August 26, 2020

Alan Zweibel on the Highs and Lows of a Life in Laughter

COMIC RELIEF: Writer Alan Zweibel, shown at right with late comedian Garry Shandling, will talk about his book “Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier” in an online appearance sponsored by the Jewish Center Princeton on August 31.

By Anne Levin

Growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, Alan Zweibel loved to make his sister, Franny, laugh. He also loved to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show on television and fantasize about becoming a comedy writer like Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie, when he grew up.

After several stops and starts including an ill-fated attempt to become a law student, and some failed stabs at standup comedy, he landed the comedy-writing job of a lifetime — on the original staff of Saturday Night Live (SNL).

Zweibel will appear in a Zoom event sponsored by The Jewish Center of Princeton on Monday, August 31, at 7:30 p.m. Email to RSVP.

Zweibel’s account of those early years working on the television show are only part of what makes his recently released memoir Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier, so appealing. The book touches on events in his life before, during, and after the five years he spent at SNL.

Some of his descriptions of writing jokes for aging Catskills comedians are laugh-out-loud funny. But Zweibel is also frank about his experiences with depression after a low point in his career, and heartfelt in his memories of fellow SNL member Gilda Radner, who was his best friend, and for whom he wrote a book and a play. Radner died of ovarian cancer at 42.

Speaking by phone from his home in Cliffside Park last week, Zweibel said he is continually amazed at readers’ reactions to “The Catskills Comic” chapter in the book.

“No matter how old the reader is, they seem to love that section and point it out,” he said. “They’re interested in SNL and Curb [Curb Your Enthusiasm] and 700 Sundays [comedian Billy Crystal’s one-man Broadway show which Zweibel co-wrote], but as a section, it’s the one they mention. It just goes to show you that funny is funny. I know it’s a cliche, but you can be young or old, and certain jokes are just funny.”

Zweibel and Crystal, who also lived on Long Island with his parents, used to drive into Manhattan in Crystal’s old Volkswagen to try their luck at comedy clubs like Catch a Rising Star. While Crystal was a hit, Zweibel was not. Going on stage was, for him, a means to an end. “I didn’t want to be a comic. I just stood there and recited my jokes,” he said. “It was pretty bad.”

After one particularly disastrous stand-up attempt in May 1975, Zweibel was sitting, dejected, at the bar waiting for Crystal to finish his spot so they could head home to Long Island. “I just couldn’t make six drunks from Des Moines laugh about the Chassidic orgy I said I’d gone to,” he writes in the book. A young man with longish hair sat next to him and started staring at him and wouldn’t stop. “Finally, when I asked him what he wanted, he proceeded to tell me that I was one of the worst comics he’d ever seen. ‘But your material isn’t bad,’ he added. ‘Did you write it?’

The man was Lorne Michaels, scouting talent for the new TV show, Saturday Night Live, that he was putting together. “Lorne was underwhelmed by my performance,” Zweibel said last week. “But he liked what I had to say. I had no idea what I was getting into. How could I know? It was this new show at an ungodly hour. I was just happy I was given a job. But when I started to learn about who the other people were, I knew it was something new and different.”

After SNL, Zweibel went on to co-create It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and was a consulting producer on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. He collaborated with Crystal on 700 Sundays, and they worked together on the upcoming movie Here Today, which co-stars Crystal and Tiffany Haddish. Novels, plays, and additional films are also on his resume.

What is clear is that Zweibel loves to write. Crafting novels and coming up with comedic material are “night and day,” he said. “When you’re collaborating, whether it’s with a team of writers on a TV show or one other person, it’s social. There’s a synergy there. To write a novel — on one hand, it’s torturous. But if you’re inspired, it’s a very fascinating form of writing. Because you can get into the eternal life of your characters. Some things are just meant to be personal. Look at Philip Roth —  he couldn’t have collaborated. If you strike a good note, the characters start to take on a life of their own. They inform you how they want to behave. It’s the greatest joy in the world, like you’ve created a world.”

Zweibel feels an affinity with his fellow comics and writers who come from Long Island like Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Carol Leifer, and, from a younger generation, Judd Apatow. “It was just something about the culture of our parents’ generation,” he said. “The parents moved there from Brooklyn and Queens. It was a new world for them. We were all cut from the same cloth, I guess. We laughed at the same stuff. Funny is just funny.”