BWW Interviews: Alan Zweibel - Enjoying a Multi-Course Career Seasoned with Friendship
Alan Zweibel with students left, and below right, in CELEBRITY AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By Lauren Yarger
Alan Zweibel will tell you that his success as a comedy writer is more the result of luck than of talent – of fortune placing him in the right place at the right time and providing great friends who have helped him along the way.
That might be part of the recipe for a career seasoned with success across genres, but if you spend any time chatting with this comic genius, you’ll get a taste of his secret ingredient: he’s a really nice guy -- and that opens doors. The multiple Emmy winner, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award by the Writers Guild, East in 2010, talks about having friends like Billy Crystal, Larry David or Gilda Radner and in the same breath, can listen patiently as a wannabe writer runs a really bad idea by him for a TV sitcom. The blend of genius and kindness is a rare combination in this industry.
Zweibel shrugs off the praise, insisting that he is just happy to give back a little. He remembers what it was like to be a young kid with dreams and now, he is in a position to help others realize theirs. After calling me to give a heads up that his cab was running late (believe me, lesser known, less nice celebrities wouldn’t have bothered), Zweibel arrived, casually dressed in jeans, at the famed Friar’s Club in New York for an interview to discuss his latest projects and to reflect on his 40-year-career.
A native of Brooklyn, Zweibel had dreamed about becoming a comedy writer ever since he was 12 when TV’s “The Dick Van Dyke Show” premiered. The show he calls “seminal” mastered likability with just enough neurosis without being weird, he said. Rob Petrie was married to Mary Tyler Moore, had a nice house in New Rochelle and told jokes for a living while lying on a couch in his Manhattan office. What wasn’t to like?
“I think I can do that,” Zweibel thought.
He delivered packages for his father, who was in the jewelry business, and the route invariably took him by way of 30 Rock (the home of NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Center).
“Those guys were doing what I wanted to do.”
At 21 he was writing jokes at $7 a pop for older comedians performing in the Catskills. He collected them all – more than 1,000 – in a notebook which he eventually handed to a guy who was looking for writers for A New Television comedy he hoped would tap the unreached baby boom market. He was Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, who hired Zweibel as one of the show’s original writers after reading just the first joke in the notebook. When Zweibel reported for work at SNL in the same lobby he had visited at 30 Rock as a kid, he knew “every dream had come true.”
At 24, Zweibel’s career took off. The only rule for the young writers at SNL was to make each other laugh, he recalls He credits friend Herb Sargent, “the grown up” writer at SNL (creator of “Weekend Update”), with being a “monster influence” on his career.
Zweibel went on to create some memorable characters for the show like Samurai for John Belushi and Roseanne Rosannadanna and Emily Litella for Gilda Radner. He collaborated on Radner’s Broadway show GILDA LIVE and chronicled his deep friendship with the actress who died of ovarian cancer in his play BUNNY, BUNNY. He also met his wife, Robin, while working at SNL (in his biography information about his works, Zweibel says the production of which he is most proud is the family of three children and two grandchildren he co-produced with her).
“It all doesn’t seem so long ago,” he said of his time wth the cutting edge SNL which now is in its 37th season, but what is considered funny has changed over time.