Phil Hartman, the comedic genius and SNL cast member whose life was tragically cut short in 1998, was by all accounts a pretty great guy. This was especially notable in a group of people not exactly known for their sanity or civility. Hence, it comes as no surprise that when a fan and aspiring comedian sent him a tape of his work and a letter asking for feedback in 1996, he actually responded. Even so, the level of care and thought he put into giving this random guy constructive criticism went way above and beyond what a fan could reasonably expect of a busy actor and comedian. It’s really sweet!
The fan (known online as “Happy Fatties”) just this week saw fit to scan and post the letter, and I must say, it’s definitely worth reading. You can view the full scan over at the Happy Fatties, but in case you don’t feel like deciphering Hartman’s handwriting (which was actually not bad), here’s the full text of the letter:
Hi. Thanks for your letter. I listened to your tape, enough of it to hear that you have true natural talent. Your voice is pleasant to the ear. That, I think is your basic talent, your humor is like a lot of comedy I hear today…angry, somewhat mean spirited. Okay, I guess if that’s what makes your friends laugh. Sure. Go there. Maybe I’m old. I honestly recognize that a lot of humor (my humor, too) is hostile. But when it’s too on the nail…
“I can’t stand Alannis, Nickelodeon, etc.”…to me, it lacks craft and subtlety. Look at Letterman. His humor is hostile, but it holds back, to network standards, and yet still works beautifully. He doesn’t go all the way. You seem to be going more toward a Howard Stern sensibility. And I prefer Letterman. So there you go.
“And that’s OKAY,” as Stuart Smalley says. I just have a sense that you could be more than a shock jock. It’s just a hunch. As artists we all face the same challenge– What is funny about me? Or, more pertinently, Who am I? If you dislike Alannis, and say so bluntly, that’s not funny. If you make a TOP TEN LIST OF OTHER THINGS ALANNIS FINDS “IRONIC,” that can be funny, and still allow you to express your antipathy.
Amateur comedy is too “on the nail.” You need to develop craft. In school, in a radio gig, a theater group, improv troupe, or standup showcase. Don’t be discouraged. You have talent. Personally, I like your own voice more than your impressions and character work. Just work, wherever you can. You’ll grow and refine and be great. Be patient. (I didn’t start acting till I was 27). You’ve got a head start.
Go for it,
He brings up some good points, no? I think meanness has a place in humor, but I also think subtlety and craft are really important. This is something we (bloggers) could be better at, in general. I, for one, will definitely try to keep his words in mind as I go about my work.
Also, ain’t in cute how he misspelled “Alannis”? I think I was spelling it the same way in 1996.