If you’re a big fan of The Simpsons, you’ve probably debated about the show’s best characters. The obvious pick is Homer Simpson. After all, Homer isn’t just one of the greatest characters in television history—he’s one of the greatest characters in American history.
But as great as Homer and the rest of the Simpson family are, what actually takes The Simpsons above and beyond other great comedies are the horribly incompetent citizens of Springfield. Through a laundry list of classic side characters, and over 500 episodes, The Simpsons has been able to map out an entire functional city in ways that would make David Simon drool like Homer when he sees those sweet, sweet donuts. And in the Springfield Mall, right next to Gum for Less, is I Can’t Believe It’s A Law Firm!—or as it was formerly known, The Law Offices of Lionel Hutz.
Voiced by the late, great Phil Hartman, Lionel Hutz is the best Simpsons side character because of his incredible laughs-per-minute ratio. His first appearance was in the season two episode "Bart Gets Hit by a Car," and from there he frequently made appearances. Hutz was exquisitely pathetic, an ambulance chaser who could barely win a case and wasn’t above combing his hair with a fork or digging through trash. He made every episode he was in that much funnier.
One of Springfield’s distinct characteristics is the general incompetence of all the city’s institutions. Mayor Quimby is a corrupt womanizer; Reverend Lovejoy cares more about his trains than his parishioners; the last case Chief Wiggum got to the bottom of was a case of Mallomars. But even by those standards, Lionel Hutz raises the bar because the “attorney at law” probably never even passed the bar. The few trials he does win usually come with the assistance of Bart or Lisa. He’d pop up every time the Simpsons went to court but his failures were so frequent Marge once lamented, "You know, we should really stop hiring him."
Much of the credit for the character must go to Phil Hartman. Hartman had a voice more befitting of a cartoon character than a comedian, much less a human being. He was a gifted voice actor who played another incredible regular Simpsons character, Troy McClure, as well as one of the best one-off characters, monorail salesman Lyle Lanley. Hutz, McClure, and Lanley’s voices don’t have any distinct differences sonically—like, say, the way Homer and Krusty the Clown sound nothing alike although both are voiced by Dan Castellaneta. Instead, Hartman’s characters have subtle but crucial differences in tone and delivery. Whereas Troy McClure projected a put-on confidence, Hutz radiated the nervous energy of a recovering alcoholic who might show up to court sans pants or declare "attorney-dumpster confidentiality."
The Simpsons wasn’t the only thing Hartman contributed to in the ‘90s. He also played Bill Clinton (along many other characters) on Saturday Night Live and Bill McNeal on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. On SNL in the ‘80s, Hartman earned the nickname “The Glue” because, as Kevin Nealon said, “He held all the sketches together.” On the set of NewsRadio, he was an avid drawer. He even designed album covers for bands like Crosby, Stills & Nash. (David Crosby played Lionel Hutz’s AA sponsor in "Marge In Chains.")
Tragically, Hartman was shot and killed by his wife, Brynn Omdahl (who then killed herself), on May 28, 1998. Out of respect, both Hutz and McClure’s characters were retired from the show. Hutz’ final appearance was in the season nine episode "Realty Bites," where he’s a lawyer, not a realtor. He explains that it’s a natural transition for him since most of his clients end up losing their homes anyway.
If you’re a big fan of The Simpsons, you’ve probably sighed and realized the show was better in the '90s. It’s become a cliché thing to say, but it’s only cliché because it’s true. But Lionel Hutz never had an unfunny moment. Whereas Homer and every other Simpsons character have become remarkably unfunny in the show’s waning years, Hutz was always true to form.
I rest my case.
(Oh, wait, I thought that was just a figure of speech.)
Better yet, case closed.
[GIF via Tumblr]