Alan Zweibel was an original Saturday Night Live writer. He was the co-creator and producer of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He’s won multiple Emmy and Writers Guild awards, written 11 books and Tony-winning Broadway plays, and created a few films and TV shows.
Sure, you’re saying. But what has he done for us lately?
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For starters, he’s rolled up those decades of comedy experiences into a memoir, Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier (Abrams Press), featuring a foreword by Billy Crystal. He’s also awaiting a movie he co-wrote and co-produced with Crystal titled Here Today that stars Crystal and Tiffany Haddish. And, of course, he’s out promoting his memoir.
Laugh Lines details a remarkable writing career. Starting with providing one-liners to aging Catskills comics, Zweibel takes us through his interactions with the original SNL creators (including, most prominently, Gilda Radner, his best friend and subject of his bestselling book) and his time with Shandling, another critically hailed effort.
The book covers the general highs and lows, all of it is told with deep personal insight into the boldface names he’s worked with over the years, and with honesty shown about the times those relationships and his own projects didn’t turn out perfectly.
Zweibel answered a few questions from Deadline about the state of comedy and writing.
DEADLINE: You’ve worked in Hollywood and New York. Do you believe the Herman Mankiewicz statement that “Millions are to be grabbed out here (Hollywood) and your only competition is idiots” is true? Was it ever?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: There are idiots everywhere. Hollywood. New York. My guess is there are even a handful of idiots in Montana. The trick, however, is to avoid them as much as possible. And the idiots you can’t avoid? Well, tell them what they want to hear and then mumble the word “Idiot” as you walk away from them. And if they overhear you? Not a problem. They’ll think you’re talking about someone else because they’re, well, they’re idiots.
DEADLINE: While you acknowledge in your book that your voice wouldn’t fit today, are you worried that comedy has become too PC?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: I’m certainly not alone by holding the belief that this PC business is choking the life out of comedy. The hypersensitivity that certain people possess as to what is offensive is beyond good sense. Wasn’t it more fun when everyone made fun of everyone else and then we all went out to eat afterwards? Comedy is about things that are imperfect – and that includes our differences. Tie our hands by making things off limits and the irony is that you’re being even more divisive.
DEADLINE: Do you feel you’ve gotten funnier as you got older? Or is it like with athletes, that you lose something as you age?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: As you age, it’s often a different kind of funny when you stay true to who you are and write from that place. As much as I still love SNL and watch it religiously, I couldn’t write for it these days because I would probably sound like an older man trying to figure out what would make the kids laugh and ring out as fraudulent. On the other hand, Billy Crystal and I just finished a movie we co-wrote that he directed and stars in with Tiffany Haddish called “Here Today.” It’s a script that neither of us could have written ten years ago because our life experiences did not include the situation Billy’s character was in – a man losing his grip on reality who wants to finish a book he’s writing about his deceased wife before his words are gone. While the initial scenes with Tiffany are really funny, as their relationship grows and Billy’s character’s problems become more severe, the humor takes on a different tone. And it was only because Billy and I had family members who were experiencing the onset of dementia that we were able to write those scenes where the humor had an appropriate tenor .
DEADLINE: What will happen to comedy if there are no comedy clubs, if the pandemic takes its toll?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: The world of stand-up will suffer if there are no places to develop. To experiment. To fail. Same with improv. These clubs and small theaters are sandlots where presentation is honed, and where words are arranged and rearranged before settling on their order. A place where audiences are a vital particpant in the process by immediately letting you know when your efforts are succeeding. Since this cannot be done in a vacuum. If these places disappear I fear that young performers will have no choice but to go door to door to hone their craft, which can be annoying for all involved.
DEADLINE: Why are there taboos in comedy?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: Okay, maybe there are. But I think they’re subjective. What is morally corrupt to one person may not be offensive to another for the reason I stated in Question #6 which I answered before addressing this one. So I beg you, please don’t make me repeat myself. I have a crowded life with lots of other stuff to do
DEADLINE: Has a joke ever offended you? What was the general subject if “yes.” If not, is it because of your understanding of the process of creating something intended for laughs, or…?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: The only “offensive” jokes that have actually offended me are the ones that were written poorly. For me, it’s not the subject but its execution. When I was with SNL, Michael O’Donoghue wrote some of the most “offensive” jokes I’ve ever heard (ie. Professor Backwards being stabbed to death because no one responded to his cries of “Pleh! Pleh!”) but they were so brilliantly structured you found yourself laughing.
DEADLINE: We’ve granted you the power to pick five people for SNL from anywhere in time, the only rule being that they have never appeared before or written for the show. Who do you pick and why?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: Dorothy Parker – writer – Would love to hear what she’d have to say about what’s going on in today’s world.
Harpo Marx – (actor) – Would’ve been fun to have Harpo and Gilda do some non-verbal scene together. Would also have liked to see how Harpo looked in color.
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks – Even if it’s for one guest appearance, I think that a younger audience should become familiar with the 2000 Year Old Man.
Mort Sahl – (writer/performer) – would like to see one of the greatest satirists of his (or any) do an editorial on Weekend Update .
God – (writer) – since I think that Kate Mckinnon is a gift from God, I’d be curious to see what he writes for her.
DEADLINE: How has the internet affected young writers? Old writers?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: The internet is a great place for both young and old writers to hang out and avoid actually writing for hours (even days) at a time.
DEADLINE: I was surprised that there was very little meanness in the book, even with such a nemesis as Roger Ebert. Isn’t being a little mean a prerequisite for some great comedy?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: True, meanness is a great ingredient for comedy but my book is about my adventures in the comedy world and the people I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with and that’s different. Meanness wasn’t embedded in anything I’d written. It is not a dominant character trait of mine. So while I thought that Ebert’s review of “North” was a tad over the top, I ultimately made it work for me by writing about it and actually reading that review on late night talk shows. For big laughs. It took a while to get there psychologically but in that particular case it was how I handled Ebert’s meanness that made me look better. That said, he was a bit of prick. Happy?
DEADLINE: Political humor has been around since there were politicians. But today, political humor often seems more like an angry screed than an attempt to win laughs. Do you agree?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: I agree to an extent. People’s extreme feelings are at a fever pitch because it goes beyond politics. Their reactions are about a man whose moral bankruptcy is abhorrent to all decent homo sapiens. It’s not about which side of the aisle you sit but rather about someone who, every time he’s given an opportunity to show he has even a scintilla of humanity, never fails to appall. This is not necessarily political humor – it is a venting of outrage.
DEADLINE: You live in New Jersey, but still feel compelled to be known as a “New York writer.” Can people only be funny if they live in NY or LA?
ALAN ZWEIBEL: Being a NY writer is not a matter of geography as much as it’s a mindset. And that mindset can exist anywhere you live – it’s simply easier to be funnier if you’re surrounded by funny people. Although, I do wish there were a few more funny people living in New Jersey so I wouldn’t have to pay so much money in tolls driving across the George Washington Bridge or through the Lincoln Tunnel as often as I do.