I've always believed that the “Saturday Night Live” cast you begin watching the show with will always be your favorite, regardless of its actual quality. (Somewhere, there's a 45-year-old going on about the glory days of Denny Dillon, Gilbert Gottfried, Gail Matthius and, um, whatsisname, that Eddie Murphy kid.) I was lucky enough to start watching the show around 1986 or '87, in what was then rightly known as the Dana Carvey/Jon Lovitz cast, but what may be remembered more now as the Phil Hartman/Jan Hooks cast, and not just because both Hartman and Hooks died much too soon – Hooks today at the age of 57.
Phil has gotten his just due as the ultimate “SNL” glue guy: he's the subject of a new biography, and when Grantland did a bracket of the best all-time castmembers, he finished second to Will Ferrell. Hooks, meanwhile, couldn't even get out of a first round match-up with Rob Schneider. On a show that so often prizes big performances, preferably in characters that can be repeated over and over and over (like Schneider's copy machine guy), the quiet consistency of a Hooks didn't stand out as much. In her time, she was overshadowed by Carvey's Church Lady, by Lovitz's pathological liar, and later by Mike Myers as Wayne and others.
But like Hartman, she gave it her all in every sketch, whether as the straight woman or the comic centerpiece. Like Hartman, she did dead-on, wicked impressions: I was once at an industry lunch at the same table with Diane Sawyer, and it was all I could do not to laugh while thinking of Hooks' devastatingly smarmy take on her. (For that matter, I can still cite, verbatim, her exchange with Carvey's Vice-President Bush when she tells him how much time he has left to deliver an answer in the famous Bush/Dukakis debate sketch.) Her only significant original character was as one half of the Sweeney Sisters, but she was the show's go-to performer for any woman in the news, from Tammy Faye Bakker to Kathie Lee Gifford to Hillary Clinton. (A favorite: Hooks and frequent partner Nora Dunn playing the vapid hosts of Lifetime's “Attitudes,” interviewing driftwood sculptor John Malkovich. Another: Brenda the overly flirtatious waitress.) She could do anything the show asked of her.
Also like Hartman, Hooks' versatility and ability to disappear into a role didn't serve her particularly well in her post-“SNL” career. She joined “Designing Women” for its final two seasons and bounced around a few other roles (including trashy neighbor Vicki Dubcek on “3rd Rock from the Sun,” and Apu's wife Manjula on “The Simpsons”), but hadn't worked much in recent years. (TMZ reported she had been battling a serious illness.) When she popped up on “30 Rock” a few years back as Jenna's mother, it was a relief and pleasure to see her back in this “SNL”-adjacent world; those two episodes would, unfortunately, be her last time on screen.
We've come up with a list of some of our favorite Hooks comic moments, embedded below, but the thing that's making me very wistful right now is this short film called “Love Is A Dream,” a strange, fanciful musical number in which the two performers are – as it should be – Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman. Maybe they're performing it together again right now.