The other day, I got lost in a weird rabbit hole that led from Phil Hartman to Jon Lovitz to Andy Dick to a second season Community episode called “Early 21st Century Romanticism” and a brilliant but horribly distasteful, inappropriate joke. A few caveats: The joke is from an episode that is six years old. I may have recognized the joke in 2011, but I have completely forgotten about since then. Or I didn’t realize it at the time. The last 18 months with Donald Trump has obliterated a lot of brain cells, so I don’t know, but it feels like new information to my brain.
Also, the joke may not have been intentional. In fact, there’s a 50 percent chance that the original joke simply created a lot of unintentional collateral damage. I’m reluctant to ascribe intent to Dan Harmon for the joke because I don’t think he’s that cruel, but he’s also brilliant, and this is the sort of meta-meta joke at which he excels at writing.
The setup: We all know that Phil Hartman’s wife, Brynn Hartman, shot and killed her husband, Phil Hartman. Hours later, she shot and killed herself. She was intoxicated at the time, and had recently taken cocaine. There are a number of reasons that have been ascribed to Brynn Hartman’s state of mind at the time. She was almost certainly suffering from mental illness, but one theory advanced by Phil Hartman’s close friend and SNL colleague, Jon Lovitz, is that Andy Dick — Hartman’s co-worker on NewsRadio — re-introduced cocaine to Brynn Hartman after she’d sobered up, which led to the argument she had with Hartman before she killed him. Hartman had reportedly told her that if she didn’t sober up, he would leave her.
With that in mind, here’s Lovitz in an interview with Dennis Miller about a dust-up they had at a Christmas Party, after Lovitz replaced Hartman on Newsradio.
“[Andy] was just complaining and really giving me a hard time for no reason. Phil told me that they had a Christmas party and Andy was doing cocaine and he gave it to Phil’s wife Brynn, who had been sober for 10 years. So Andy said to me, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be here,’ and I said, ‘Well, I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t given Brynn coke in the first place.’”
It was an ugly fracas, but Lovitz and Dick patched up their differences. Later, however, Andy Dick visited a restaurant that Lovitz part-owns and started razzing Lovitz, because Dick is a raging drug addict.
“He’s standing there with liqueur dripping down his chin and he says, ‘I put the Phil Hartman hex on you, you’re the next one to die,’” said Lovitz. “And he’s smiling, and my blood just went to my head. I wanted to smash him, but if I hit him he would have gone flying into the table behind him. He was really drunk.”
He didn’t hit then, but in a separate incident later, Lovitz apparently smashed Dick’s head into the bar.
“I just wanted him to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’” said Lovitz. “Then he leans into me, ‘Well you know why I said that? Because you said I killed Phil Hartman that’s the first thing you said to me when you got on the show.’ I just lost it so I grabbed him by the shirt and I pushed him against the wall. And he’s just smiling at me, and then I realized ‘oooh, here’s my chance.’ So I grabbed him by his shirt and pushed him really hard and I smashed his back and his head into the bar. And I did it again. I would have kept going, but the doorman broke it up.”
So, what we know from this story is that Lovitz believed that Andy Dick was responsible for Hartman’s death because Andy Dick pushed cocaine onto a sober Brynn Hartman. Lovitz shared this story widely.
Cut to 2011 and an episode of Community, “Early 21st Century Romanticism.” In this episode, Pierce (Chevy Chase) gets high on pain meds, and begins hallucinating a Tiny Man played by Andy Dick, who encourages Pierce to keep taking more pain pills, which eventually leads to Pierce’s overdose.
The innocent explanation here is that Dan Harmon cast Andy Dick just because he’s a well known drug addict and thought it would be funny to play on that persona. The more sinister explanation, however, is that Harmon cast Dick as the devil on Pierce’s shoulder, whispering to him to take more drugs, because that’s exactly what Andy Dick purportedly did to Brynn Hartman. In other words, he was playing on the fact that Dick was indirectly responsible for the murder of Phil Hartman.
If so, that’s a truly sick joke, but one with a lot of layers.