‘Saturday Night Live’ Star Phil Hartman Quietly Designed Over 40 Album Covers for Big-Time Bands Like Steely Dan and America

Comedian Phil Hartman is famous for his work on TV, from iconic Saturday Night Live sketches to starring in the hit sitcom NewsRadio, but did you know he had a very different first career? Hartman actually had a hand in designing album covers for famous bands like America, Poco, and Steely Dan. 

How Phil Hartman started working in graphic design

phil hartman
Phil Hartman arrives with a memento at Planet Hollywood where he presented the restaurant with memorabilia from his movie, “Sgt. Bilko.” | Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Born in Canada, Hartman and his family moved to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Santa Monica City College, where he studied art. Hartman ended up dropping out to become a roadie for a rock band in 1969. 

Hartman returned to school in 1972, enrolling at California State University, Northridge, and studying graphic arts. This led to his first career as a graphic designer for album covers. 

His work on album covers for bands like America, Steely Dan, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash

The comedian started his own graphic art business, designing album covers for bands like Poco, America, and Steely Dan, to name a few. Hartman ended up working on over 40 different album covers, as well as designing the logo for Crosby, Stills, and Nash

“I did over 40 album covers, including the white Poco album,” Hartman said in an interview with Jam! “That’s the only piece I have up in my office. I also designed that Crosby, Stills and Nash logo, but they didn’t give me a credit on the CD retrospective.”

The white Poco album Hartman referred to is the group’s 1978 Legend, which was certified gold; the band’s first album to reach that status. Hartman also worked on Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja, which boasts hits like “Black Cow” and “Deacon Blues.”

Phil Hartman’s impressive comedy career

While Hartman had a successful career creating album covers for popular bands, the comedian found the solitary work of a graphic designer lonely. In 1975, he started attending comedy classes given by The Groundlings, a Los Angeles, California comedy group. 

After impulsively joining the group onstage during a performance, Hartman decided to pursue comedy seriously. After training with The Groundlings — and redesigning the group’s logo — Hartman was made a member in 1979 and soon became a star. 

The comedian helped create the now-iconic character of Pee-wee Herman and starred on Pee-wee’s Playhouse as Captain Carl. He also had small roles in movies like Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Three Amigos, The Smurfs, and Dennis the Menace

In 1985, Hartman was invited to audition for Saturday Night Live and ended up joining the cast in 1986. He stayed on the sketch show for eight seasons, delighting audiences with his impressions of Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, and Kelsey Grammer. 

Hartman left SNL in 1994 and went on to star in the hit NBC sitcom NewsRadio. He appeared on the show until his death in 1998 and was posthumously nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. 

The world lost the comedian too soon, but Hartman lives on through his beloved comedy sketches, his roles in sitcoms and movies, and his work on iconic album covers. 

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