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.
“You gotta keep rowing,” he said, quoting best friend Crystal, with whom Zweibel collaborated on the Tony-Award winning 700 SUNDAYS. He is working on a movie version of the work, which he says helped him reinvent himself after returning to the New York area in 2004.
If a writer wants to be employed, he or she needs to be able to write in many genres, Zweibel advised. That way, if a TV show gets cancelled, you can work on getting a book published or a play produced. At least that is what has happened in Zweibel’s experience.
SNL opened doors and after five years with the show, Zweibel had headed to California. With the help of legendary manager and another good friend Bernie Brillstein (who guided Zweibel for 30 years until his death in 2008), “lightning struck twice.” He co-created and wrote the “It’s Garry Shandling's Show” from 1986-1990.
Other successes followed including writing for numerous television shows and specials and collaborating with other best friend Larry David on HBO’s popular “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” He wrote and produced films like “The Story of Us,” and “Dragnet” (with SNL alumni Dan Aykroyd).” For the stage, he has co-written FAME BECOMES ME with Martin Short and enjoyed Off-Broadway productions of his plays BETWEEN CARS, COMIC DIALOGGE, BUNNY BUNNY, and HAPPY, which is part of a trilogy currently in development. In addition, he has written a children’s book, “Our Tree Named Steve,” and two novels, “Clothing Optional” and “The Other Shulman,” which received the 2006 Thurber Prize for humor.
Meanwhile, “Lunatics!,” his latest novel co-written with humor writer Dave Barry, just hit bookstores and has been snatched up by Universal Pictures for a movie starring Steve Carell, who produced Showtime’s new documentary series “Inside Comedy,” for which Zweibel is a creative consultant. And of course another really good friend, comedian David Steinberg, hosts.
OK, there have been a lot of successes, Zweibel admits, but ever the nice and humble guy, he insists that there “were an awful lot of foul tips too.”
His film “North,” based on his novel, for instance, received a scathing review from Roger Ebert who named it the worst film of 1994.
“Anyone who tells you they don’t care is full of shit,” Zweibel said. “It’s just a question of how much you allow it to affect you. If you can learn from it, OK, but the nature today is to be nasty. My job is to put words together and tell a story. If that doesn’t work for you, it’s not a war crime.”
Today Zweibel can laugh about the review, and even uses it as a tool when he’s speaking or teaching, but at the time, it was devastating, he said.
“If we want people to clap and pay for tickets, then we have to take this too.”
Imparting this kind of wisdom to young writers is one way Zweibel feels he can pay back for all of the good breaks he has had and for the kindnesses friends have shown him along the way.
“I wish someone like me had come along when I was a student.” (He is a graduate of the University of Buffalo.)
He recently taught a seminar on writing sitcoms at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. A group of students ranging in age from 17 to 74 gathered for the week-long program where a half-hour sitcom was created from scratch to finish. Zweibel’s “nice” quality became evident on day one when he sat patiently for hours while students suggested some of the most unlikely plots ever pitched for a television comedy.
“It’s Monday. We have nothing,” he told them. “By Friday, we’ll have something.”
Where others would have lost patience or might have just seized control of the process, Zweibel calmly listened, asked questions, offered praise where he could and gently guided the students down a road of ideas that resulted in the group’s writing, casting and filming a 22-minute pilot episode.
“It’s an intangible thing, this thing we call talent, especially if we’re in a position to teach and mentor others,” Zweibel explained. "If people look up to you, you have to be respectful of that. They have a yearning. It’s part of their DNA.”
Zweibel previously had been frustrated when he interacted with students showing him comments professors had written on their screenplays.
“They (the comments) pissed me off. They were horrible,” he said. “Writers are born, not made. We can hone the craft. We need to try to encourage someone and make a dialogue, suggesting ways to do something differently, or how to improve.”
Ever the mentor, Zweibel tapped two of the most promising students at Quinnipiac as assistant directors for the seminar. The only time he really gets annoyed with people, he confesses, is when someone asks him for advice in making it as a writer, but has no portfolio of work to show.
“Writers write,” he said, simply. Develop a sitcom, write jokes that David Letterman or Stephen Colbert might use, he suggested, but write something down.
A daily writing routine is part of Zweibel’s day. He gets up at 5:30 and writes until he’s “going on fumes” which some days might be at 7 am, he jokes.
Sometimes he even ventures out from behind the more comfortable role behind the scenes to perform. If you look closely in old SNL sketches, you can see the writer standing in as an extra from time to time, whenever they needed “a Jew, a dead person or someone needing electroshock therapy,” he quips.
“Gilda would get me a little drunk to take the edge off,” he said.
He feels more comfortable in front of the camera as himself, like on appearances on "The Late Show" with Letterman, but recently he had a role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in an improv scene where he had to perform the Heimlich on himself after choking on a pastrami sandwich. Funny stuff. He also performs in Off-Broadway’s CELEBRITY AUTOBIOGRAPHY (at the Triad) with friend Susie Essman, who also stars in "Curb"…
So goes this smorgasbord, seasoned-with-friends career. He recently began writing humor columns geared toward a post-50 audience for the Huffington Post at the urging of friend Rita Wilson.
What’s next on the plate? One-person shows for comedians and friends Lisa Lampanelli and Darrell Hammond, for starters. Lampanelli’s, with a Working Title of BRING BACK THE FAT CHICK, is quite different from her stand-up act, he said. It tells the story of how she has become who she is as a result of food struggles and other issues from her past. In readings, she has had the audience laughing and crying.
“It’s incredibly touching,” he said.
Hammond’s show is an adaptation of his autobiographical book "God, If You're Not Up There, I'm F*cked." Zweibel said he was “astounded” to uncover what lies beneath the funny man who is famous for his numerous impersonations on SNL.
“It’s a triumphant story," he said.
Zweibel also is working on a musical titled ESCALITIS with prolific TV director – and friend – Bryon Gordon, but laughs when asked if composing music also is among his talents.
“No, we’ll get a grown up to do this.”
So after a 40-year career that has produced great friends and success as a television script writer, a screenwriter, a playwright, a novelist, a performer and teacher, what is left for a multi-talented, really nice guy to do?
“I haven’t written a brochure yet,” he quips. “It’s killing me. I know I have a brochure or pamphlet in me yet.”
Visit Zweibel at http://www.alanzweibel.com.