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Tirade of the Week


5.30.98

Phil Hartman, We Hardly Knew Ye


"Danny [Aykroyd] and I are happily married guys...we've been trying to get Steve [Martin] to tie the knot."
- Phil Hartman (1948-1998) in a 1996 interview, much quoted lately

Jesus Christ. When you do a weekly zine like this, sometimes you have a lot of filler and you wish for something big and interesting to talk about this week, but you really don't want it to happen quite this way. I was sitting here leafing through some magazines for ideas when I heard it on the radio: Phil Hartman and his wife Brynn found dead in Encino home, apparent murder/suicide...

At this point, when all the facts still aren't in, the crime makes no sense. Brynn Hartman died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, which would indicate that she whacked Phil (shot him several times in the head, it now appears) and then did herself. Wendy O. Williams notwithstanding, a self-inflicted gunshot wound is a highly unusual suicide method for women, statistically. Generally that's a man's ticket out, whereas women tend to turn to pills or razor blades -- which explains why more women than men attempt suicide, but more men than women succeed at it: eating a bullet leaves little margin for error. Psychologists say the reason for this is that women are generally better at communicating and venting their despair -- even their suicide attempts amount to cries for help -- while men hold it all in, too ashamed to get help, until the gun beckons.

The papers are now saying she did it in a "jealous rage" because he'd been seeing someone else. I don't buy it. Generally women kill their husbands after years of being abused; they don't snap and orphan their own children because their husbands fuck around. Would a 40-year-old woman plug her husband and then turn it on herself with her children in the house? If it is true, Brynn just proved definitively that women can be as psychotically violent as men. But a part of me can't help feeling that this is an extreme case of blame-the-bitch.

The whole thing smells like a pile of Godzilla-bait...and unless late-breaking news proves me wrong, my hunch is that this was a murder made to look like a murder-suicide. Why? Because this is the first high-profile murder in California since O.J., and the cops want an open-and-shut case: the wife ventilated the husband and then snuffed herself. Case closed. The cops want to reassure the locals. If some freak with a gun can get into a TV star's Encino mansion and spray him and his wife all over the walls, nobody's safe. But it happens to lesser-known people every day. Why not a burglary-murder? The police said they heard a gunshot after they'd rescued the second child...but the police say a lot of things -- just ask Rodney King.

All of this, I know, is an attempt to make sense of the senseless. Some celebrity deaths are more shocking than others. Nobody was really stunned that Frank Sinatra died (his fans were more stunned at the very idea that he wouldn't be around any more), and on some level we all saw Kurt Cobain's suicide coming; with Chris Farley, the only surprise (as with John Belushi) was that he lived as long as he did. But nobody expects a 49-year-old SNL vet, SIMPSONS voice, sitcom actor, phone-company spokesman, and movie character actor to die a violent death. Absolutely nothing in our perception of Phil Hartman prepared us for this. Perhaps dark truths about him will come to light, and we will be shocked again -- and if there is a redeeming virtue to terrible events like this, it may be that no matter how jaded and desensitized we become as we approach the millennium, we still have the capacity for shock.