Like grandmother, like granddaughter

“The second this is over,” Bess Kalb tells her husband, Charlie Harding, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, “I’m getting a blowout.” To Kalb, the Emmy-nominated comedy writer for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and author of “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me,” her recently published memoir of her late grandmother, Bobby Bell, hair and nails matter. They mattered to her grandmother too.

Eight years ago, when Kalb landed the job on “Jimmy Kimmel” and called Bobby to apprise her of the news and tell her how frightened she was — moving to Los Angeles, finding an apartment and probably being fired anyway after the 13-week trial period was over — her grandmother offered her some typically straightforward advice. “Get a blowout before your first day so your hair isn’t a mess. The rest you can handle.”

Kalb, who recently took time off her busy daily writing schedule to talk to me from LA, was born in New York City, where her parents were both doctors. Concerned that her brother wasn’t going to get into Hunter or Stuyvesant or one of the really great free public schools in the city because he was a late reader, her parents decided to move to Scarsdale to take advantage of the schools.

”It was a sort of haunted, dark little house with this incredible forest abutting the property. As a kid, I’d go out there with a journal and I would write… terrible poetry that rhymed. A lot of ‘snow with Eskimo,’” She played soccer, which she wouldn’t have done if she had lived in New York City, and loved what she calls the “bucolic, suburban landscape.”

Kalb believes she is the writer she is today because of the teachers she had in the Scarsdale public schools. “To this day I remember Miss Ryan and Miss Anderson at elementary. They made me feel like a writer, somebody who could write great things one day.”

Suburban life didn’t mean being cut off from the city, either. Her vivacious, energetic grandmother, whose story she tells in Bobby’s own “voice” and from her own imagined perspective, would whisk her back in to the city often — to see a Broadway show, to visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art and to take acting classes at Lee Strasberg Institute in Union Square, which she loved.

As for her brother, “we misjudged him,” she says drolly. “In fact, he graduated from MIT and is now a mechanical engineer working on nuclear fusion. Einstein, too, was apparently a late reader.”

Although Kalb is a fully fledged Californian — something she still finds unthinkable (“LA was never even a concept to me growing up”) Scarsdale is always rearing its  head. Her agent, who has just sold the film rights to her book to Sight Unseen Pictures, is a friend from Scarsdale Middle School and attended Lee Strasberg with her. “There’s a neatness to it,” Kalb agrees.

And there is a new addition to the Kalb/Harding household — the couple’s eight-month old son. “Truly a gorgeous genius,” affirms Bess, “very different from every other baby.” I comment it must be nice to have a boy shake up the matrilineal order. “God help his future wife is all I will say,” shoots back Kalb. “Or husband. Or future partner,” she quickly adds. “Because I do plan on living with my son and growing old in his pool house.”  We banter for a few moments about hanging on to your kids for as long as possible, breathing down their necks through college and staying with them through old age. “We’re never telling him quarantine is ending,” wisecracks Kalb.

I ask Kalb what LA feels like during COVID.  “Every place takes on a different version of itself.” LA, she says, is a place that is so health-obsessed to begin with, with such a wellness culture, that people “have jumped all over this, have got serious about it really quickly.”

As an ICU doctor’s daughter, she herself has been robust on social media in her support of tough measures to cope with and survive the pandemic. “It’s been heartening to see people with masks on in our neighborhood, keeping social distance.” She says it has been great, too, to see a lot of small businesses improvise and come up with new ways to provide goods and services. 

Hair and nails aside, the thing she’s really aching to do, more than anything, is to hug her friends. She wasn’t a big hugger before COVID, but guarantees she will be as soon as it is over.  “All hugs. I’ll be like a yoga teacher,” she avows.

I ask Kalb about her roots in comedy. She loved watching “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” with her dad. Even when she was too young to really get it, she nevertheless remembers laughing so hard that she fell off the couch. And that has become her benchmark for comedy — something so funny it makes you fall off the couch.

She also watched “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” admiring comedy that made you laugh while also delivering a message.  That was the kind of blend she found on “The Colbert Report,” which she worked on for a semester as an intern while attending Brown University. “When Stephen Colbert was speaking truth to power against President George W. Bush every night, it was the kind of comedy that set me up on a career path as an adult.”

The apogee of her political mischief-making has been her long-running jibes at President Donald J. Trump, which have resulted in the president blocking her on Twitter. Does she, I wonder, wear it as a badge of honor that the president — whom Kalb likes to call “honey,” and whom she has told to “grow up” — has ghosted her? Not at all, she says. “It’s actually humiliating for our country that he would take the time to block me. It’s so pathetic that the leader of the free world and the commander-in-chief of the largest military in the world would be offended by a comedy writer on a social network accessible through a personal iPhone.”

We return to Bobby. Beyond the singular praise for the book from all corners, I suggest the possibility that Kalb, having brought her grandmother back at least to literary life, may now forever be cast as her grandmother’s granddaughter. “Well, if that’s the case, then how lucky am I? And if being associated with her when she was alive was a great feather in my cap, I always was and remain so excited to be Bobby Bell’s granddaughter.”

Will she always hear her grandmother’s voice in her head? Quick as a whip, with a quip of which Bobby herself would have been proud, Kalb retorts: “May she always be a permanent resident.”

For more, visit besskalb.com

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