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Bess Kalb channels her bubbeh

Bobby Bell fixing Bess Kalb's makeup. Comedian Kalb immortalizes her late grandmother in her first book, "Nobody Will Tell You This but Me."
(Robin B. Langsdorf/Robin B. Langsdorf)

Bess Kalb makes people laugh for a living. From her day job as a late-night comedy writer on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to a steady stream of barbed observations about the political climate on Twitter, the 33-year-old Kalb has made her comic voice heard on the Emmys and the Oscars and in the pages of the New Yorker. Now, in her first book, Kalb channels a voice from her own life: Bobby Bell, her maternal grandmother, who died at 90 in 2017.

Written from the sometimes acerbic, sometimes sweet and always laser-sharp perspective of Bell, “Nobody Will Tell You This but Me” ranges from Bobby’s mother’s perilous escape from Russian pogroms through the last days of Bobby’s own life. In between are Kalb’s loving recollections of their relationship, including snippets of conversations and voicemails and a steady supply of life advice (“No serious person moves to San Francisco”). In Kalb’s hands, the resulting stew is reliably funny and occasionally poignant on the aftermath of loss.

“You mustn’t be so angry at yourself for not getting through to me in those last days,” Bell “writes” at one point, turning the memoir on its actual author. “What are we supposed to do now, talk about it? Ha. You can write all you want, but you’re still at a desk in a world where I don’t exist. I’m the way you think.”

In a recent phone call from the offices of “Kimmel,” Kalb downplayed the difficulty of the balancing act. “I do think it’s much harder to make people laugh than make people cry,” she said. “This is me doing my easiest material.” In an edited conversation below, Kalb talks more about her grandmother, grief and the serious responsibility of channeling a family member.

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Book jacket for "Nobody Will Tell You This but Me," by Bess Kalb.
(Knopf)

While you were writing this, did you have a battle of instincts as a comedy writer? Did you feel compelled to make it funnier?

I think she was so hysterically funny. If anything, it was her trying to undercut the emotion of my writing. There are times when I was worried that the book was steering into sentimental, potentially saccharine territory, and the character — the narrator — would pull me back, sort of mocking me as I was writing it. Which really is, you know, a ventriloquist-dummy-punches-the-puppeteer kind of exercise. I do realize it was just me — and that’s not at all to compare my beloved grandmother to a puppet.

I feel like she would definitely call you out on that.

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Absolutely. If there was anyone who could deliver a line that would just level me with an arched eyebrow and full awareness of how deeply funny and bitingly witty she was, it’s Bobby Bell. Often I let her comedy instincts guide mine, both in general and specifically in this book.

You incorporate a lot of remembered phone calls and conversations. How long did you know you wanted to tell her story?

My grandmother was my muse for as long as I was a writer. The first book I wrote was when I was 9 years old at my elementary school’s publishing center: “The Life Story of Bobby Bell.” And it was clearly dictated to me over the phone. There are words that I never used that she used all the time. You know, “Bobby Bell was married in a gorgeous dress.” My parents excavated it from storage recently and it made me realize I’ve basically been writing this book my whole life, thanks to her.

Bobby Bell as a teenage.
(From Bess Kalb)
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You interviewed family members for this. How did they respond?

Oh certainly [they went] along with it — I hope, unless as with many families, once I leave the room everyone rolls their eyes and mocks me for it. My mom was my most important reader, but she held off from reading the book for a very long time, even though she supplied me with many of the crucial stories and a lot of fact-checking. I just thought she didn’t think I was a very good writer, but it turns out she had tried and said “that’s grandma,” and threw the book down at page one. [She only read it] when I was like, “Mom, I just don’t want you to sue me.”

With the book nearly out there, do you have any anxiety about what you’ve revealed?

It just occurred to me recently that a lot of people are going to know a lot of things about my marriage. As much as the book is a love letter to my grandma, it’s also this tacit love letter to my husband. One arc of the book, certainly the most comedic part, follows my grandma counseling me about this guy I’m dating in college, who is now the father of my child. It did occur to me that it’s going to make our lives slightly more public. I guess what better place to apologize to him than in the L.A. Times? (Laughs.) Sorry, babe.

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One exchange with your grandmother that stuck out to me is when you were at the Met as a child and she asked you to count the women artists -- and there was only one. Were there a lot of those moments?

Oh, yeah, my grandma was an ardent feminist and activist. She was raised by a socialist union organizer, who stood on milk crates in Union Square in New York and rabble-roused for the [greater] good. And that’s in my grandma’s DNA, and I hope in mine. I try to follow in her footsteps in every way. I will never be as glamorous or fashionable — I’m sitting here in flannel and Converse. I’m a comedy writer. But I feel her spirit in everything I do, politically.

A lot of the book is spent building this beautiful character, but so much of it is about grief. Did you feel like this helped you confront your loss?

I think that writing this memoir was a way to cope with [it]. It was a way to say goodbye to her in the only way I know how, which is writing. I felt closer to her than I had in years, including when she was alive — I was able to try and inhabit her mind — but at the same time, it made me profoundly aware of the loss. Because the only reason I was writing this was because I couldn’t talk to her. There was this dual feeling of closeness and distance that resulted in me crying and eating a lot of yogurt at my laptop.


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