[Ed. – As noted in these pages, “Saturday Night Live” star Jan Hooks died last week at the age of 57. Hooks worked on the show during its heyday, from 1986 to 1992, sharing the stage with such enormous talents as the late Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon, and Victoria Jackson. Ms. Jackson is now an LU colleague and shared her memories of Jan Hooks. A more complete version of this piece can be found at at Victoria blog, aptly and simply named Victoria Jackson.]
Thursday, during a Netflix movie, my husband said something about Jan Hooks dying. I hadn’t heard. I started crying.
Some press called me for a quote. My quote – “Jan Hooks was the most talented actress I’ve ever worked with or watched.” And, I meant it.
Then I went online to review Jan’s brilliant work and I became overwhelmed with memories.
In 1983 I was standing on the set of The Half Hour Comedy Hour, (an ABC summer replacement show that was similar to Laugh In,) waiting for rehearsal, watching my co-star Jan Hooks goofing around with some of the cast. She was doing an impression of a lesbian gas station attendant. She was genius. She was making up the lines on the spot. “Improv” was a new thing. I had never heard of it, or the L.A. Improv Group “The Groundlings,” the group that along with Second City in Chicago produced so many SNL stars. I didn’t even have a TV when I grew up. My childhood was spent in a Baptist Church and a gym doing gymnastics with my Dad, the Baptist deacon gymnastics coach. So, Jan and I had very different upbringings and consequently, very different worldviews.
I went to Hollywood at age 19 to chase my whim of being an actress. I knew that I’d be married with children someday and just wanted to see if I could do it, get on TV. My first play at Furman University had hit me like a lightning bolt. I instantly loved acting. Plus, my dad had been in Vaudeville. I made up a stand-up routine and did it at the Variety Arts Center and around L.A. for 2 years. That got me on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and that opened doors. The first was this comedy show Jan Hooks was in, along with Arsenio Hall, Thom Sharp, John Moschita, Vic Dunlop, and John Paragon among others.
I respected Jan’s talent. In fact, in 1986, when I auditioned for Lorne Michaels, SNL’s creator and producer, I told him that if he wanted an actress who was great at characters and impressions, Jan Hooks was the best. I’d never seen an actress so convincingly become someone else. She could be anyone, a phony Christian, a slut, a Brooklyn mechanic, a Cockney lass, a guy from India, Bette Davis, etc. SNL was the perfect vehicle to show her brilliance. And, she played every character with excellence. She was Trump’s wife Ivana, and Trump’s mistress Marla Maples, in the same sketch! She was Tammy Faye Baker and Jim Baker’s mistress Jessica Hahn.
I would stand there on the SNL set watching her, amazed. She was my comedy college. Eventually, in my six years on SNL, I went from my one specialty, “the naive ditz or bimbo”, to actually doing impressions, Roseanne, Zsa Zsa, Edie Gorme, the Brooklyn Swami, my low voice thing…but, my few “characters” were simply a freshman attempting to emulate the Ph.D. I found more air time at the Update Desk doing my ukulele songs and handstands.
Our SNL cast, 1986-1992 was special. We were all different. But, we meshed well onscreen. The competition to get air time was intense, but even more so between us three women. We were never guaranteed a line on the show, like you are on a TV sit com, TV drama or in a feature film. One year I went 5 shows without a line. I got a private meeting with Lorne to tell him I felt silly being in the bows, the ‘goodnights’ when I hadn’t even been in the show. Lorne smiled and said, “You’re a lot more evident than you think you are.” And with that, he ushered me out of his office. Every week we had to write our own sketches or find a writer who would write for us. Jan was lucky to have her friends from Atlanta, Bonny and Terry Turner write for her and they came up with some fantastic stuff, like the diner sketch with Alec Baldwin. They also put her on their post-SNL show, “3rd Rock From the Sun,” where she played a slutty character named, “Vicki.”
Tom Schiller made the iconic treasure, “Love is a Dream,” which SNL played as a tribute to Jan this past weekend.
Over the past 22 years, I’ve thought about SNL often. It’s hard not to. Not a day goes by without someone bringing it up. I was blessed to be a cast member on the iconic show. Thank you Lorne. (I wrote a book about it. Link here.)