Saturday Night’s Children: Jan Hooks (1986-1991)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

Jan Hooks came to Saturday Night Live at the start of one of its most pivotal seasons. The previous year was Lorne Michaels’ first year back from a five-year absence and one of the most challenging seasons for the show, both critically and in the ratings, and it resulted in an all-but-fired cast (A. Whitney Brown, Dennis Miller, Nora Dunn, and Jon Lovitz were spared) and talk of cancellation. Michaels hired Jan Hooks — who had auditioned the year before but was passed over in favor of Joan Cusack — alongside newcomers Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, and Kevin Nealon, and NBC renewed the show for only thirteen weeks instead of a full season — a first in SNL history — and it was up to the new cast to pull the show out of its ratings funk and bring it back into the spotlight. While all the men in this cast would go on to bigger fame, the women remain largely unappreciated, and for a player whose range stretched from British royalty to presidential wives to trailer-trash waitresses, Jan Hooks deserves way more respect.

Prior to her joining the SNL cast in 1986, Hooks trained with the Groundlings in Los Angeles and appeared on sketch comedy shows Tush, The 1/2 Hour Comedy Hour, Comedy Break, and Comedy Tonight with Mack and Jamie, and she also landed a small role in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Most of my personal favorite Hooks sketches aren’t available on NBC or Hulu, and those that have been posted on YouTube have been long removed by NBC — tragic. One of these sketches is the cowboy diner sketch with host Alec Baldwin, where Hooks plays a southern waitress who switches her style of interaction between questioning her fellow waitress (Dunn), flattering two redneck regulars (Hartman, Nealon), and giving the cowboy newcomer (Baldwin) a hard time: “Are you trying to say that I’m the sort of waitress who would offer a slice of pie if it wasn’t on the menu?!” Sketches like these really show off Hooks’ versatility, as well as her ability to adapt and support other cast members. Probably my all-time favorite Hooks performance is in the Calvin Klein Obsession commercial parody “Compulsion by Calvin Kleen,” an ad for designer disinfectant where Hooks plays a housewife caught in a pretentious performance art-style descent into suburban clean freak madness: “Somewhere between cleanliness and godliness lies Compulsion, the world’s most indulgent disinfectant.” Dear NBC gods: Get this online, now!

Hooks has admitted to having extreme stage fright while on SNL and credits castmate Phil Hartman with helping her to break past her fears, which might be why her most memorable moments on the show take place by his side. Together the two played roles like Beauty and the Beast, Ron and Nancy Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, and Donald and Ivana Trump, among countless others. Hooks was also well-known for playing Candy of the Sweeney Sisters with Nora Dunn and had a list of impressions including Betty Ford, Kathie Lee Gifford, Diana Ross, Sinéad O’Connor, and more, but her most memorable parts usually involve the signature southern twang she perfected from her years growing up in Georgia.

After four years on SNL, Hooks left in 1991 to join the cast of Designing Women. She would go on to appear in shows and films like Batman Returns, The Coneheads, The Martin Short Show, The Dana Carvey Show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Primetime Glick, where she played Glick’s wife Dixie. She also worked on The Simpsons, Futurama, and most recently 30 Rock, where plays Jenna Maroney’s leechy mother Verna. Hooks’ appearance changed dramatically between her time on SNL and 30 Rock, and she turned her age, demeanor, and years of experience into her biggest comedic asset. She’s never been phony and she’s always been hilarious, and I can only hope to see her on television more in the coming years.

Saturday Night’s Children: Jan Hooks (1986-1991)