R.I.P. Jan Hooks – SNL’s stealth genius

Actress/comedian Jan Hooks at 40th Emmy Awards Photo by: Alan Light

Saturday Night Live lost yet another alumni at a young age: Jan Hooks, the brilliant impressionist/comedienne who was a high point during the 1986-1991 seasons. A fantastic and wonderfully talented performer, Hooks was the kind of cast member who was reliable for elevating a sketch with her virtuoso talent for mimicry and comedy. Like the late and great Phil Hartman, Hooks was a consistent thread through her tenure, who always was on hand to sell whatever character she was playing. Unlike Gilda Radner or Jim Belushi, Hooks never became a “personality” and didn’t endear herself with her viewers by being charming or adorable. Instead, she killed in every sketch she was in, completely immersing herself in the characters she was playing. As an actress, she was able to give subtle performances, blending into the story, or she could stand out with a more outlandish character. With Nora Dunn, she created the Sweeney Sisters – a singing lounge act that performed/mutilated medleys of pop standards in weddings or hotel lounges. Hooks was also a virtuoso at playing rural Southern ladies, be they hard bitten waitresses or rough-around-the-edges housewives. She also was an expert mimic, honing fantastic impressions of Hillary Clinton, Tammy Faye Bakker,  and Kathie Lee Gifford, among others.

And because she was a comedic chameleon, audiences never really got to warm up to Jan Hooks, and so unlike Jon Lovitz, David Spade, Chris Rock, or Phil Hartman, she never really broke out of her SNL fame. She was revered by her colleagues and fans saw her as arguably the funniest female cast member since Gilda Radner, but she never created a comic persona that could’ve been spun off into a career of big budget buddy comedies.

So even though she never reached the heights of Adam Sandler or Mike Myers, she wasn’t exactly biding her time once she left SNL. Hooks joined the cast of Designing Women for its last two seasons, joined 3rd Rock From the Sun in a recurring role (that won her an Emmy nod), and in her last role of note, she played Jane Krakowski’s selfish onscreen mother on 30 Rock. The roles capitalized on Hooks’ ability to play the darker, more perverse aspects of humanity. The shape-shifting talent of her SNL days gave way to an edgy, nervy comedic presence that reveled in exploring the uglier depths of human nature.

What Jan Hooks brought to SNL was a remarkable talent to make any sketch work. Phil Hartman was called “the Glue” because of his ability to keep the cast together and to bring gravitas and intelligence to his work. But Hooks was just as integral to the show’s renewed quality, sharing many of the same qualities as Hartman. It’s not a coincidence or accident that Hooks and Hartman were often paired together. Both were blandly good-looking, with the kinds of malleable faces  and prodigious talent that made them easily outshine their costars or melt into the background when necessary. Jan Hooks was a master at subtly and intelligent comedy, and a genius that deserves to be an icon.



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Filed under Celeb, Comedy, commentary, Television, Writing

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