Alan Zweibel Looks Back on Working With Gilda Radner and His Other SNL Friends

Alan Zweibel. Photo: Manny Carabel/Getty Images

As a writer on Saturday Night Live from 1975–1980, Alan Zweibel wrote and appeared onscreen as part of the show’s first few years on NBC. During season five, he was credited as a featured player, one of the first to receive this distinction. He went on to enjoy a prolific career as a screenwriter, author, showrunner, and more, co-creating the legendary It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in addition to writing the screenplays for Dragnet and North.

I recently spoke with Zweibel inside the Billy Crystal room of the New York Friars Club to discuss Love, Gilda, which is now available on Hulu and CNN. Alongside his wife, Robin, Zweibel is an executive producer of the documentary, which chronicles the life of his late friend and SNL collaborator Gilda Radner.

Radner was the godmother to Zweibel’s three children, who called her Aunt Gilda. His involvement in the documentary — contributing home movies and photos, as well as securing the participation of Martin Short and others to appear on camera — was Zweibel’s way of ensuring that Love, Gilda, directed and co-produced by Lisa D’Apolito, never became too ordinary or exploitive. The final product is a touching tribute to Radner, who played beloved SNL characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella, who were co-created and written by Zweibel.

One of my favorite moments in Love, Gilda was the segment on her relationship with John Belushi. According to Jane Curtin and others, Belushi didn’t think women were funny. How did Gilda work with someone who thought that way?
He bitched and moaned about it, but I don’t remember him ever boycotting anything. Gilda’s relationship with John, and vice versa, was they made each other laugh a lot. So John wasn’t really a problem for her. He also liked hitting her, and she liked being hit by him. If you look at some of the sketches, he would slam her and she was so physically fun; she’d go flying into a wall or onto the ground. But I can’t remember him once refusing to be in anything.

The few times I remember him insulting the women writers or saying women aren’t funny, he felt so badly that he came in with bouquets of flowers and boxes of candy.

But did he insult Gilda?
He may have. Look, it was so long ago that when he was railing against women he may’ve included her. Don’t forget: They’d worked together before; he knew who she was. He might’ve regarded her as “the girl” as it says in Love, Gilda. It was kind of like, C’mon, John, we got a show to do. He wouldn’t have been John if he didn’t act up. He was a “bad boy,” naughty.

How competitive was Gilda as a performer?
She probably had the insecurities of any performer or actor. I don’t think she had the need to be ultracompetitive because she had her own niche on the show. Of the three women, Jane Curtin did certain roles, Laraine [Newman] did certain roles, and Gilda did certain roles. I can’t remember any time she said to me, “I wish I did that,” “I wish they’d given me that role.” She was very well serviced by me, by [SNL writers] Rosie Shuster and Anne Beatts, by Marilyn Miller. She had a luxury there that she’d be taken care of.

Gilda’s last TV appearance was on your show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Was she nervous about appearing?
A little bit. Before she decided she was going to do it, she was worried the studio audience wouldn’t recognize her. We weren’t going to bill her. She was a surprise — she came through the door, “Hey, everybody! It’s Gilda Radner!” They had no idea.

She said to me that her comedy was her only defense against “the fucker,” meaning the cancer. And she asked me to make cancer funny. We wrote a bunch of jokes, which you see in the Shandling show. Garry and I wrote some, but Gilda engineered those, since we didn’t want to overstep bounds.

But the moment she came through the door during dress rehearsal, all the butterflies were gone. When we did the real show, she was fine. She was excited, fueled by what she was getting back from the audiences. It had been many, many years. She’d had cancer and, before that, the movies, where you don’t have an audience. She died in ’89, and we filmed the show in ’87 or ’88. She left SNL in ’80 and had done a Broadway show with Mike Nichols and Sam Waterston called Lunch Hour in maybe ’80 or ’81. So it’d been seven or eight years.

She appeared on Lorne Michaels’s The New Show, where you were a writer, in between that span.
She did an appearance; she wasn’t a regular on it.

I haven’t been able to watch it. It doesn’t seem to be online anywhere.
You’re lucky. God forbid you find that fucking thing. She did a segment that Pat Birch did. Pat was the premium Broadway choreographer who did Gilda and Steve Martin’s dancing across the studio floor. She choreographed a piece because it was the Winter Olympics. Kevin Kline and Gilda played two ice skaters who showed up to compete in the couples’ competition, but they forgot their skates in the hotel room, so they did it on their socks. It’s really funny.

It’s weird you can’t find The New Show. It’s one of those shows, for the most part, that people leave off their résumé. [Laughs.] We were able to do pretaped stuff, but it just didn’t work. We were all too into the SNL-live kind of thing, and we were caught somewhere in between.

Were there any projects or movies you discussed with Gilda that the two of you were never able to make?
After she did It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, she felt healthy. We thought she was in remission. And Michael Fuchs, then-president of HBO, wanted to give her a series that Garry and I would create. I have the notes somewhere at home. We met two or three times — Gilda, Shandling, and I. She was going to play the star of a variety show, à la Carol Burnett. And you’d see her at the office, at the show, and at home. What her life was.

So like Larry Sanders?
In a way. I don’t think we got as far as the name. It was all about the concept. But Gilda, after a few meetings, the cancer caught up with her and she couldn’t do it anymore. So that was in the works.

I was one of ten writers who wrote Gilda Live. And I had written a movie for her that almost got made at Fox in 1980 or so. She helped me write her part. It was called Duffy. It was my first screenplay and came very close to being made. Even to this day, when I write for certain women, characters, I’ll write for Gilda, though she’s been dead 30 years. Prototypically I want her to have these traits: cute, physical, have her own wisdom, vulnerability. I’ll write it for Gilda, then see who plays it now.

I wanted to ask you about Dragnet, which you co-wrote with Dan Aykroyd. Pep Streebeck is one of the weirdest names …
It came from Aykroyd. Most of the names in that came from him. Danny wrote a couple drafts while I was doing It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. He called me up and says, “Do you want to rewrite this for me?”

And did he know you were a Jack Webb fan?
No, there was no history, no Dragnet nexus. He wanted to collaborate with me. We had good experiences when we were at SNL. I was living in L.A. at the time. I read this script. There are names in there: “the virgin Connie Swail” … I didn’t do any of that. What the fuck? “Pep Streebeck” — this is the way Danny thinks.

He had a bungalow on the Universal lot, this was sort of winter for L.A. He had a fireplace … He would take logs the size of my car and throw them in there, and we’d write. But we wrote most of it in Martha’s Vineyard, his house there. Because Danny’s Danny, it’s like I was living with Jack Webb for a couple weeks. He had the voice and we just wrote. He was the engine; I was just hanging on.

Some pockets of the internet are still fascinated with “City of Crime,” the rap song Aykroyd performs with Tom Hanks. How did that come about?
I didn’t see the movie until it was in theaters, so when it started, and the rap song came on? I’d expected to be hearing [the iconic Dragnet theme]. But then there’s a shift, I nearly got whiplash. “What the fuck? What’s this all about?”

Love, Gilda mentions that Gilda dated Dan Aykroyd and Brian Doyle-Murray in addition to Bill. Is that why they weren’t in the documentary?
I highly doubt it. You’d have to ask the director. My guess is the scar tissue has mostly … it was a gazillion years ago.

Given these backstage relationships, was it ever awkward, or was there tension from a work perspective?
The only one I was aware of was Bill [at the time]. She and Billy were on again, off again. All the other stuff predated SNL.

Was her relationship with Bill Murray serious?
Serious enough. They weren’t engaged; they didn’t get married. It says in the movie he had another girlfriend, which bothered her. I was usually the last to know this shit. I was that guy.

I had no idea she’d dated Martin Short in Toronto.
Well, Marty I knew about because they’d lived together. That was our initial commonality: We’d both had relationships with Gilda. I first heard about Martin Short from Gilda.

I’ve heard Gilda was scheduled to host SNL in 1988, before the WGA strike truncated season 13. Were you going to return to write for her then?
This is the first I’ve heard of it! So I guess not.

But you’ve guest-written since leaving the show.
I did it three times back then. I did it when Shandling hosted, I did it when Eddie Murphy hosted, and for some reason they called me in when Jesse Jackson hosted. [How I connect] to Jesse Jackson? I have no fucking idea.

What was your connection to Eddie?
When Jean Doumanian took over the show [in 1980], for some reason Eddie called and introduced himself and said, “Please come write for the show.” I didn’t want to. When he came back to host [in 1984], how I’m sure it worked, it might’ve been Ebersol’s idea and Eddie said, “Yeah.” It’s not like Eddie called me.

Eddie was really, really funny. It was around Christmas time. We were looking out the 17th-floor window of the producer’s — it’s Lorne’s office but then it was [Dick] Ebersol’s. We’re looking at maybe the lighting of the tree; I know we were looking at the skating rink. And Eddie had just done Beverly Hills Cop. I’m standing next to him, looking at the crowd below, and he says, “You know how popular I am right now? If I jump out of this window, they’ll come see me.” I said, “Why do I think if I jumped out the window, they’d do the same thing?”

He was really young and I marveled at how versatile he was. I saw him a few years later, when Garry and I were looking to cast It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. We went to, I want to say, the Comedy Store. I don’t know if he’d already recorded Raw or was about to. But he did a lot of the material that night. He was doing this stuff about Cosby calling him. I went backstage afterward and Eddie had a posse now. I had to go through three people just to see him. I finally got into his dressing room and he said, “Boy you gained weight!” I said, “Great, I went through all of that to be insulted like this.”

Another favorite moment in Love, Gilda was the behind-the-scenes footage with Gilda singing at a restaurant before your wedding.
A week before the wedding. Sammy’s Roumanian downtown on Chrystie Street. It still exists. It’s one of those restaurants where the waiters get up and sing. Gilda couldn’t come to the actual wedding because she was doing Gilda Live in Chicago that Saturday night. So the preceding Sunday, we rented the restaurant and had a pre-wedding or engagement party.

Who else was there?
Art Garfunkel, Tom Schiller, Paul Shaffer, [Al] Franken, Michael O’Donoghue.

Did you get along with O’Donoghue?
I got along with him really well. I was scared shitless not to. He was unlike anybody I’d ever met — brilliant, so dark. We did some speaking engagements together, so we’d spend time together. I think we both were amazed a creature like the other existed. So there was something very anthropological about it.

Do you ever visit SNL now?
When I’m a guest on talk shows in the building, I’ll go up to 8H and say hi to anyone who’s still there from when I was. It isn’t a whole helluva lot! [However] there’s a kinship that we all feel, even if we weren’t there at the same time … Now if we worked with each other, obviously the bond is greater. It’s the same war stories and everything. When you run into any sort of alum, it’s like you’re from the same neighborhood in a way, even if they moved into your house.

You wrote many of Gilda’s classic appearances on “Weekend Update.” What did you think of Emma Stone’s take on Roseanne Roseannadanna during SNL 40?
I thought it was a nice homage. I got off more on the fact that such a young woman was influenced by something that happened so many years before she was born. I didn’t look at it technically; I just took in the spirit of it.

Talking SNL and Gilda Radner With Alan Zweibel