Remembering Jan Hooks, Legend of SNL's Best Politics Sketch Ever

Legendary journalist Eleanor Clift on her foolproof impersonator.
Photograph by NBC

This story contains corrected material, published October 14, 2014.

Pretty much everyone on SNL in the nineties was fantastic, which is probably why a consummate actress such as Jan Hooks was crowded by Hall of Famers like Phil Hartman, Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Julia Sweeney, Chris Farley… there really are too many to list in one paragraph.

But Jan was in the best political SNL sketch of all time. I was 4 when it aired and 14 when I first saw it — I didn’t really get it, but I knew it was too funny for normal TV. It was “The McLaughlin Group,” a shot-for-shot remake of the actual syndicated political talk show.

The cast: Dana Carvey as John McLaughlin; John Goodman as Jack Germond; Phil Hartman as Pat Buchanan; Kevin Nealon as Morton Kondracke; and Jan Hooks as Eleanor Clift.

Eleanor Clift! What an obscure reference. In 1991 probably a fraction of the audience would even recognize these columnist/pundits as real people, unless they actually watched The McLaughlin Group.

Almost every line in the sketch is a joke (“What number am I thinking of? Pat Buchanan!”), and rather than recite them boringly, it’s probably worth it to just watch it here:

The best running gag is that McLaughlin keeps changing the names of the guests. Morton Kondracke becomes “Mortontown USA,” Jack Germond evolves into “Jummy-Jammy-Mayhem,” Pat Buchanan is “St. Patrick of Buchananomics,” and Eleanor Clift gets the best treatment: “Eleanor-Gee-I-Think-You’re-Swelleanor!”

Not only does Jan Hooks look like Eleanor Clift in the bit, but she sounds like her in a way that doesn’t seem like an impression. This past Sunday, 23 years after the sketch aired, the real Eleanor Clift popped up in my inbox – she was the White House pool reporter for the day. A few days later, Jan Hooks died. I’ve never met Eleanor, but now that I had her email address, I sent her a note.

She replied, saying the news of Jan’s death had saddened her. And she said this:

I never met her but she picked up on mannerisms I didn't even know I had. I remember thinking at the time how nice it would be if I could hire her to fill in for me at important occasions. She was a real pro and I am greatly honored to have been portrayed by her.

More recent SNL political sketches have been fine, even funny at times — obviously Will Ferrell as W. and Tina Fey as Sarah Palin are at the top of the list. But even in those charades, the jokes are obvious, and the punchlines are more grenade than booby-trap.

There’s something stupendous about that McLaughlin Group skit, its perfect pace and organic rhythm. Two of the five people in it are gone, and so is the style of that sort of political humor. Will it ever come back? As Jan Hooks says in her Eleanor Clift impression, before getting cut off:

“Don’t know—!”

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An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Jack Germond.

 

(Corrects spelling of Jack Germond's name in the sixth paragraph.)
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