Now known for his hilarious body of work, Alan Zweibel got his start playing a corpse
An original writer on Saturday Night Live who worked with giants Gilda Radner and Billy Crystal, the comedian’s back-stage life now competes for the limelight
When Emmy and Tony Award-winning writer Alan Zweibel got his start as one of the first writers for “Saturday Night Live,” he occasionally appeared on camera. Those moments visibly disturbed him.
“Whenever they needed a big Jew to look drunk or dead, or [do] electroshock therapy, they threw me out there,” he says. “There was one episode, I was playing a corpse laying in a coffin and if you look really closely, my hands were shaking. Now I go on talk shows all the time and the nerves are gone. But back then, I was terrified.”
A veteran of the entertainment world, Zweibel’s stage fright has since mellowed. The anxiety has transformed into the joy of appearing on shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
“My friend Larry David created a character for me on ‘Curb,’” Zweibel told The Times of Israel. “I’ve been on ‘Law and Order.’ I go on the talk shows. Now there’s no nerves. And it’s a lot of fun.”
These days, Zweibel is entertaining live audiences with the release of the parody hagaddah he co-wrote with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. He recently took to the stage in Long Island, where he discussed the making of the book and his star-studded, anecdote-filled career.
Zweibel was born in Brooklyn, New York, and his father manufactured jewelry for Tiffany’s. He jokes that his parents sat shiva after he didn’t get into law school. The comedian got his start selling jokes for $7 each to entertainers, thanks to his stay-at-home mother, who approached a comic in the Catskills on his behalf.
“I had written a joke about a new porno movie starring hasidic Jews,” he says. “And it was very unusual, especially the orgy scene, because the men were on one side and the women on the other.”
On SNL, Zweibel met his wife Robin Blankman, who was a production assistant for the show.
“Years later, she was watching a rerun and she says, ‘Oh there you are. You’re dead. You’re in a coffin.’ Bill Murray was giving a eulogy and I was right behind him. I was lying there dead and I was nervous. It was pathetic,” Zweibel recalls.
Unlike Bill Murray and Larry David, Zweibel may not be a well known screen star. But he was a valued friend to the late comic legends Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Garry Shandling.
With work produced for them on TV, as well as writing credits for film, on and off Broadway shows, books and magazines, Zweibel has a long list of show biz credits. His friends and colleagues include Martin Short, with whom he co-wrote “Fame Becomes Me,” and entertainment heavy Billy Crystal, with whom he collaborated on the Tony Award-winning production of “700 Sundays.”
“He’s my best friend and he trusted me to write about [his family],” says Zweibel.
“When you write for people who are incredibly talented, what you have to accept is that people know who they are and the material,” he says. “There is an anonymity — unless you’re Philip Roth, and you’ve done a body of work where you’re not hiding behind actors and hiding behind the material you’ve written for those actors. I made the decision early-on.”
“I get off ego-wise a little by doing speaking engagements and going on TV. So that part of me gets satisfied being in front of a camera or audience and making people laugh,” he adds.
Winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his novel, “The Other Shulman,” Zweibel got his break in his 20s and won an Emmy for his work on SNL within his first year. From 1975 to 1980, he co-wrote hilarious bits for Belushi, including the beloved samurai, and Radner’s wonderfully ridiculous alter ego, Roseanne Rosannadanna.
“And you know, from there, I would then go to the ‘Garry Shandling Show,’ probably the first big cable comedy hit. And my relationship with Garry was magical in its own way. The synergy between us created this show, which was a breakthrough, and that lasted four years,” he says.
Zweibel’s retelling of behind-the-scenes early SNL is nearly as funny as the sketches themselves. When Zweibel heard that that horse that starred in the hit show, “Mr. Ed” had died, he was in a rush to find another horse to portray his widow. So at 2:00 a.m., Zweibel asked the SNL production team to look for a suitable shidduch for Radner to voice on the “Weekend Update” segment. The results are comic history.
His love of Radner, in fact, began the basis for one of his evergreen hits, the book and subsequent play, “Bunny, Bunny.”
He counts among his best comedy moments, “the beginning of ‘SNL,’ my relationship with Gilda Radner. We created Roseanne Rosannadanna and Emily Latella and various sketches, in general.”
“We met the first day of ‘SNL’ in 1975 and she died on my birthday in 1989. So that would make it 14 years,” continues Zweibel.
“We were platonic lovers,” he says. “It was frustrating as all hell. I wrote about it in ‘Bunny, Bunny.’ We worked together. We had a great friendship. We had a wonderful creative relationship.”
“Bunny Bunny” has become one of Zweibel’s most frequently performed works. His off-Broadway shows include “Between Cars,” “Comic Dialogue” and “Happy.”
“By the way, most people think that the actors write the material themselves. I’m fine with that,” he says. “What lasts you at the end of the day is a body of work, a play, movie, TV, books. And I’ve been lucky to be able to do all of that. When you Google someone, you see all the stuff they have done.”
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