Comedy writer Alan Zweibel spent a short time in his early career on stage doing standup at clubs, but his words have gone on to reach audiences on a much larger scale through his work in film and TV. The multiple Emmy-winning writer was a member of the original writing staff for "Saturday Night Live," where he formed a lifelong friendship with late comedian Gilda Radner, about whom he later wrote a book, "Bunny Bunny," that was adapted into a Broadway play.
Likewise, he and Billy Crystal have always had a close working relationship and friendship as they came up together in TV and film, teaming up on numerous projects, including Crystal's Tony-winning Broadway show "700 Sundays."
From theater to TV to film, he has collaborated with everyone from David Letterman and Martin Short to writing (and an acting cameo) with Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and co-creating "It's Garry Shandling's Show" with comedian and dear friend, the late Garry Shandling.
Zweibel's most recent film, 2021's "Here Today," which he co-wrote with Crystal, and starred Crystal and Tiffany Haddish, was inspired by a charity auction lunch date with Zweibel that went spectacularly wrong.
He recently published a memoir, "Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People be Funnier," and is currently working on a film adaptation of director Barry Sonnenfeld's memoir as well as a film adaptation of "Lunatics," a book that Zweibel co-wrote with humor columnist Dave Barry. Zweibel also is finishing up work on another book.
He shares some memorable moments from his career Jan. 22 in an evening at the Oshman Family JCC.
This news organization spoke with Zweibel about his career and some of the memories he captures in "Laugh Lines." This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Palo Alto Weekly: You started your career writing jokes for comedians working at the resorts in New York's Catskill mountains. What drew you to writing comedy for a living?
Alan Zweibel: I wanted to be a TV comedy writer, even as a boy. I used to watch the 'Dick Van Dyke Show' with my parents. It was this good-looking guy in a nice house in New Rochelle who is married to Mary Tyler Moore, he had a family. At the office all he did for work was lying on a couch joking around with Buddy and Sally, and I thought, 'Gee, I want to do that.' And I didn't know how to do it. There was no there was no internet — it was a different world back then. When I graduated college, I learned that writing jokes for the Catskill guys was, just was prior to my arrival, an entree into TV writing, because when the Catskills were enjoying their heyday, to write for Red Buttons and Alan King and Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Totie Fields — that generation — once those comedians became famous and got their own TV shows, they took their writers with them. So I thought, okay, that's the route that I would go. Then it didn't work out because by the time I got there in the early '70s, the Catskills were not the breeding grounds anymore. But I started writing jokes because I was given the opportunity to do so. I thought that that was a baby step towards the biggest thing.
Palo Alto Weekly: In a way it was, because then that led you to standup, which led you to SNL?
Zweibel: It was a means to an end. I got tired of the Catskill guys. I knew that there weren't going to be any movie or TV executives looking to get the guys who were basically the also-rans and also they were twice my age. I didn't want to write jokes (like) "My wife won't sleep with me because she just had her hair done." I took the jokes those guys wouldn't buy from me and I had a plan to get up at some of the showcase clubs in New York, like the Improvisation and Catch A Rising Star, tell my jokes with the hopes that a manager or an agent would come in and like my material and want to represent me to get a job writing television. One night Lorne Michaels came in. He liked my material. I had a meeting with him a few days later, because he was looking for actors and writers for this new show that would be called "Saturday Night Live." I typed up 1,100 jokes and gave him the binder, and he liked my material and he gave me a job on this brand new show.
Palo Alto Weekly: What was it like to work on SNL in the early days?
Zweibel: It was great. It was a prolonged adolescence. We worked in the RCA building — 30 Rock — which was very corporate. Here we are in our jeans and flannels, and tube socks that don't exactly match. The only rule that Lorne had was: let's make each other laugh. If we make each other laugh, we'll put it on television. So it was very, very freeform. We made friendships that last to this very day.
Gilda (Radner) and I became especially close and she and I created a few characters for her. She became the godmother of our three children (with wife, Robin Zweibel). When she got sick, her last TV appearance was on a show that I co-created called "It's Garry Shandling's Show." So I look back at those years with incredible fondness.
Palo Alto Weekly: The subtitle of your book "Laugh Lines" is "helping funny people be funnier." As a writer, how do you channel like the voice of each comedian that you're working with?
Zweibel: When I got out of college ... I knew I wanted to write scripts, and I wanted to have different voices. So I made up an exercise where I say, "Okay, this week, the subject is buying a house." So on Monday I would write a monologue as if Rodney Dangerfield was talking about buying a house, on Tuesday as if Joan Rivers was, on Wednesday as if Robert Klein was, and by the end of the week I had five different monologues about the same subject. When I write for all these different people, if we find the same things funny enough, (even) if I didn't capture their voice but put something in their mouths that they feel comfortable saying, that's what it is.
Palo Alto Weekly: You've been part of so many successful collaborations. What would you say are the secrets to a good partnership?
Zweibel: Well, one and one equals three: it's about the product. I have to check my ego at the door. If I'm writing for somebody – if I'm writing for Billy Crystal, in "700 Sundays" — it's his life. He's the one who's talking about. So even if I think that there's a joke that he should do, or some dialogue, or not even funny stuff, he should do, if he's not comfortable doing it, he won't be able to deliver it with conviction. So I'll say to him or whoever it is I'm writing with, "All right, look, this is the reason that I have this paragraph. Maybe the paragraph doesn't work for you, but if the intent is something you agree with, let's figure out another way to say it." It's about the product; it has nothing to do with pride. It has nothing to do with who has more lines in it. It's about the work.
Palo Alto Weekly: What can audiences expect from your show?
Zweibel: I love doing these shows because I tell them who I am, I make them laugh. I'll also make them cry a little bit when I (talk about Gilda). The Q&A's are always very interesting because they lead to anecdotes that I don't even think about while delivering my talk. Then there will be a book-signing afterwards and if (audiences) want to talk or schmooze, I'm there for that too. I love coming out from behind the laptop to be human beings again, especially now after a couple of years. These were all Zooms and now to have a live audience, what a pleasure.
An Evening with Alan Zweibel takes place Jan. 22, 7 p.m. at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Tickets are $65. Best suited for ages 15 and up. For more information, visit paloaltojcc.org.