In his new memoir “Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier” (Abrams, $27), Alan Zweibel makes no bones about declaring himself a “dreadful” comedian. The comedy writer, who grew up in Wantagh and Woodmere, realized early on that he didn’t have what it took to perform.
“I really didn’t want to be a comedian,” admits Zweibel, 70. “I had a lot of stage fright. But I wanted people to like my material.”
In a recent interview with Newsday, Zweibel discusses his award-winning career behind-the-scenes as a comedy writer for TV, movies and plays working with legends like Gilda Radner, Garry Shandling, Martin Short and his Long Island buddy Billy Crystal.
How can you tell when you gel with someone from a writing standpoint?
It’s just like meeting a new friend. Do you laugh at the same thing? Is there a similar instinct? A collaboration is when two people have the same sensibilities. But there’s enough of a difference where you realize when you work with them you will come up with something you could not do alone. You are not completely the same — maybe 80% similar, but it’s that 20% that makes the synergy work.
Because you and Billy Crystal are both of a similar age, come from Long Island and were raised Jewish, did you almost have a built-in partnership?
Yes, when we did “700 Sundays” together we say in the show, “We all have the same five relatives — they just jump from album to album.” I knew his voice so it wasn’t like I had to retrain my ear. I didn’t know his relatives but I knew what they sounded like because of my own family. Billy is my brother. We trust each other, we make each other laugh, he’s Uncle Billy to my children and our wives are pals. Our friendship is one of the easiest I’ve had. We are so much alike there’s very little explaining to do.
In 1975, you took a job writing for the unknown entity “Saturday Night Live” over the hit show “Hollywood Squares.” What made you take that risk?
["SNL" producer] Lorne Michaels said there’s an audience out there that’s not being served comedically — the baby boomer generation. It was our turn. I knew what the DNA of “SNL” would be. Whether it worked or not it was my sense of humor. Lorne said, “Let’s make each other laugh, and if we make each other laugh, we will put that on television.” There was a real communal spirit about the cast. It was where I belonged.
At “SNL” you worked closest with the late Gilda Radner. What was your writing process together?
We would write over dinner with legal pads and pens. We’d come up with a premise, do a little bit of role playing, then I’d let her take the floor and she’d start to ramble. I would navigate her, she’d shift directions and I’d write furiously then go back to the office and try to make sense of what just happened. She would come in the next day with a red pen like a schoolmarm and start crossing out stuff. Then I’d rewrite what she rewrote. That kind of energy made whatever we did as good as it could possibly be before we put it on air.
You and the late Garry Shandling had such different energies, you being a New Yorker and him being from Arizona. How did you fit together?
We had this similar self-deprecating sense of humor. The difference between us was I had the psychological component to be married with three kids and now five grandchildren. Garry didn’t have that. But, we looked at TV the same way. We took whatever conventional TV was and put our own spin on it. We even wrote the theme song to “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” in an elevator together. That’s a magical connection you have with somebody which doesn’t come along very often.
While working on the Broadway play “Fame Becomes Me,” how did you put words in the mouth of the comedic tornado that is Martin Short?
Writing for Martin Short is like writing for a one-man variety show. He’s on another plane. He has all these different characters like Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick, it’s almost like the two of us are writing for someone else. He’s a brilliant creative force that is analytical and smart. I just hitched to the back of his wagon and went along for the ride.