Phil Hartman Was The 'Glue' That Held Together The Cast Of Saturday Night Live

There's a reason why Phil Hartman's always at the top of the lists for best "Saturday Night Live" cast members. Yes, he was one of the funniest cast members of his time, but he also kept things rolling whenever he wasn't playing the funniest character in a sketch. "People like Phil make it safe for people to be crazier," Julia Sweeney, who played Hartman's character's wife in the famous "Van Down By the River" sketch, told Grantland in 2014. "They're the gravitas. It's not going to go completely off the rails if Phil's in the sketch."

"Matt Foley: Van Down By the River" is famous not just because of Chris Farley's performance, but because of the way almost every other character on the set can't help but break. The only one who manages to keep his composure the whole way through is Phil Hartman, who maintains an air of professionalism that stops the sketch from feeling a little too sloppy. "There is no Costello without Abbott," explained David Mandel, an "SNL" writer at the time, in the same Grantland feature. "They called him 'Glue' for different reasons, but one of them was you can't have that Matt Foley character if Phil Hartman isn't there to be the dad reacting off it."

As often as Hartman got to show off his comedic chops while playing Clinton or Reagan or a sketchy caveman lawyer or the senior editor of Sassy Magazine, he was perhaps at his most valuable as a grounded, serious character who helps the "SNL" sketch around them feel like it's still got one foot firmly planted in reality.

Who's the new glue?

Ever since Phil Hartman's tenure, there's been plenty of speculation about who's now filling his role as the "glue" on "Saturday Night Live." Chris Parnell, a cast member from 1998 to 2006, had a similar reputation as someone who never broke in the sketch, and who almost always played the straight man. After Parnell, people often point to Bill Hader or Kenan Thompson; but while they're both undoubtedly great and fun to have in a sketch, both Hader and Thompson often bring some sort of quirky charm to the character that prevents them from being a regular, grounded presence. And while we can't really fault Hader for breaking as much as he did, this does disqualify him from being Hartman's successor.

The closest thing to a glue character in modern "SNL" is probably Mikey Day, an actor who's been on the show for seven seasons now but still hasn't really become a household name. Even though he's a constant presence on the show, playing in what seems like a solid 4 or 5 sketches a night, he hasn't become as well known as fellow cast members like Chloe Fineman or Bowen Yang, whose characters tend to be the sketch's main focus. Most of the time, Day plays the guy whose reactions are meant to reflect what a regular person would say if thrown into the same exact situation. And much like Hartman, Mikey Day rarely ever breaks.  

Day does get to play eccentric characters from time to time, such as Donald Trump Jr. or one of David S. Pumpkins' skeletons – but like Phil Hartman 20 years before him, some of his most important work on the show is in that thankless, seemingly unremarkable glue role that holds everything together.