. He was a writer who worked on a lot of wonderful projects and always made me laugh. He showed up on a lot of podcasts I listened to and managed to throw out even the dumbest jokes and get a chuckle, even if it was uncomfortable. There has been a lot of sharing of grief and memories of Harris over the last few days. Like the two men above, he was willing to be brave (though I doubt he would give it that term) and just give everything to comedy. He’ll be missed for sure. You can see his twitter account, with a lot of great Harris silliness, here: https://twitter.com/twittels