In the months since TV comedy writer Bess Kalb’s first book, Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told To Me) Story was published, this unconventional portrait of her grandmother has become a runaway hit.
Bobby Bell was a character—scrappy, opinionated, doting, and full of advice, which she often imparted to her granddaughter via voicemail. The voicemail messages, all of which Kalb has kept, are brief but pointed and often hilarious, as Kalb’s grandmother punctuates her concerns over lipstick, dresses, men, or careers with a snappy ending about the high boredom rating of whichever far-away city Kalb is moving to. Was Bobby really like that?
“Oh, yeah!” Kalb says. “The phone gave her a buffer, she had a lot of license. I think she used her voicemail as a strategic tool to get her point across without any backtalk from me. She could speak directly into the phone and hang up and she would have the last word. When we would speak, inevitably, I would call back, I’d say, ‘Hi Grandma, I got your message…No, I’m not going to take this advice,’ and then we’d have it out, but she at least got to say her piece.”
Bobby was a big part of Kalb’s daily life from the start. “We were very, very close,” Kalb says. “My mom went back to work very shortly after giving birth to me. My grandma really stepped in to help raise me.” Bobby shared her love of fashion, reading and culture with her young granddaughter and took her to art museums, where they discussed the paintings—and the underrepresentation of women painters—in detail.
When Bobby became ill for the last time and passed away in her 90s, Kalb says she was “a little bit in denial” because her grandmother had always been so resilient. In the year of grieving that followed, Kalb listened to her grandmother’s voicemails again and started writing out her memories. The book started as a 30-page trial balloon, a mix of their humorous phone conversations and longer, more complicated family stories, but with a twist—Kalb wrote them as though her grandmother were telling them to her.
Most of the publicity for Nobody Will Tell You This But Me has focused on its humor, but the family lore, spanning four generations of women, contains good times and bad, some poignant and even grim moments from Bobby’s childhood in working-class Brooklyn, her mother’s childhood escape from the pogroms, and her own difficult relationship with her daughter.
“She was uproariously funny, but there would be times when she told me about hardships or mistakes she made, and I would be floored,” says Kalb.
She researched these stories with the help of her mother and grandfather, who gave her their own recollections, and her mother also interviewed older relatives to get details of Bobby’s childhood with four much older brothers. “She was their pet. Growing up, I felt like I knew them…Those were stories my grandma loved to tell, and I realize she was doing that to keep them alive for her, and they’re alive for me because of it.”
The unflinching realism is also essential, she says, and characteristic of her grandmother. “You know, I didn’t want to paint a story of my grandmother as this perfect person; she’s a real person. And part of the reason why she and I were so close is she needed this do-over for how distant she was as a mother.”
To retell the family stories, Kalb says, “I had to extrapolate from what I knew to build scenes and moments, but the facts were all there. So I had, ‘The shirt ripped,’ but to figure out [how she felt]…She was inside my head and I had to get inside her head.”
Her ability to balance the drama and humor in her grandmother’s life comes from long training, first as a journalist with outlets such as WIRED magazine and then as a comedy writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live.
She says she was always writing comedy sketches as a kid, but “I started writing for television after spending years as a journalist and having sort of a secret life on Twitter writing jokes for my friends. I developed a small but enthusiastic following on Twitter, people with jobs doing real comedy, and they were very supportive. There was this idea in the back of my mind for several years, ‘Maybe I could do this for a living.’”
The book tells another version in which, appropriately, her grandmother gets the credit. While she’s still writing for WIRED, she gets a voicemail from Bobby, who prods her to “ask your friend Nell” and try for a job in television.
“My grandma just really wanted me to be happy and knew this thing I was doing on the side really made me tick…It represented the kid that she had always seen cracking jokes, writing plays, this irreverent child—and maybe this could translate to something that had health insurance attached to it.”
It worked. Kalb contacted “my mentor and idol, Nell Scovell,” who wrote for The Simpsons. “She was a wonderful mentor for women writers.” In 2012, Kalb joined Jimmy Kimmel Live to write jokes and sketches for Kimmel’s nightly monologue. “I was hired during the Obama-Romney election campaigns, a lifetime ago. We wrote individually about the topics we were covering for that night’s show and gave them to the head writer. You would see what got picked that day and live to see another day.” In 2016 her writing team won an Emmy for their work.
Impersonating her grandmother was a risk, but Kalb’s grandfather loved the book. “He was very thankful because it’s the way it is, bringing her back to him. He was handing it out in his building; he wanted it to do well also. ‘Here’s what I love, what a tribute, what a testament!—How’s it doing on the bestseller list?’”
The men in Kalb’s book appear mostly in supporting roles. “I really wanted to keep this as a matrilineal love story between three generations of women,” she says. The Russian nesting doll pictured on the book cover is part of that. “The idea of the nesting dolls is to say that one woman contains another woman contains another woman. Taking a bird’s eye view, it’s like a sliced tree, like rings of time…If nothing else, people go, ‘Oh, is that a cinnamon roll on the cover?’”
Kalb left Jimmy Kimmel Live this spring to be head writer for a new comedy show. “I left right after lock down. My goodbye party was over Zoom,” she says. She’s currently juggling the new show, “also happening remotely,” with raising her 1-year-old, and if that weren’t enough, she’s already sold the movie rights to Nobody Will Tell You This But Me and is now writing the screenplay for it.
Bess Kalb will be presenting Nobody Will Tell You This But Me live online Sunday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Federation’s 2020 Jewish Book Festival.
For more information, book purchases and to register for this event, go to www.jewishsgpv.org/jewish-book-festival.
Deborah Noble is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.