From the beginning, Saturday Night Live has been a vehicle for launching stars—Radner, Belushi, Ferrell, Wiig—on the strength of outsized, memorable, repeatable characters. Jan Hooks, who died Thursday at age 57, wasn’t one of the stars who summons up half a dozen trademarked characters when her name comes to mind (though fans who watched her 1986-1991 run will remember her as one half of the Sweeney sisters).
But that’s really the measure of what Hooks did so well. She didn’t barrel into your consciousness with catchphrases. Instead, with one character role and spot-on celebrity impression after another, she was a team player who helped make SNL bigger than the sum of its cast list, by being week in and week out one of its best comic actresses ever.
I’ve been thinking, with SNL coming up on its 40th anniversary, that lately I’ve been much more interested in sketch shows like Key & Peele, Portlandia and Inside Amy Schumer—taped shows, focused on one or two performers, with a more specific point of view and range of themes. There feels more energy right now in these shows with particular aims, not trying to be everything for everyone.
Someone like Hooks, though, is a reminder of what SNL could be at its best—a live show capable of becoming and taking on anything, depending on what the week calls for. And for that, you need players like Hooks: versatile, game live performers who can disappear into a role. Performers like her are a kind of human special effect, creating the canvas on which the show replicates the world.
Hooks could turn herself into celebrities from Sinead O’Connor to Tammy Faye Bakker to Diane Sawyer. Born in Atlanta (where she had an early role on TBS’s Bill Tush Show), she had a special knack for channeling brassy Southern women. (Her late-era “Put That Down!” sketch is one that’s always stuck with me: “BOBBY IS SELLING HIS EL CAMINO, MOTHER!”) But her characters, even the celeb parodies, weren’t just caricatures. She could put a kind of pathos into her Tammy Wynette or even Kathy Lee Gifford serenading a monkey (“Both of us come from God / But I… don’t… come… from you!”).
Much of Hooks’ career involved being memorable in projects that showcased other people. (The best non-Pee-Wee line in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is her chipper, pitying “There’s no basement at the Alamo!”) Jan Hooks was a star, and a terrible premature loss. But if it took you a while when you heard the news to recollect all the roles you knew her from, that’s all right. It means she did her job. RIP.