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The spirit of the self-absorbed newscaster Bill McNeil from "NewsRadio" and the self-absorbed lawyer Lionel Hutz from "The Simpsons" swirled together in a Brantford theater as fellow comedians, family and friends came to pay tribute to a comic talent who was not self-absorbed, Phil Hartman.

The Brantford-born Hartman, who achieved comic fame as a President Clinton impersonator on "Saturday Night Live," moving to voice characters on "The Simpsons" and co-star on "NewsRadio," was shot to death by his wife, Brynn Hartman, in an apparent murder-suicide in their California home in 1998.

Though tragedy was the impetus that brought together such acclaimed Canadian comic talents as Dan Ackroyd, fellow "NewsRadio" star Dave Foley and SNL producer Lorne Michaels, comedy was what united all those gathered for the event.

"The idea tonight is to celebrate comedy and to celebrate a great man's gift to it," Ackroyd said.

More than 1,100 people, including numerous Canadian comics and those in the comedy business, turned out to honor the late comedian whose warmth and humor touched them all.

"Hartman always kept his sense of humor," said Foley, "even when bad things happened around him." So if his spirit was also in attendance, he added, Hartman "would first giggle and then be very touched."

The evening also launched the first annual Phil Hartman Comedy Festival and competition for young comics. This year's winner, Sean Easton, a stand-up and sketch comic, received a $1,700 award and a crystal trophy.

Michaels, who worked with Hartman on SNL and helped him develop his takeoffs of Clinton, Frank Sinatra and Jack Nicholson, said Hartman's work as a cast member from 1986 to 1994 helped bring a center to the show.

"He was the thing that held it together" during those years, Michaels said. "He made the others look good."

Mark Breslin, head of Yuk Yuks, Canada's largest chain of stand-up comedy clubs, said the tribute was organized as part of the School of Comedy. The comedy school, part of Humber College, is the only accredited comedy school in the world.

The event was a way to promote "the spirit of comedy," and give a new comic the opportunity to debut on stage with major players like Ackroyd and Michaels in the audience, he said.

Michael Grit, general manager of the Sanderson Theatre, said the event took two years to organize, but it became a labor of love for all those who were fans of Hartman.

Though Hartman left Brantford at age 8 when his parents moved to the United States, Grit said he always remembered his roots.

When Hartman formed a production company, he called it Grand River Productions, which is named for the river that flows through Brantford, Grit said.

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