Hartman & Hooks: In Retrospect

For some time, the late Phil Hartman’s sentimental and appropriate title as “The Glue” of Saturday Night Live was believed to be coined by Adam Sandler. A quick Wikipedia search (reliable, sure) and corresponding cited source claims that Jay Mohr revealed this piece of trivia in his memoir Gasping For Airtime– a dishy tell all of what not to do behind the scenes at Studio 8H, a read which certainly painted the likes of Michael McKean, Chris Farley, and Hartman in a good light. However, having recently read Chicago Sun-Times’ author and staff writer Mike Thomas’ 2014 biography on Hartman, it was revealed that the originator of the beloved “Glue” nickname was none other than Hartman’s frequent on-screen collaborator, the late Jan Hooks. This revelation is not surprising, considering the duo’s apparent work husband/wife relationship made available to audiences every Saturday night from 1986-1991. The nickname discrepancy seems silly and the slightest bit agitating (trivial, to say the least), but the error in Mohr’s account undercuts the significance of Hartman and Hooks’ relationship, on-screen and off.

hartmanhooks

This past year, all of the gruesome jargon associated with comedy (“He killed it!” “She slayed.” “He had me in stitches!” “I was dying! I had to stop myself from peeing my pants for so long I got a UTI and had to go to the doctor’s office where they told me to pee in a cup, but I couldn’t aim in the cup and pee got all over my pant leg and when I gave the sample to the nurse she smiled because she knew, oh she knew…” etc) suddenly became tainted phrases. Robin Williams. Joan Rivers. Harold Ramis. Mike Nichols. Hell, even almost Tracy Morgan, and to a less tragic degree- Bill Cosby. And Jan. Sweet Jan Hooks, who- I swear, was the most versatile, most talented character actress to have ever graced the SNL stage, and may very well be one of the best cast members of all time. Yet, when mentioned, people under the age of 40 not well-versed in comedy or television will wonder who the FUCK I’m talking about.

Outraged! But I digress, before Hooks’ appearance as Jenna Maroney’s mother on 30 Rock (2010), the only bit of information I knew was that she was the, “Funny lady from that diner sketch on my Best of Alec Baldwin DVD.” This past Spring Break, I got a bad cold, stayed in bed, and planned on watching all of the videos on the SNL App in chronological order (in part because I didn’t want to study for whatever fresh hell school would bring after the break, and in part because I have this overwhelming need to consume just about everything there is when I’m interested in a certain topic-usually food). Having watched most of the First Five Years already, (don’t get me started on my Jehovah’s Witness-like need to spread the good word of Gilda Radner my sophomore year of college) and disinterest at that particular moment to watch SNL’s “dark days,” in which I was reminded that Iron Man was in fact, a cast member; I decided to skip to 1986- the year Lorne Michaels (creator of SNL) returned and retooled the show.

It’s no question that subjectively and objectively, one can say that Phil Hartman is the best cast member of all time (Rolling Stone Magazine’s rankings were totally invalidated the moment they ranked Update anchor Norm McDonald at 135 out of 200). I was thrilled to finally see the GOAT in action. I was enamored. Just fucking blown away by his level of talent: how he could disappear into his characters, and how I often had to squint or bring my phone closer to my face to ensure that I was watching Phil. The thing is, Hartman didn’t even need to be wearing a lot of make-up and costume, but the way he changed his voice, altered his posture, played with a character’s physicality- was enough to completely lose himself and lose the audience as well. This utilitarian role was filled by actors such as Dan Aykroyd in the show’s first run, and by Bill Hader in contemporary seasons. But alongside Hartman’s actor first- comedian second approach was Jan Hooks- mirroring Phil in terms of subtly, consistency, and mesmerizing hilarity (cringing at my own writing here). If Phil was “The Glue,” then Jan was “Honey.”

Janet Vivian Hooks lived a private life, and not much information is made available to the public regarding her past, relationships, and ultimate retreat from the spotlight. Writing about her I feel sort of… uneasy, as if I’m peeking into a doorway accidentally left ajar. But this interest doesn’t come from a place of malice. but from a need to understand and a need to educate the public as to why we have the Tina Fey’s, Amy Poehler’s, and Kristen Wiig’s of today.  In a speech during last year’s Elle’s Women in Hollywood Awards, Fey stated:

“She was another woman who meant so much to me. When we were doing 30 Rock and we needed to cast Jane Krakowski’s estranged Florida dirtbag mother and I thought, ‘My God, do you think we could get Jan Hooks?’ Because she’s an idol of mine, from the Sweeney Sisters to the Miss Self Esteem Pageant. Just the funniest woman ever. And I was like, ‘Do you think we could get her? And the answer was like, ‘Yeah, you can get her.’ She was living in Woodstock. And the phone was not ringing.

We called her and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And she was like, ‘OK?’ She was actually a little shy about jumping back into the game. And she came down and she was so funny. We did a scene where Jenna and her mother are reunited and they’ve been estranged, but they decide to sing their duet that they used to sing in pageants when Jenna was a child. And it was a mother and a daughter singing to each other: “Do that to me one more time…” (Laughter) And it was so funny and the crew was so mesmerized. It was all at once the most ridiculous and heartbreaking and beautiful, this weird mother-daughter relationship. And I’m so proud of it.

It made me sad when she passed, and it made me mad at the time how available she was. Jan should have had a bigger career. Jan deserved a big movie career. Certainly as big as Rob Schneider’s (expletive) career. She was a bigger star on SNL.”

From what I have gathered, Hooks was a Southerner, Georgia born, having lived near Atlanta and Fort Myers, FL (I don’t care if it isn’t North of Ocala, Florida is a cultural soup and deep south can be found almost anywhere), who lost her accent when she made her move to either New York or Los Angeles. The timeline is screwy, considering the amount of information we have, although we do know that Hooks performed in school plays; left the University of West Florida in order to pursue her acting aspirations full time; appeared in the early 80’s on programs such as Bill Tush’s satirical sketch show Tush on Ted Turner’s network before it became TBS, as well as HBO’s Not Necessarily The News; and studied as a Groundling- [The Groundlings] the comedy institution that produced Laraine Newman, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and yes- Phil Hartman. Prior to SNL, peers already were enamored by the woman who could transform into just about anybody.

“In my audition, Lorne Michaels said, “I think you’re weak on characters.” And I said, oh well, do you know who is the greatest character actress in America? Jan Hooks! I worked with her on The Half-Hour Comedy Hour . . . she was just brilliant . . . even backstage with the cameras off, she did this lesbian gas station attendant in Atlanta. She would just go into these people and I thought she was great.”

-Victoria Jackson, former SNL cast member and current political crazy lady

Interestingly enough, the woman whom Hooks didn’t quite “get” due to her “baby voice” and overwhelming Born-Again Christianity may have been responsible for piquing Michaels’ interest in Hooks undoubted talent. I laugh at Hooks’ quote in Tom Shales’ oral history of SNL. Her frankness is so, I-don’t-give-a-shit and authentic.

“Victoria Jackson? I thought she had a pretty good gig. I just have a particular repulsion to grown women who talk like little girls. It’s like, “You’re a grown woman! Use your lower register!” And she’s a born again Christian. I don’t know, she was like Mars to me. I never really got her.”

Along with Jackson and countless peers and viewers enamored with Hooks’ talent was SNL cast member Kevin Nealon, who met Hooks prior to their tenure at SNL. “Janners,” Nealon affectionately called her, was his girlfriend in the eighties and during the first few seasons of her run at SNL. During a recent interview with Howard Stern (2014), as well as in a touching tribute piece for TIME Magainze, Nealon discussed their relationship and his admiration for a woman who he felt attracted to by her sheer amount of talent.

“I honestly don’t remember her putting a ton of time or work into her characters or sketches, but when the cameras rolled she was money. It was as if it were all from another stratosphere and all so appealing. Until then I had never been so attracted to someone because of their talent. She was beyond brilliant.”

However, Nealon explains that for someone so gifted, Hooks felt insecure about her abilities- leaving her with crippling stage fright. A quote from Tom Shales’ and James Andrew Miller’s oral history of SNL by Hooks describes her anxiety:

“I had a huge ego. I just loved anybody that wanted me to show my stuff. I will do it. Oh man, let me go out there and show my stuff. And in my midtwenties, it kind of hit that it wasn’t a hobby anymore that it was my vocation that I had to do this in order to live. And that shaded it in a whole different way. It made me afraid, you know. Frankly, I miss those silly years of youth, where you’re all ego and you just want to get out there and show your stuff. But now, I don’t know. I’m in therapy […] I have horrible stage fright. And with all these, you know, stand-up comics who I love- you know, Dana and Dennis and Kevin and all these people- you know they wanted their shot- they wanted to get in there and do it, but I was one of the ones that between dress and air was sitting in the corner going, “Please cut everything I’m in!”

The source of Hooks’ stage fright cannot be objectively pinpointed, but only speculated. Perhaps it was losing her mother to cancer at the brink of her stardom that propelled Hooks’ anxiety. It was after her mother’s passing that Nealon and Hooks’ began their relationship. Nealon continues, “That said, and even with all that unbridled talent, being on SNL was not an easy adjustment for Jan. Just before she was selected to be a part of the cast, her mother tragically passed away, leaving a large void in her life. The stress of dealing with her mother’s death coupled with suddenly being on such a high-profile show was emotionally crippling for her. Unbeknownst to most people and many of the cast, she had developed paralyzing stage fright. I would often be up with her into the late hours of Saturday morning, trying to comfort and reassure her. I thought, how could someone so talented be so unsure of herself?”

Later in Stern’s program, Nealon reveals that it was he who broke up with Hooks, citing SNL as a backdrop for tension, where cast member camaraderie was often masked with a competitiveness for airtime or creative contention. After their breakup, the pair remained friends for years until Hooks’ passing.

But it wasn’t only Nealon who helped Hooks through her tumultuous and rewarding tenure at Saturday Night Live.

ENTER CHICK HAZARD, PRIVATE EYE. Late 30’s. He stands with the brim of his hat casting a shadow over his face. A voice from a forgotten noir film comes out between cigarette puffs.

HAZARD

I’m a sucker for long legs. I wanted to shinny up one of hers like a native boy looking for coconuts.

CUE: Rare laughter from Lorne Michaels and company.

An early memory of Hartman from Hooks was his SNL audition. While the two both had roles in Paul Reuben’s Pee Wee’s Excellent Adventure (Hooks a small role, Hartman a cameo and co-writing credit), the two- as determined by the all-powerful Internet, only met there briefly; and it was at SNL that they bonded.

“I remember being absolutely awestruck by Phil’s audition,” Hooks said, recalling that part of his routine was a bit in which Jack Nicholson was speaking German. “He was this whirlwind of amazing talent.” -Jan Hooks

After reading Thomas’ biography on Hartman (You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman), the performer came across as the kind of person you would want on ship or a plane or a baby shower in the event that all hell was about to break loose. His surfer/stoner personality stayed embedded with him until the end, due to his upbringing in Southern California. As an artist, Hartman famously designed album covers for Poco, Crosby Stills & Nash, and America- to name a few. A career in graphic design also maintained a steady, albeit, not grandiose income for Hartman- who could rely on it monetarily had his career in acting never took off. After joining The Groundlings, studying and teaching there for eleven years, Hartman was cast by Michaels after accompanying Paul Reubens as a writer during his stint hosting SNL. Jon Lovitz, SNL alumni and one of Hartman’s closest friends, remains stunned to this day as to why Michaels chose him before Hartman for the 1985-1986 nightmare season.

During his time on SNL’s “Bad Boys” era (the Farley/Spade/Rock/Sandler/Schneider years), Hartman was known as “the only grown-up in the room,” and acted as mentor and confidante to many of the younger cast members such as Julia Sweeny and Chris Farley- the latter of which Phil invited (along with Farley’s family) to a trip to one of New York’s museums where Phil acted as tour guide, spewing monologues of effortless facts and history regarding the paintings they passed. Another story worth mentioning from Thomas’ biography is when Hartman invited Farley to go skiing, although not without apprehension due to his friend’s physicality. Farley, however, managed to keep up, and some, to Hartman’s surprise. Another instance of mentorship is when comedian Sarah Silverman was still a burgeoning writer and had difficulty landing sketches on the show. Hartman asked if she could write him a sketch. And she did: the last 24 hours of two fruit flies lives, Phil the dad and Sarah the daughter. The sketch ended with a cut to a pile of poop and fly-Phil’s last words, “Go get ‘em.” The sketch was cut in dress, but Silverman recalls Hartman’s eagerness and giving the performance his all.

Hartman was described as extremely easy-going, at times to his detriment. In his marriages, as well as in the workplace, Hartman avoided confrontation- intent on pleasing everyone. Arguments with his wives would end with her yelling at him, and he responding by falling asleep. Although not “emotionally present” in his marriages (although ever the dotting dad), Hartman was reported to fall in love easy and fall in love hard, enjoying the chase more than the reward itself.  Hartman’s laid-back nature was the perfect contrast to Hooks’ who has been described to be very sweet, but very troubled. After all, with all the success in her life incongruously occurring at a time of tragedy, Hooks was probably always waiting for the other shoe to drop. “In the span of 20 years, Jan lost four of the closest people in her life far too soon: Her mother, her father, Phil Hartman, and her aunt,” Brady, a fan and blogger writes. While this is purely conjecture, this, coupled with Hooks’ stage fright bring forth elements of truth.

“[…] a profile I did in the late Mirabella on Jan Hooks, who chain-smoked through our two interviews. I loved her — but I also could see by how she smoked that she was very, very high-strung.” -David Edelstein, The New Yorker

But that tension was hidden from plain sight during Jan’s performances, and when not placed under the pressure of a live show, Hooks relished in delighting friends with a funny voice all the while inhabiting somebody other than herself- a trait she had very much in common with Hartman. SNL alum and the other half of Hooks’ famous Sweeney Sisters sketches Nora Dunn wrote in response to her passing:

“We opened the Emmy’s in 1987 and back stage we decided to chat with George Will and Sam Donaldson in character. They shunned us as if we were two backstage barflies trying to slut it up with a couple of genuine prime time newsmen. No one enjoyed something like that more than Jan Hooks. She did have stage fright, but once in front of the camera, she carried the show.”

Saturday Night Live - Season 12

The Sweeney Sisters

But as ying and yang Hooks’ and Hartman’s personality types may have been- or how they are depicted in the articles and books I have scoured, this perfect contrast of anxiety/apathy, hot/cool, emotion/stoicism, was grounded in their similar down-to-earth personalities and approach to their craft.

“We always thought of her as like the female Phil Hartman,” Lovitz said in an interview last year. Julia Sweeney described of Hartman, “I think every girl was in love with him and every guy was in awe of him and wished that he was their friend.” Hooks’ Cypress High School classmate Karen Johnson-Crowther stated in a similar fashion, “There wasn’t a girl that didn’t like her or a guy that didn’t want to date her.”

To reiterate a previous point, perhaps the reason why Hartman and Hooks’ excelled on SNL was due to the fact that they both reveled in being someone else- not acting like someone else, but truthfully, inhabiting the role he or she was playing. By working together in so many sketches, the two played make believe together– and beautifully. Hartman was known by friends for his impressions and ability to control a room with forty minute impromptu acts including impressions of John Wayne and 1940’s movie stars.  In a similar vein concerning Hooks, is a story told by (practically) EGOT-er March Shaiman:

“Jan Hooks. No one funnier. Or more in turmoil. I tried to reunite The Sweeney Sisters for the “Marc” section of The Carnegie Hall Pops tribute concert a few months ago but Jan was…well…she was a troubled soul, and she couldn’t imagine having it in her. I wish she had. And I pray she’s at peace now. A favorite memory of Jan: Marty Short used to throw classic “Hollywood” Christmas parties, where everyone got up and sang. But the year Jan came, instead of singing, she did “Mayella’s” witness stand monologue from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (“I got somethin’ to say an’ then I ain’t gonna say no more…”), FULL OUT in the middle of Marty’s crowded living room, ending with a brilliant collapse to the floor. The most surreal choice for a Christmas party entertainment and one of the funniest moments I’ve ever witnessed.”

Both Hooks and Hartman are regarded as not only SNL’s best character actors, but also “[…] the best comic actors I have ever seen,” as written by legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. During the duo’s shoot for “Love Is A Dream,” a Schiller’s Reel (the name behind brilliant pieces of SNL early pre-taped segments), Tom Schiller detailed Hooks and Hartman’s similar work ethic and professionalism, unlike the comedians in the cast who were primarily interested in laughs rather than acting. Hooks compared her and Hartman to “Clydesdales,” while other cast members with memorable characters such as Carvey’s Church Lady and Lovitz’s Pathological Liar were like “show ponies,” prancing around them.

“Phil was a gentleman and she [Hooks] was a gentle lady. They weren’t crass. They weren’t showbiz types, climbing to the top. That’s why they have fun on the shoot, because it was away from Studio 8H, they got their own costuming, they were the stars. There was no one else telling them what to do. And it wasn’t just laughs every two lines.” -Tom Schiller

Had their careers found different trajectories, there is no doubt in my mind that the two would have excelled in any field of acting. Hartman in a dark, yet honest and funny role like Lester Burnham in American Beauty, or in an intense yet vulnerable role like Water White in Breaking Bad. At 8H, Hooks said, “Hartman was “the only one who carried around a script and studied it […] Phil knew how to listen, […] and he knew how to look you in the eye, and he knew the power of being able to lay back and let somebody else be funny, and then do the reactions. I think Phil was more of an actor than a comedian.” As Tina Fey stated, Hooks too deserved a better career, and would have been a brilliant stage or film actress- had illness or stage fright not crippled her formidable talent, the latter of which is elaborated by Dunn:

“It was Jan Hooks who came up with the idea for The Sweeney Sisters. On the spot while we were shooting a commercial parody for Saturday Night Live. It came like a minor explosion, as most of her ideas did, and she delivered the concept and our names in a matter of seconds. Then she started belting out medleys of classic swing songs. There was no way I could keep up with her. She was a seasoned improviser who never credited herself as a writer and at the heart of her matter she was a genuine actress.”

Post SNL, there was a brief and miniscule chance that the two could have co-starred in Hartman’s planned primetime variety show (The Phil Show). Writers Brian and Kevin Mulhern, who worked on trying to get The Phil Show up and running, pushed for Jan Hooks to star alongside Phil; but Hooks wanted to stay in New York rather than relocate to L.A. where the show would be filmed. Meanwhile, Hartman wanted to stay on the West Coast and had his wife’s best interests at heart- eager to write her into the show and jump start her acting career. But alas, we cannot think about the could-have-beens and must consider the what-we-haves (is that a thing?): the relationship between these two performers and the wonderful characters they created.

Saturday Night Live’s central location- filmed at 30 Rockefeller Center Plaza, in Midtown Manhattan, makes it one of the most dangerous places to work, a notion alluded to in Fey’s autobiography Bossypants in which the building received one of the letters containing anthrax. Years prior, during the Gulf War (1991), one of many bomb threats was called into the building just before show time.  Alarmed, Hooks panicked and refused to go on.

“I’ll tell you who was really instrumental in getting me through was Mr. Phil Hartman. I remember during the Gulf War, when we were all so terrified. They had security guys with earphones in the studio who were packing lead and all this stuff. There were even bomb threats. Phil and I had a sketch and I just looked at him and said, “I’m not doing it, I’m not going out there, I can’t go out there. Phil and I were in that show’s first sketch. He was the Anal-Retentive Chef, and I played his mother. I’m telling you, I was terrified . . . And Bonnie Turner came up and said, “Now come on, you’re with Phil. But Phil looked at me, and he always had a way of just wordlessly calming me. He – I’m going to start crying – he put his hand out, and I grabbed on, and it felt like an oak tree. It was the most grounding, calming, serene feeling, that he helped me get through that. Phil was my rock. He was so solid. Just absolutely serene. Luckily, I had a lot of stuff with him. He was just, you know, the Rock of Gibraltar.”

And this friendship extended past Hooks’ run on the show and her switch to Designing Women, a report revealing that she had visited the Hartmans at their Encino home during Halloween- the year before Hartman’s death: “Phil was smoking a cigar out in his yard, and we were just talking about life and the business, and he was just easy to be with, and they [Hartman and his wife, Brynn] seemed fine.”

While the two never co-starred on the failed variety show (Phil went on to star in the critically lauded sitcom NewsRadio) Hooks appeared on episodes of 3rd Rock from the Sun (alongside SNL first cast alum Jane Curtin) and even scored an Emmy nomination for her role as Vicki Dubcek. Unbeknownst to her, producers of the show were eager to cast a familiar face to play the role of Vicki’s deranged ex-boyfriend from- you guessed it- Florida. “I had no idea he [Hartman] was going to be playing my boyfriend,” Hooks said, “and they [the producers] made it a point not to tell me. They wanted it to be a surprise that it was Phil. So they flew me out, and I didn’t know until I walked into the read-through room, and he was sitting there, and it was this wonderful, pleasant surprise.” But yet again, like some sick pattern, tragedy struck, as Hooks received word that her father had died after a brief illness. According to Thomas’ biography, Phil was the first one to stop by her dressing room with words of consolation, sitting with her quietly while she screamed and sobbed. Just one week later, Hartman’s father would also pass away after a three year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. A month later, Hartman would be murdered by his wife.

In Shales’ oral history of SNL, cast and crew members recalled where they were when they first heard the news that their beloved Glue had been killed. Nealon remembers thinking Hartman had a new movie out- due to his heavy publicity. Lovitz remembers having seen a rainbow in the sky, knowing that his “older brother” was somehow still with him. No one could be more shocked by the tragedy that had touched a man as congenial, talented, and kind as Phil. Hooks recalls,

“My friend Bill Tush at CNN called me. He said, “Jan, there’s something coming through on the AP that Phil Hartman committed suicide. And I said, “Oh yeah, right, Bill. Right, yeah. How are you Bill?” And we chatted and he said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, there’s more information coming through.” Then he came back and said, “Jan, it’s true. Phil is dead.”

I went out and bought chocolate turtle ice cream and, I think, pizza rolls, and just stayed in bed for two days.”

For the show’s tribute special, Hooks, along with Lovitz, introduced a clip to honor their fallen friend. SNL writer and producer Robert Smigel revealed that Hooks didn’t work on the Hartman tribute, but did make one important suggestion. The final sketch aired was her and Hartman’s Schiller’s Reel ‘Love Is A Dream.’ An unaired and more private ceremony at LA’s Paramount Theatre gathered Hartman’s family, friends, and co-workers. Thomas states, “Following a montage of his best comedy moments, Jan Hooks […] took to the stage and, choking back tears, addressed Phil through a letter she had written.

“My dear sweet Sandy,” she began calling Phil by a nickname she’d given him at SNL based on the color of his hair. “How I wish I could have one more dance with you.” Hooks thanked him for his steadfastness as an acting companion, praised his consistent commitment to character, and marveled at his grace under pressure. She lamented his violent death, too, but felt confident that he was at peace.

Looking at Hooks’ filmography post 1998, her projects would’ve come across as a surprise. A woman whose iconic imprint on SNL and comedy in general would have a string of movies, series, best-selling books; yet why was Hooks’ resume filled with three shows of voice over work (her role on The Simpsons as Apu’s wife (Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon) was, unsurprisingly hilarious (the show tastefully retired her character after her passing). Aside from appearances on Martin Short’s Primetime Glick, Hooks’ return to the spotlight came just five years ago with a guest appearance on Fey’s 30 Rock as the unforgettable Verna Maroney, Jenna’s Floridian mother who “[…] drove a jet ski into a great big bunch of moss!”(which my friend Jordan and I will quote at LEAST once a week). But why the escape from limelight? Is this why I have to explain to people who Jan Hooks is? Am I irrationally upset as to how Jan Hooks’ career did not correlate with her level of pure talent? Yes. Fuck yes! Which brings to mind that this move was clearly a choice. No performer as talented as Hooks’ could possibly not find work. She was just that good. Nealon shed more light on her “escape,” in an interview from 2014:

“Like many of us in this business, Jan was at times complicated and conflicted. Just after 9/11 she moved, with her dog, to upstate New York. She wanted to escape. She wanted her life to be private. She refused to get a cell phone or a computer. She didn’t want to be a part of that whole “techno-logical surge.” It was only recently, when she got sick, that her brother hooked her up with her first cell phone and laptop. But that was Janners. She lived the life she wanted to. To me, it seemed as though she was shunning Hollywood. She didn’t want to continuously have to prove herself. If she wanted to, I believe Jan could have been a huge star. But ultimately her privacy was more important.”

A fan speculated in another blog post regarding Hooks’ quasi-departure from show business, “If I had to guess, I’d [s]ay Jan didn’t find professional work as rewarding after the death of her mother, her father, and Phil. Every big project she was involved with either ended too soon or, worse, accompanied by tragedy.” I have no idea what “happened” to Jan Hooks. I just hope that she knew how much a world of her fans admired and loved her—unconditionally.”

While it is still unknown for sure what illness Hooks’ succumbed to (reportedly cancer, via Daily Mail), it is without a doubt, true that she lived through tragedies and managed to find the strength inside her to make others forget about their own problems and laugh. Upon more Internet research, rumors speculated that Hooks was tragically diagnosed with cancer years ago, but, the disease went into remission. Another rumor claimed that only close family members and friends knew of her illness. One rumor, brought forth by an individual who worked for Time Warner, claims that Hooks was, “[…] diagnosed with breast cancer for the last 4 years or so. She was in remission for about a year but it has returned with a vengeance. On a side note I also heard that Phil Hartman was with her when she got her diagnoses.”

While there is no confirmation regarding any of the aforementioned speculation- one thing is for certain: whatever it was that took Jan Hooks from this world, her legacy and influence on the landscape of, not just comedy- but of women in television, character actors, and performers who suffer from stage fright- will remain. As Hooks bravely said in her speech at Hartman’s Paramount tribute, ““The concept of middle age sure is scary, but I hope to move gracefully though change just like you did. As I go on, you remain very much alive in my heart. I will continue to call on you and be inspired by your sweet and solid strength. And then someday, when it’s my turn to cross over, I just hope that my first dance will be with you.”

And here’s hoping that the two are somewhere in Heaven, or wherever you may choose to believe, cracking themselves up or enjoying the company of so many greats we have lost this past year. The countless outpouring of tweets after Jan’s death concretized her impact, and the amount of tweets referencing Phil made their bittersweet reunion in comedy heaven even more poignant.

Throughout the pair’s SNL tenure, their best work was often times together. Thomas writes, “Some of Phil’s best sketches were performed with Hooks, his work wife. Throughout five seasons together, their characters were often married or somehow romantically attached; Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker; Donald and Ivana Trump; Donald Trump and Marla Maples; Bill and Hillary Clinton, [Ronald and Nancy Reagan]. “I loved Phil, even though it was only on-screen,” Hooks says. “But that bleeds into real life, too. It was a very unique relationship. I knew what it was like to kiss him and hug him. And even thought it was only make-believe, it was real to me for that moment.” Regarding Phil’s experience, Hooks recounts another moment, as revealed in Shale’s oral history.

“We were doing ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with Demi Moore and Jon Lovitz, a sketch about the two beasts, you know, going out on a blind date. Phil Hartman and I were in the backseat of a car making out; he was the Beast, I was the Beauty. I just have to tell you this about Phil. At the end of it, they cut to the commercial, and Phil had to rush off and be, you know, whoever. But first Phil said to me, ‘You gave me a huge boner. Oh God. I’ve got to run!’ So there’s like this mountain of manhood, and he had to go on and, you know, make a quick change with a big old boner.”(*The related sketch is available on NBC.com- FYI and Lovitz is hilarious in it)

An interview with David Bianculli reveals, “Hartman and Hooks, with their similarly realistic performing styles, were paired on “SNL” so often from 1986 until Hooks’ departure in 1991 […] even Hartman’s wife noticed. “Brynn joked about the fact,” Hooks remembered, “and said, ‘You know, I think you and Phil are married on some other level.’ We would laugh about it – in some make-believe world, Phil and I were always a couple.” Thomas briefly explores the dichotomy between Hartman’s real wife and work wife in his biography: “[On Third Rock]. One night after work, Hooks, Phil, and Brynn went out for drinks. “You know,” Brynn told Hooks, “if anything ever happens to me, you should marry Phil.” Brynn was kidding of course, but it wasn’t an entirely outlandish notion.”

It was at that moment in the book that I found myself cringing, remembering that I was agreeing with Hartman’s killer; all the while wondering why he couldn’t have married Hooks in the first place. But their kindred spirits and “glue-ness” (I’m making it a word, dammit) transcended beyond friendship, beyond romance- for in a way, Hooks and Hartman lived countless romances together, inhabiting different couples; and through the course of five years- experienced a relationship that spanned multiple lifetimes. Ideas of anything extending beyond a platonic relationship between the two were briefly hinted at in Thomas’ biography- but most instances have been documented through the Internet in discussion forums- dated and recent. Rumors extend from scenarios such as Hartman wanting to leave his wife for Hooks- and his death resulted in her overwhelming guilt which ultimately drove her to live in solitude; all the way to the two surfing together off the coast of California; and more, mostly from anonymous posters, but one from a former Saturday Night Live makeup artist, Andrea Miller, who fully believes that Hooks and Hartman were in love, but tragically kept apart.

A commenter claims, “Supposedly they were in love but Phil wouldn’t leave his wife, who everyone on SNL hated because she was a crazy cokehead. People urged him to do so but he said he wouldn’t because he couldn’t leave the kids with Brynn.”

While Brynn’s unpopular reputation with the cast of SNL (aside from Sweeney) and the cast of NewsRadio is widely known, Hooks had positive comments to say about her after the Hartmans’ passing” “[…] Brynn was always very sweet to me, and she would come to the shows, and bring the children into rehearsal. To me, it just seemed like a lovely, happy family.”

Whatever the case may be, and whatever gossip has spread over the past twenty or thirty years, we can all come to the one true conclusion that Hooks and Hartman were kindred spirits and professional allies. His cool-calm-and-collectedness may have helped Hooks paddle the board up the intimidating wave 11:30 PM on Saturday Nights (Phil would LOVE that surfing metaphor), but her talent and authenticity provided him with the artistic partner through which they both could step into other worlds- together. And with Hooks’ recent passing, I’m certain that the two are up there continuing the work they started.

“I want to do something for him,” she [Hooks] said at the end of a long, deeply personal, sometimes tearful phone conversation late Sunday afternoon. “And to tell the world what a wonderful person he was, maybe that’s what I can do.”

Well Jan, we hope we can do the same for you and your Glue.

And now for some quotes!

“[The soul imbues man with…] the ability to sense truth beyond his own intellect, a reality too awesome to understand intellectually, yet so powerful we embrace it blindly as a babe.” –Phil Hartman on a paper he wrote in college

“Surfers always looked down on jocks because they were stupid enough to stay after school while we were at the beach.” –Phil Hartman on why surfing is cool and land sports are for tools

“Lisa wants to have sex eight, ten times a day! I need breaks. I like to watch television. I enjoy The Jeffersons.” –Phil Hartman on his second wife

“I solemnly promise, upon my honored word, that I will quite smoking tobacco cigarettes down to the slightest, secret puff,” penalties for breaking the pledge included: paying Holloway (friend) $10; letting him “slug” Phil in the arm twice; footing the entire bill for a double date; watching and waxing Holloway’s car and putting gas in its tank and purchasing for Holloway two cartons of cigarettes- his choice of brand.” It lasted maybe a week before both parties admitted to cheating.” –Phil Hartman on quitting smoking

”I’ve always had this notion that I was an anachronism. I always looked like a guy from the ’40s.” He removes his glasses, while Sinatra and Streisand go at it on the stereo. ”I should’ve been a bomber pilot or something.” –Phil Hartman on being born in the wrong time

“Just hard, long laughs at the weirdest, oddest things,” he said. “She had such a bent look on things, and she taught me about the whole world of kitschiness. I remember how much she loved watching the Princess Di wedding. It was like the Super Bowl for her.” –Kevin Nealon on Jan Hooks who also appreciated kitchy things like Renaissance Fairs

“She had a cat door in her apartment in Studio City,” he said. “And a possum would come in every once in a while to eat out of the cat bowl. And she would let it, and it became a friend of hers. She called it Uncle Joe, because it was ‘moving kinda slow.’ ” –Kevin Nealon on Jan Hooks who I wish was my sweet, southern Aunt

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This was a long fucking read, yes?

Here are your RECEIPTS:

Live From New York! Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller

You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas’ on Facebook

http://www.ew.com/article/1994/03/11/merry-hartman-merry-hartman

http://www.saturday-night-live.com/snl/news/1998/june/hooks-remembers.html

http://www.datalounge.com/cgi-bin/iowa/ajax.html?t=14494771#page:showThread,14494771 (THE FACT THAT THIS IS A “SOURCE” CRACKS ME UP)

http://www.people.com/article/kevin-nealon-remembers-jan-hooks-saturday-night-live

http://time.com/3491489/kevin-nealon-jan-hooks/

https://soundcloud.com/howardstern/kevinnealon_janhooks

http://victoriajackson.com/11935/jan-hooks

http://www.etonline.com/news/152414_jon_lovitz_remembers_snl_co_star_jan_hooks/

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8 comments
  1. Cathy said:

    Well this brought a tear to my eye! I remember watching them back in the 80s. SNL was different back then. Jan Hooks should’ve had a bigger career. And Phil deserved more.

    RIP

  2. Brady, Austin TX said:

    What a fantastic read! Thanks for composing such a moving tribute to my favorite comedienne! If Mike Thomas doesn’t write Jan Hooks’ biography, I hope you do!

    • Aly (littlekicksdance) said:

      Hey there Brady! Thank you so much for reading and commenting. Wow, what a compliment! I hope this article’ll generate more Jan buzz.

      Mike Thomas is pretty active on Twitter and was kind enough to tweet me back regarding that Jan bio. I’m sure if Jan fans talked about it more on the interwebz, someone will consider writing one.

      While we wait, I’m glad we’re all spreading awareness for this truly underrated performer. Also, I emailed Broadway Video (the odds of me getting a message back slim to none…) inquiring about a Best Of Jan Hooks DVD.

      Thanks again for stopping by and reading- truly appreciate it. Not sure if I have the patience and talent to write a full bio, but you never know!

  3. Brady, Austin TX said:

    Hello, Aly!

    I could go on for a page, but I really am glad that fans like you are beginning to piece together Jan’s complex story.

    The one take-away I have to anyone reading your article is this: If you’re a fan of a performer and you haven’t heard about them in awhile, take the opportunity to send them a well-wishing card or note. It could mean a lot to them and you may not get another chance!

    Thanks again!

  4. Tara said:

    I can’t thank you enough for writing this wonderful piece about Jan and Phil. They were both so brilliantly talented and their chemistry on and off screen was fascinating.

  5. Tara said:

    I just wanted to add that I remember seeing your tweet to Mike Thomas and responding to it as well. I, too, am completely gobsmacked at how someone so staggeringly talented faded into the background. It was obviously her choice, for reasons that are only speculative at this point. I’ve also come across many of the sources you’ve found online, and you’ve done a remarkable job piecing everything together. Fingers crossed that bio will come out soon…or at least, a ‘best of’ dvd for her fans to enjoy.

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