Janis Hirsch has spent years in sitcom writers rooms trying to make people laugh. But her next screen contribution might very well bring a tear to your eye.
At 13, the writer-producer — who has worked on such shows as “Frasier,” “Will & Grace” and “Murphy Brown” — was among more than 800,000 people who wrote letters of condolence to first lady Jackie Kennedy in the immediate wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, with 2 million received overall. Much to Hirsch’s surprise, a few years ago she heard from Ellen Fitzpatrick, who was assembling a book titled “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.”
The project, now subtitled “Remembering President Kennedy,” has been turned into a TLC special by Amblin Television, and Hirsch’s is among the letters featured in the Nov. 17 telecast.
“I got this call asking, ‘Are you Janis Hirsch from Trenton, New Jersey?’ ” says the writer, whose first thought upon hearing a stranger reference her home town was that it was some long-lost friend, relative or casual acquaintance soliciting her help to pitch her a script.
Diagnosed with polio when she was 10 months old, Hirsch underwent four surgeries as a child. “I am now recuperating from a broken hip,” she wrote in longhand to the first lady, “so I will tell you my remedy for smiling and happiness. Always sing, ‘You Gotta Have Heart’ from ‘Damn Yankees.’ ”
This being 1963, Hirsch didn’t save a copy of her letter. But she did receive an acknowledgement of its receipt from the White House.
In conjunction with the special — which producer-director Bill Couturie culled down to 20 letters, from the 220 in Fitzpatrick’s book — Hirsch participated in a panel at the Kennedy Library. Her parents were Democrats, she said, but she remembered thinking of Kennedy as her “TV dad.”
Hirsch recalls developing a love of musicals as a child, and trying to keep her mother’s spirits up during her frequent hospital stays. Asked if that played a role in her career, Hirsch says she didn’t know she wanted to write, but after seeing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” “It became sort of a search to see what could make me feel that good.”
As for reconnecting with this seemingly lost gesture of grief and kindness so many years later, Hirsch describes the whole experience as an unexpected gift. “I’ve fallen down this wonderful rabbit hole,” she says.
One that leads all the way back to Camelot.