Thank You, Mike Thomas –and, Once Again, Godspeed Jan Hooks

Howdy, Fickle Readers!

Unfortunately (or, as Little Fickle would say, unfortunarily), I don’t have time to give this piece the thorough analysis it deserves. But I did want to let everyone who’s been following my modest Jan Hooks coverage know that Mike Thomas, the journalist who published a biography of Phil Hartman in 2014, has just published a lovely retrospective article in Grantland on Hooks’s life and death. In the piece, he fully discloses the details of Hooks’s struggles with anxiety, isolation, and illness, as well as her rocky relationship with her own fame and talent. It’s an eye-opening piece. In this day and age, when fame is one of the be-all, end-all life goals for many, when someone invented not only the selfie but the selfie stick (hopefully someday God will forgive us for that monstrosity), Hooks seemed to be searching for a middle ground–one that would let her be herself and pursue her creative interests without having to get entangled with the demanding, draining constraints that showbiz puts on its actors. I’m not sure that she ever found it, but she did seem to find some peace being able to control the work that she took on and (maybe) being able to be herself when no one was all that interested in her quirky take on life.

I don’t know. I’m trying to glean a positive spin on her largely sad ending. Thomas works very hard to show that Hooks lived and died on her own terms. Many in modern Western society might deem those terms tragic–an early death in a remote location, far from the eyes of critics and fans alike–but Thomas insists that she made all her own decisions, and one of those decisions was that the limelight wasn’t for her. One wonders if the reason why she disliked the entertainment world so much was because there was no place for an original voice like hers.

I hope that Thomas or others will continue the discussion on Hooks. I hope this article means that there may be a new biography coming out. Hooks deserves her own space, despite the fact that she decided to abandon the very thing that placed her in the public eye. In an age when Julia Roberts is the gold standard for the ambitious actress, it behooves us to examine what fame means to women who are not the ideal and, moreover, don’t want to be.

[UPDATED]The One Year Anniversary of Jan Hooks’s Death: She’s Still Funny

UPDATE: Astute reader Elizabeth points out that Kevin Nealon confirmed that Hooks had cancer in a December 2014 Howard Stern interview (see the link in the comment below). Nealon and Stern also discuss how Hooks moved out of the city after 9/11, and how Hooks had recently gotten a laptop before her death (Stern sort of fishes around, asking whether Hooks was “off the grid” in her final years.) All information I’ve never heard before, and all “tantalizing,” as Nealon might say. (He uses the word over and over in reference to his friendship with Hooks that turned into a relationship and then back into a friendship. I’m not quite sure what Nealon meant by it. Either he was trying to put off Stern’s more probing questions or he kind of doesn’t know what “tantalizing” means. You readers can have a listen and see what you think.)

Thanks for the heads up, Elizabeth!

 

Hey, Fickle Readers! A year ago today, the great Jan Hooks passed away at the age of 57. A year ago tomorrow is the one year anniversary of the post I wrote about the loss of this wonderful yet underrated actress. To this day, there’s still no official word on what she died of. The only article online that mentions her cause of death is from the Daily Mail, and they got their information from random neighbors and the head of the co-op building where she lived. No go-getting milennial journalists have gone out and tracked down Hooks’s story. As far as I can tell, no one has even done a retrospective of her life, although a few of us, like blogger Little Kicks Dance and Austin (who contributed a guest post to my site), have been cobbling together what pieces we can find online and elsewhere. Mostly, you can find stories about her in interviews and biographies of fellow actors and friends. It’s kind of a shame, though. She really ought to have her own corner in the pantheon of modern actresses and comedians. We shouldn’t have to go scrounging and filling in the gaps to know who she was.

One thing we know for sure: she was really damn funny. Today, I found yet another SNL sketch–one I don’t think I ever saw before–of her performing as Bette Davis’s living will. Not only is this a nicely preserved portion of the late 20th century (Phil Hartman, who plays Davis’s son, acts shocked when he hears he’s going to “see” his mother speaking to them), it’s another fine example of Hooks’s over-the-top kookiness. She never stops with one or two gags–she always pushes herself to come up with something new. Also, it seems like she does the fast-forward noises on the VCR herself. Really goofy fun.

Above is a picture of Hooks as Davis. The link to the video is here. Enjoy!

 

A Little More Jan Hooks

Every time Jan Hooks re-enters the pop culture blood stream, I get a tremendous spike in my readership. Last Saturday, it happened again. SNL reran an episode that included a tribute to Hooks, the “Love Is a Dream” sketch, now a bona fide tear-jerker since both Hooks and Phil Hartman are gone. Apparently, people are still searching for information on what happened to her last October. (There’s still no new information, by the way. Only Wikipedia citing a single Daily Mail article, which cited the head of her building’s co-op as their big source on Hooks’s cause of death.) I, too, wish we knew more, but I also wish we had more of her and her work. She was so very, very funny. And she disappeared from the public eye far too soon.

But we’ve been all been saying the same thing for several months now, so here’s something I never saw until Salon mentioned it in a recent interview with Nora Dunn:  a clip of Dunn and Hooks as the Sweeney Sisters, opening the Emmys in 1988. The video quality is pretty bad, but the show Dunn and Hooks put on is a little snippet of lunatic brilliance. Possibly the best part happens when the Sweeneys leave the stage and start accosting all the celebrities in the audience. (Think famous actors like being messed with when they’re the ones watching something onstage? Think again.)

Enjoy the clip, everyone! And be sure to check out this exhaustive essay on Hooks’s career from blogger Little Kicks Dance, who pulls together an amazing amount of material on Hooks’s life and personality as well. My hat’s off to you, Little Kicks Dance. A big, giant virtual bottle of tequila for you in honor of collecting, like, ten times the amount of quality material than the Daily Mail’s “let’s interview the head of her co-op” reporting staff did!

Yet Another Non-Update on Jan Hooks

So my little blog has been experiencing yet another spike of interest from the outside world. I’m guessing it’s because of the big SNL reunion show, which earned super-high ratings for NBC, despite the station’s usual status as the lovable loser of broadcast TV. People (apparently) are checking in to see if anyone’s posted any newsworthy tidbits about the late comedienne. And once again, I’m hear to tell ya: there’s nothing. No further comments from the family, no intrepid young journalists publishing a big exposé about Hooks’s final years. I wonder if someone out there is trying to dig up some more information. Honestly, I can’t imagine why there wouldn’t be interest. An incredibly talented TV star who fades early and dies young–that seems like a story to me, even though I’m not a journalist and, in fact, am just basing this opinion on what I like to read. There’s always been something compelling to me about life lived in the margins.

I realize that calling Hooks’s life “marginal” is probably a misuse of the term. There are, in fact, people out there who are not actors or comediennes, people who are forced to the edges of society (whether because of their bodies, their beliefs, their gender, or their lack of resources) and people whose entire cultures thrive on the “margins” of the world (even if those so-called margins take up entire continents’ worth of land). I’m not trying to devalue any of these people–I’d love it if we had more input from everywhere, especially our planet’s many overlooked spaces, where so much living and dying happen. I’m also not trying to redefine marginality as worthy of note only if you’re lucky enough to exist right outside the shadow of greatness–in the Brooklyn beside Manhattan’s promised land. Absolutely not. But I also opened this can of worms on my blog, and Hooks does still fascinate me as a woman of SNL (a major marginal space at least in the demographic landscape of this particular TV show) and as someone who worked hard to get something only to have it mysteriously evaporate at the end of her life. I’m a born-and-bred meritocrat, educated in the Cinderella story of the American middle class, and when a person gets her due and then loses it, I want to know what happened.

I know, too, that the story I’ve outlined here (the pull-up-your-bootstraps rise to prominence and tragic fall from grace) may not be Hooks’s story. I may be projecting. I do that a lot. But I can’t say if I’m right or wrong because there’s nothing out there to be found. Gaps in the record fascinate me, too. Derrida’s aporia, the lacunae in memory–holes in the knowledge base, especially in the age of Google, don’t seem like they should exist.

Since I’m a sickly middle-aged wife and mother and not a budding journalist, I’m not going to search out the story of Jan Hooks. I’m going to sit here in my little wifi-connected bubble and wait for someone else (probably a milennial) to do that. But I will leave all you Fickle Readers out there with a few items to temporarily patch up those knowledge gaps until the youngsters come along: one, a tribute to Hooks published by Sarah Larson in The New Yorker, which has some nice analysis and links to sketches; two, this New York Magazine article (found by an intrepid anonymous tipster!) that mentions Hooks and her smoking habit; three, this interview with early 90s SNL alum Melanie Hutsell, which doesn’t have much to do with Hooks but does discuss Hutsell’s iconic Jan Brady impersonation and her fans in the gay community. Enjoy!

Jan Hooks: A Guest Perspective

Believe it or not, the vast majority of people who stumble across this blog from outside the WordPress site and my own circle of friends and followers are people looking for information on Jan Hooks, the SNL alum who died last October. I’m guessing that readers who came to the site were searching for more details about Hooks’s cause of death and the changes in her appearance that first showed up in photos from around 2004. As far as I can tell, there is still no official word from family members on Hooks’s cause of death. On October 10, 2014, the Daily Mail reported that Hooks died of cancer, but sources for the article seem shaky: the only person named as a source is “the head of her building’s co-op board”; the rest are unspecified “friends” or “neighbors.” The next day, the New York Daily News posted a story in which two family members (Hooks’s brother, Tom, and Susan Morgan Brown, a cousin) declined to comment on Hooks’s illness. Later, there was an announcement that Hooks would be buried in a private service in Cedartown, Georgia. No more reliable news beyond this has surfaced–believe me, I’ve checked.

Since I’m still getting hits from readers who want to hear more or possibly discuss more about Hooks and her life, I’ve decided to re-post some excellent commentary on one of my former posts. Here, Brady presents some little-known details from Hooks’s life, explores some possibilities about what these details might mean but draws no firm conclusions. What I really love about Brady’s discussion comes at the very end: his thoughts on Hooks’s appearance express my own feelings far more succinctly and effectively than my own ramblings ever could. Thanks for the contribution, Brady! A virtual shot of tequila for you!

Jan Hooks has been laid to rest in Cedartown, Georgia. She lies in a plot between both her mother and aunt (who was also a kind of mother figure for Jan after the death of Jan’s mother.) In a 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.

Jan is survived by two brothers. One of them bought and set her up with her first laptop computer and cell phone around 2000 or so. She lived in New York City until the events of September 11, 2001 impelled her to seek a second home in Woodstock, NY.

Thanks to their work together on Saturday Night Live, she is often associated with Phil Hartman. Both were great friends and shared an incredible work ethic.

According to Mike Thomas’ autobiography of Phil Hartman, Phil lived and worked around southern California until his gig with SNL called him to NYC. From what I’ve been able to gather from internet searches, Jan traveled much further in pursuit of her career: Florida, Texas, Georgia, and California, before finally being noticed by SNL.

Phil bloomed late: most of his professional work as an actor and writer was doing radio voice-overs and assisting Paul Rubens while with the Groundlings. He was 38 when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. By comparison, in her twenties, Jan enjoyed a fair amount of television exposure through the Bill Tush Show, Not Necessarily the News, and bit roles in the comedies Wildcats and Pee-Wee’s Big adventure. Her memorable catchphrase, “There’s no basement in the Alamo!” is still used on occasion to express bemused patience with the clueless. She was 29 when she caught the big break with Saturday Night.

Being an actress and comedian was Jan’s first, best occupation. I don’t know if she ever did anything else from the time she left college. Phil was doing many things before stardom hit. Jan pursued acting foremost to the exclusion of all else. While he lived, Phil lost two wives through divorce and a father who lived a long life. He still had six other siblings to commiserate with. Jan lost more (close and direct relatives—and Phil), though she still had two older brothers she remained close to.

After five years with Saturday Night, Jan enjoyed two seasons on Designing Women,. But it was over too soon—much like her lament about the cancellation of the Bill Tush show after one season. 3rd Rock from the Sun seemed to be the sort of show she was made for, but Phil’s death, ironically, came at the very end of a story arc in the show and seemed to herald a steady decline in her career. I have no idea if she turned down work, or folks stopped calling her, or a combination of both. All I know is that Jan’s career after 1998 (the year Phil was killed) ground to nearly a halt. Her time with Martin Short (on his show Jiminy Glick, in the role of his wife, Dixie) was her last effort as a recurring character in a sitcom.

In the few interviews I’ve been able to find on the internet, Jan seemed fairly content with life after SNL. She was able to live independently, though perhaps modestly in comparison to other SNL stars. I believe she could have found more acting work if she wanted to. She was still able to support herself without it. She did have small roles on several shows in her final years. I’m guessing, but I’d say 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, was accompanied by tragedy. With no close family or close friends to share her successes (that I’m aware of, other than perhaps Nora Dunn), acting lost its appeal and she could take it or leave it.

And if she pursued something else, again, whom to share the successes and the joys with? Other than Kevin Nealon in the mid-eighties, I have no real knowledge of any other relationships she was in. I’ve read rumors that she and Phil were somehow together (I’d almost bet Phil’s wife, Brynn, thought as much) but have seen no definitive proof. But if Mike Thomas’ biogrpahy of Phil is any guide, an affair between them wouldn’t surprise me.

As to her illness, I’ve already mentioned that she smoked. At least, I think she did. She might have quit. One internet website has recorded 14 on-camera instances of Jan with cigarettes and cigars. Another website reported that she smoked to get the right tone for the voice of Angelyne for an episode of Futurama. At the very least, smoking cigarettes was not something she would shy from if the role called for it. She was familiar with the habit for that alone.

Some people have remarked on her weight gain and looks in her final years. Knowing nothing about her health during that time, I would say that it is at least common for people to gain weight as they age. People will often gain weight when they quit smoking, too, if they do not replace the habit with healthy ones. By comparison, we accept skinny-Elvis and fat-Elvis. Even skinny-Shatner and fat-Shatner! I’m willing to accept both skinny-Jan and “fat”-Jan and stand in star-struck admiration of her talent until the end—as Tina Fey did.

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.

Brady
Austin, TX

Update on Jan Hooks: There Is No Update

It’s been two and a half weeks since Jan Hooks, SNL superstar and amazing actress and comedian, died of an “undisclosed illness.” Every day since her death, I’ve put off writing this follow-up post. I wanted to wait until someone gave the world some kind of statement on what sort of illness she struggled with, why she seemed heavier in recent years, why her face looked puffy and a little misshapen. (All my links to sources with pictures are here, in my original post.) I guessed her changing looks might have been due to corticosteroid use, possibly related to a chronic illness, but that was pure speculation on my part. I’ve been anxiously awaiting a statement from a reliable source that provides a little more information. At the very least, I want to make sure I correct myself if, in my rush to fill a gap in the public knowledge of the situation, I’ve pulled something completely out of my ass.

Two-and-half-weeks later, however, we the total strangers interested in Hooks’s life and death still have no answers. I’m guessing, too, that we’re not going to get any answers anytime soon. The only news outlet I can find that’s commented on Hooks’s cause of death has been the Daily Mail in the UK, which published this article on October 10th claiming that Hooks had cancer. However, no other media outlet seems to be running with this story. Recently, for example, several reports covering Tina Fey’s tribute to Hooks at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards either don’t mention a cause of death or cite the ambiguous “undisclosed illness.” (In their coverage of Fey’s remarks, Yahoo TV does manage to straddle the line between knowing and not knowing: “While the cause of [Hooks’s] death has yet to be disclosed, it’s believed she died from cancer.”) This hesitation might be because of the fact that the Daily Mail is not known for its trustworthy reporting. (I happen to know that popular humor website Cracked.com will not accept the Daily Mail as source material in its article pitches. That’s right: professional purveyors of dick and boob jokes think the Daily Mail is beneath their editorial standards.)

So what’s with all the silence? I couldn’t say, but I’m not going to press the issue. Illness and death are hard topics in and of themselves. I don’t want to put pressure on a grieving family, who owes me nothing, just because I happen to be curious about a famous family member’s medical history. Jan Hooks died young. For now, that will have to be that.

There are also plenty of other things about Hooks’s life and career to talk about. One major issue that Fey brought up: why didn’t Hooks have a bigger career? (Fey’s exact words were: “Jan deserved a big movie career. Certainly as big as Rob Schneider’s f—ing career. She was a bigger star on ‘SNL.'”) Did Hooks run into problems as a female performer? Did her anxiety and stage fright become too overwhelming? (Okay, I know, I’m back on the medical speculation. But anxiety’s another big deal in my life, and once again I’m curious about how Hooks coped.) Did Hooks’s changing appearance contribute to her fading into the background in the entertainment industry? Why did looks even matter, when she kicked so much ass as Jenna Maroney’s mother, Verna, on “30 Rock”? Doesn’t it suck that we now live in a world without Jan Hooks, Gilda Radner, and Joan Rivers? And Robin Williams and Phil Hartman? Come on, Grim Reaper, give us a break. We need all the laughs we can get these days.

Anyway, here’s a funny, funny clip from Hooks’s days at SNL. I had no idea she had a Kathie Lee Gifford in her repertoire. Also interesting to see how much things have changed since the 1980s–and how much they haven’t. Enjoy!

 

On Jan Hooks, Looks, and Illness: RIP to Yet Another Talented Comedienne

Just heard that Jan Hooks passed away today at age 57. She was probably best known for her work as an SNL cast member during its mid-1980s heyday, although she had other memorable performances on Designing Women30 Rock, and The Simpsons (as Apu’s wife, Manjula). I’m old enough to remember her on SNL. She was an absolute scream, and one of the few cast members you could count on to always be funny. That’s a talent in and of itself. We’ll miss you, Jan.

The Internet is reporting that Hooks died after “battling a ‘serious illness.'” No word yet on what that illness was, but pictures of Hooks from the past ten years or so show her looking heavy and puffy faced–two symptoms, as those of us with immune system disorders know, that are synonymous with corticosteroid use. I’m not trying to speculate on her medical condition, but it’s clear that whatever she had probably affected her life for quite a while. And since she was an actress, she probably got slammed with the double-whammy of having to deal with the impact of illness on her ability to perform and on her physical appearance.

Think of Kathleen Turner, who came down with rheumatoid arthritis in the 1990s and felt she had to excuse her bloating and wobbliness on an alcohol problem, because it was a more acceptable excuse than being sick. Jesse Green of the New York Times reports that later Turner did confess to drinking heavily to combat the pain caused by RA. Even though I’m sure that the booze didn’t help the course of her disease, Green’s subtle oh-that-explains-it attitude toward Turner’s stint at rehab seems to reflect the usual ambivalence healthy people have over illness: so much easier to think it’s all the sick person’s fault, and therefore under her control.

Cut to 2010, when, in response to a blog griping about how crappy Jan Hooks looks in ads for her first guest appearance on 30 Rock, an anonymous commenter had this to say:

Jan, you fat hag, at fifty-two you better have a fatal illness to look that bad. Jesus Christ on a cross, your only job as an actor is to keep your self looking good.

Fat titties do not compensate for hagdom.

Well, guess what, Anonymous Commentator? Turns out Jan probably did have a fatal illness when she taped that show. Not that there’s anything wrong with being fat on T.V. for non-illness-related reasons, or being fat anywhere else, for that matter. Contrary to your apparent belief that women should not accost your eye with anything other than a slim-to-anorexic physique, it’s better to be plump and healthy than skinny and unwell. And I’m sure it was better for Hooks’s overall well-being–puffy or not, heavy or not, looking good to you or not–to be able to act while her body could handle it. She happened to be a phenomenal actress and comedienne. She probably loved getting a chance to do what she did best. And with some fatal illnesses, you never know when those chances will come.