Comedian Phil Hartman might be best known for his many, many iconic roles: Troy McClure on The Simpsons, Frozen Caveman Lawyer on Saturday Night Live, the original Genie on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and golden-voiced Bill McNeal on Newsradio. But he was a relatively late starter, career-wise, only reaching the height of his fame in his forties, shortly before his tragic death in 1998.
Before his comic career took off, Phil Hartman was a working graphic designer. In fact, graphic design was Hartman’s first calling: He managed to get a degree in graphic arts at Cal State Northridge in 1974. In the decade that followed, Hartman designed over 40 record covers for bands such as America, Poco, Steely Dan, and the Firesign Theatre comedy group. He even designed the crazy Celtic-style logo for Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
Looking over Hartman’s record covers, there’s nothing that truly stands out as exceptional, although it’s all solid work. The covers for Poco’s Legend and Steely Dan’s Aja look like they could be classic album covers, in a world where the albums they were associated with were a lot better. Intriguingly, though, short of his cover for the Firesign Theatre’s Fighting Clowns–which features a crowd of gun-toting circus clowns storming Washington–none of his work particularly draws upon the sense of humor that would one day make Hartman so famous.
That’s okay, though. I think we can all agree that Hartman was ultimately a better comic than he was a designer.