Remembering Jan Hooks

“Phil Hartman is my hero.”

Jan Hooks sits next to me on a couch, nibbling a ham sandwich. We’re at Michael O’Donoghue’s Christmas party, listening to a live, Celtic band.

“Phil can do anything. He made me better.”

I usually refrain from asking SNL vets about their on-air work, but I couldn’t resist in Jan’s case. When I mention how beautifully she and Phil worked together, Jan gave him all of the credit.

“Well, you’re pretty great yourself,” I reply, meaning every word.

Michael drifts by, touches Jan’s shoulder. She smiles and squeezes Michael’s hand.

“Ain’t he sweet?” Jan says in that Southern sing-song voice she’s done a thousand times on SNL. “And you’re sweet, too. Thank you.”

The next and last time I see Jan is at Michael’s wake. We chat briefly, but she’s not in a sharing mood, at least not with me. Like many in the room, she has a hard, focused look. The sudden death of a comedy icon can have that effect.

But I still love her.

I’ve been watching various SNLs, soaking in Jan’s performances. While she nailed sassy waitresses and clueless singers (Candy Sweeney especially), Jan displayed a dramatic intensity that was rarely tapped. When it was, Jan showed how deep a performer she could be.

She was lucky to be rejected for SNL’s 1985-86 cast. The timing wasn’t right, and a key piece of Jan’s genius was her timing. She might have survived that season’s carnage, but why take the chance? The following year, she, Phil, Dana Carvey, and Kevin Nealon hit the razed ground running. Thus began SNL’s second golden age.

The energy between Jan, Nora Dunn, and Victoria Jackson flowed nicely, but it was with the men, particularly Phil Hartman, where Jan honed her edge. She brought heat, could fluctuate from a teasing falsetto to raw comic aggression without missing a breath. No Boys Club could keep her out.

The pressure of live television helped produce Jan’s best work. For someone who reportedly suffered from stage fright, Jan used that fear as propulsion. Perhaps that’s why her post-SNL career lacked the same spark. Jan still brought it, but tape and film softened her impact. She was born for the high wire.

Comedy geeks have their All-Time Best SNL Cast lists, and I suspect that Jan Hooks is on most of them. She should be. What’s that? Is Jan on my list? Of course, alongside Eddie Murphy, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Maya Rudolph, Dan Aykroyd, Kristen Wiig, and Phil Hartman, with whom Jan forged a loving chemistry. That was no dream.

Dennis Perrin is the author of Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

Remembering Jan Hooks