Alan Zweibel: Write Place, Write Time
Original SNL writer takes to the stage for historical epic
By Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado
March 2, 2007
ASPEN – Alan Zweibel never really wanted to be onstage, or even onscreen. And those occasions when he did find himself in front of an audience or a camera proved that his instincts were right: Zweibel belonged somewhere else, behind the scenes.
Appearing at comedy clubs in New York City in the early `70s proved that stand-up was not going to be his forte. “It was so sad,” Zweibel recalled of the experience. “I couldn`t wait to get offstage. There was no sense of performance.”
A few years later, his series of appearances on “Saturday Night Live” confirmed that Zweibel was best suited for an off-camera role.
“Whenever they needed a large, Jewish person, a drunk, someone going through electro-shock therapy, they`d get me out there,” he said. “I was once a corpse, lying in a f___ing coffin, but if you look real close, my hands were shaking. So pathetic.”
Fortunately, Zweibel had not been hired by “Saturday Night Live” for his acting abilities, but for his talent as a comic writer. And it is his writing that has lured Zweibel into the foreground.
Following the publication of his 2005 novel, “The Other Shulman,” Zweibel embarked on a 34-city book tour. The appearances required the author to fill an hour of time. Since he wasn`t given to telling jokes or creating characters, Zweibel talked about himself and his career. The humorous, candid speeches struck a nerve with several agents, who convinced Zweibel to join the speaker circuit. For the past year, Zweibel has joined athletes, musicians, actors and fellow authors on the roster of the Greater Talent Network.
`The History of Me`
Zweibel has spun his talk into “The History of Me,” presented as a Special Show at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. The show is scheduled Friday at 6 p.m. at the St. Regis Ballroom; it had its debut yesterday.
Zweibel sums up his career as a joy ride which has taken him from one fun-filled project to the next. “I consider myself the luckiest guy, to make a living doing things I have fun doing,” said the 56-year-old Zweibel, from his home in the northern New Jersey suburb of Short Hills. (He also lives part time in Los Angeles.) And the biggest contributing factor in that fun has been the uncommon measure of freedom Zweibel has been afforded in his career.
His start in comedy is like a dream existence from another era. As a teenager, Zweibel would borrow his parents` car and drive from the family`s Long Island home up to the Catskills. At the Jewish resorts there, he would sell jokes, for $7 a pop, to the likes of Freddie Roman and Morty Gunty. Zweibel says he sold jokes “to every Morty, Dickie or Freddie that ever lived, before I moved up to people like Rodney Dangerfield.”
Zweibel, however, had his eye not just on more prominent buyers for his jokes, but on a different type of comedy altogether. Born in 1950, Zweibel came of age in the `60s, when Lenny Bruce and George Carlin were changing the face of stand-up performance.
“I had trouble writing for,” the Mortys, Dickies and Freddies, he said, “because I didn't want to make my parents` friends laugh. We were the counterculture; we were trying to answer Alan King`s sort of comedy.”
Zweibel got a choice opportunity to be on the vanguard of that wave of comedians. In the early `70s, he appeared at the two new New York City clubs, The Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star, alongside such up-and-coming stars as Freddie Prinze, Robert Klein and Bette Midler. But in that company, Zweibel was more a falling stone than a rising star.
“Doing stand-up, it was always a proving ground, just trying to test out my jokes,” he said. “It was a cry for help, a big Jew drowning and saying, `Throw me a rope!`”
Aid came in the form of the most cutting-edge writing gig available. Zweibel was in the first crew of writers as “Saturday Night Live” – a show created when Johnny Carson decided he would take weekends off from “The Tonight Show,” and NBC executives needed a replacement. It was a new format and a new breed of comedians, and came with a sense of exploring a whole new planet under the entertainment sun.
“We were so young, a brand-new era, so new,” said Zweibel, wistfully. “It was the first job that most of us had. We didn`t even know what rules we were breaking. Lorne [Michaels, the original producer of “SNL”] said, `Let`s just make each other laugh.`”
Of the notorious partying carried out by the “SNL” cast and crew, Zweibel notes that “New York was our playground, in a way.” But tales of Belushi-style overindulgence don`t factor much in Zweibel`s “The History of Me”: “I tried to be a good boy,” he claims.
Zweibel lasted six seasons on “SNL,” through 1980, when the show had its first major turnover. Michaels left – he would return, in the mid-`80s – as did much of the cast and writing staff.
“We all felt pretty satisfied at that point,” said Zweibel. “We didn`t want to go with a new regime. There was an amount of burnout. And there were new worlds to explore.”
For Zweibel, there were several new worlds. He wrote several plays which were produced off-Broadway. He wrote magazine articles for the New Yorker, Esquire and MAD. In 1986, he returned to weekly television, and again, with an experimental format, and a feeling of flying under the corporate, even societal radar.
Lightning strikes again
Zweibel met Garry Shandling while working on Shandling`s special for Showtime. The two clicked and traded their latest ideas: Zweibel, married with two kids then, wanted to do a family show along the lines of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” but with postmodern twists like speaking directly to the camera. Shandling was contemplating a show about a single guy in Los Angeles. The two meshed their brainstorms and came up with “It`s Garry Shandling`s Show,” which broke new ground with its self-referential style.
“It was like striking lightning again,” said Zweibel, the show`s co-creator and executive producer. “I was part of the new thing, `Saturday Night Live.` And then `It`s Garry Shandling`s Show,` which was a new way of doing sitcoms — breaking the fourth wall.”
The show, which starred Shandling as himself (a neurotic comedian), featured such innovations as an opening monologue (and an occasional closing epilogue), forays into backstage, a baby-naming contest, and breaking suddenly into musical theater. The theme song — “This is the theme to Garry`s show … This is the music that you hear while you watch the credits” – was written by Zweibel and Shandling over the course of an elevator ride.
“It was like putting on a fourth-grade play every week, creating a new world each week,” said Zweibel. He credits that freedom to the fact that there was little original comedy programming on cable TV at the time. “They left us alone. The network intervention was minimal. By the time they caught on, they believed in him, and ultimately the product, enough. We were tucked in the corner; the stakes were low.” The talent level, however, was high: Zweibel`s writing crew on “It`s Garry Shandling`s Show” included Tom Gammill, Max Pross and David Mirkin (“The Simpsons”), and Ed Solomon (“Men in Black,” “Bill & Ted`s Excellent Adventure”).
Zweibel didn`t join Shandling when he made the transition from “It`s Garry Shandling`s Show” to Shandling`s similar but more successful “The Larry Sanders Show.” (“I watched the show. That was my involvement,” said Zweibel of “The Larry Sanders Show.”) Instead, Zweibel turned to novels and screenplays. Among his works for the screen were the box office hit “Dragnet” and the critical and commercial bomb “North.” (Roger Ebert`s review for “North” infamously used the word “hated” 10 times in one paragraph. Zweibel makes reference to the review in “The History of Me”: “On the surface, it looks like a bad review,” he quips.)
Of all his work, Zweibel takes particular pride in the book “Bunny Bunny,” a memoir of his friendship with Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 at 42. Zweibel attended the first U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, in 1995, for a staged reading of the book, directed by James L. Brooks. (Trivia time: On “SNL”'s “Weekend Update,” Radner always responded to letters from Richard Feder, of Fort Lee, N.J. Zweibel`s real-life brother-in-law is Richard Feder, of Fort Lee.)
Zweibel also has warm feelings for his latest novel, “The Other Shulman.” The story of a New Jersey suburbanite crawling out of middle-age malaise by training for a marathon earned the 2006 Thurber Prize for American Humor, which, to the writer`s seeming surprise, puts him in the young, hip company of Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and the writers of The Onion.
Zweibel has also seen his name in lights over Broadway recently. He co-wrote “700 Sundays,” Billy Crystal`s Tony Award-winning one-man show. He also co-wrote Martin Short`s critically acclaimed one-man show, “Fame Becomes Me.” Had the two shows not been separated in time by about a year, one of Zweibel`s great desires would have been fulfilled.
“That was a dream I had,” he said, “that there would be two shows with my name on it, and I`d be running along Broadway between the two, like a Neil Simon kind of guy.”
Zweibel will have to content himself with running between TV and theater, movies and books. In this, he will be following in the footsteps of his other heroes who wrote movies and books and plays, who were as comfortable with humor as they were with comedy.
“I`ve been very lucky in being part of things that are fun to do,” he said. “And the fact that I could do it in different forms …
“My idols were people who could do everything: Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Buck Henry. You couldn`t pigeonhole them. The material dictated where it wanted to go.”
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