In Second City’s Depraved New World comedian, John Hartman played a lovelorn trailer park dweller, a wannabe YouTube star, and a reluctant member of the most awkward six-way orgy ever contemplated (for all this he picked up a Jeff Award). In the new main stage revue Panic on Cloud 9, he pivots from a vacuous bus driver to a hearing impaired bully to a down-on-his-luck Batman who whimpers and whines like a sad sack version of Don Knotts (and that’s just in act one). Hartman, 30, is a bona fide breakout star who can mine big laughs playing cocky losers and whose loose-limbed physicality is enough to make Gumby even greener with envy. Chicago spoke with Hartman about the new revue, getting physical, and his heroes.
The revue is titled Panic on Cloud 9. Is the ensemble tapping into a particularly anxious moment in American life?
There is a sense of anxiety, sometimes self-inflicted by the people living in our society and sometimes inflicted by others, mostly the media. Our thesis statement is almost that things may seem very scary, but right now you’re okay. And if you look around you’re actually fine. The panic is more hyperbolic.
There’s a scene where you offer a hat tip to the groundbreaking solo sketch Bob Newhart perfected in Chicago. Is he an inspiration?
He’s a huge inspiration, maybe the biggest. I used to sit on the floor of my home growing up and listen to The Button-Down Mind with headphones on. One of the things I love—and is part of my roots here in Chicago—is doing solo sketch. Really, what he’s doing is solo sketch. It’s not standup, it’s solo characters and conversations with people who aren’t there. It’s a huge influence.
You use facial expressions, body language, and tonality to great effect. Has that always been something that’s specific to your method?
When I was younger and improvising I was very cerebral; I would use words a lot more. I would be clever and jokey because when you start out you think you’re a clever guy. The way I got better was to limit my words. I now rely more on silence and using my body. There’s a subtlety and grace and more maturity in taking words out and doing it with as few brushstrokes as possible.
You play a lot of weirdos. Where do you find these people?
They all come from very different places. I’m often drawn to people that are very real, but I also love the blissfully ignorant moron. Confident idiots are really great because they don’t think they’re wrong.
In a sketch featuring you as Batman there are references to South Side violence that paint it as a dangerous place. How do you decide where to point your satirical arrows? Do you consider whether or not the satire is fair?
I had the idea early on that I wanted to do something about gun violence because at the beginning of this process it seemed like the most prevalent thing that was going on in Chicago. It's not inherently funny and I didn’t know what to do about that but this Batman thing came into my head because Batman doesn’t use guns and I just liked the idea of sad Batman.
I definitely researched what was the reality of the situation and in places like Englewood it’s really bad. I think in previous Second City shows its been labeled as the dangerous part of town and I didn't want to just make that statement. I really wanted to take a swing at the cops and the city for not doing more. The satire is not aimed at the people who live there, or the victims, but at the authorities in charge, which is actually a very common topic for Second City.
In the wonderful “Campfire,” two cowboys imagine their lives as other people. How did that come scene happen?
I brought in as an idea for me and Paul [Jurewicz] where we played two guys that would sit around and genuinely wonder about other people’s lives, not in a stereotypical way but in a really well-informed way. It was all done through improv except for the premise about what it would be like to be a fancy lady. That was the first one I had in my head. "Campfire" is one of the ones I’m most proud to have in the show because it’s such a long scene and to feel like we can bring them along the whole way and use so much silence is exciting to me.
John Hartman is also the co-founder and original drummer for the Doobie Brothers. Have you ever been mistaken for him?
I never have but I know that because it comes up in Google search. There’s him and then there’s a singer from the '50s and '60s who made a great album with John Coltrane named Johnny Hartman. He’s kind of a boring singer but Coltrane’s really good on the album.