The career of Alan Zweibel is also a mini-history of 20th-century comedy. He got his start selling one-liners piecemeal to the last of the Borscht Belt comics. After a failed attempt at stand-up, he wrote for Saturday Night Live in the ’70s, co-created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, wrote some movies and a play, and then moved on to prose, including the award-winning humor novel The Other Shulman, and now his memoir, Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier. Zweibel was often in the room where the classic comedy happened, so here are some of the most amusing and shocking experiences he details in the book.
He helped Gilda Radner humiliate Woody Allen.
At SNL, Zweibel often worked with Gilda Radner, and while they stayed close friends until her death, they’d fight over sketches on a weekly basis, with Radner savagely and thoroughly editing most anything Zweibel had written for her. “By the time we saw each other at the after-party, Gilda and I wouldn’t be talking to each other,” Zweibel writes. They’d usually make up sometime on the Sunday after an SNL episode.
At a brunch full of celebrity guests one week, Radner tried to make up with Zweibel by making him laugh from across the room. She hung out by the buffet “making faces and doing little dances every time I looked in her direction,” Zweibel writes. Then Radner zeroed in on Woody Allen. The filmmaker “was loaded down with a plate of food in each hand and a cup of orange juice under his chin.” Radner put her hands on his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, Woody, but Zweibel’s acting like an asshole, and I have to make him laugh.” And so she shoved him down a few steps, “which sent bagels, lox, tomato slices, and orange juice flying in all directions.” Zweibel laughed.
Milton Berle was unbelievably tacky on SNL.
The 1979 SNL episode hosted by early TV star Milton Berle is legendary, because it’s terrible and because it was subsequently kept out of circulation for decades. “Mr. Television” did whatever he wanted to do, mugging constantly and insisting on ending the show by singing the sad and mawkish “September Song.” And it was even more awkward in rehearsals, according to Zweibel.
While rehearsing his monologue, Berle “stood on the stage, stopped what he was saying, and said to our director, ‘Now, when I get to this part, Dave, I’d like there to be a sound effect of a crowbar falling from above, landing on the studio floor, and reverberating until it comes to a stop.’” When Dave Wilson wondered why he should do all that, Berle explained that it was a set up to a fake ad-lib: “Looks like NBC dropped another one.” (That’s ostensibly a reference to the network’s poor performance in the late ’70s.) Berle also requested to be shot from the waist up; when he’d mention he’d recently turned 70, “he was going to make a gesture with his hands below the TV frame so the viewer at home wouldn’t see that he was inducing the audience to give him a ‘spontaneous’ standing ovation.”
He nearly witnessed the assassination of John Lennon.
One day in December 1980, Zweibel and his wife Robin went to visit Gilda Radner at her apartment in the Dakota in New York. After the “otherwise unforgettable brunch came to an end,” the Zweibels emerged on 72nd Street, where Robin noticed a creepy-looking man dressed in a thick hat and holding a camera, the same guy she’d seen hanging around when they’d gone inside two hours earlier. The next time Zweibel saw that man “was on the news, when the police released the photo of Mark David Chapman,” who shot John Lennon when he returned home to his apartment in the Dakota a few hours after the Zweibels’ visit with Radner.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show could have been a cheesy ’80s sitcom.
Zweibel helped create It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and wrote many episodes of the innovative, postmodern Showtime sitcom about a comedian named Garry Shandling (starring comedian Garry Shandling). Before he came onboard, Shandling pitched the show to NBC president Brandon Tartikoff. Usually heralded as a chance-taking programming genius — he left low-rated Cheers on the air to find its footing, and allowed Seinfeld on the air despite historically low test-audience scores — he completely whiffed it with Shandling’s show.
According to Zweibel, for NBC to buy the show, there’d have to be some changes. “He didn’t want Garry to use his real name. He said Garry should play a character with another name. He didn’t think the audience could relate to or care about the life of a comedian and, instead, suggested that Garry’s character be a baby photographer.” He also didn’t want Shandling to break the fourth wall and address the audience, but instead confide in his dog. In other words, Tartikoff wanted to eliminate everything that made It’s Garry Shandling’s Show so special.
He’s responsible for one of the worst-reviewed movies ever.
In 1984, Zweibel published the comic novella North, about a boy who travels the world in search of better parents than the ones he’s got. Director Rob Reiner loved it and wanted to adapt it into a movie. After eight years of trying and failing (“Studios were less than thrilled to finance a movie version of a book whose sales were meager despite the endorsements of my celebrity friends,” Zweibel half-jokes), North entered production when Reiner formed his own company, Castle Rock. With Reiner’s producing partner Andy Scheinman, Zweibel wrote the screenplay while director Reiner assembled a cast that included Elijah Wood, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Bruce Willis.
Zweibel had high hopes for North up until a disastrous screening for a test audience, which gave the movie scores “that implied that they wouldn’t recommend it to friends but also demanding we return the ninety-nine minutes of their life they’d wasted watching it.” Some rewrites and reshoots failed to fix the movie, and Zweibel knew he’d made a flop at the 1994 premiere. An “avalanche” of critical revulsion came his way, led by Roger Ebert. His review, which Zwiebel carried a clipping of in his wallet “until it yellowed and became brittle and disintegrated,” read: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.” Years later, Zweibel ran into Ebert in a restaurant bathroom. He introduced himself and jokingly told the critic, “I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate hate that sweater you’re wearing.”