Legendary comedy writer Alan Zweibel began his career penning jokes for Catskills comics while he was still in college. In 1975 Lorne Michaels hired him as one of the original writers for Saturday Night Live, where Alan developed a special partnership with Gilda Radner, helping create iconic characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, and John Belushi’s stable of easily irritated samurai. Since then Alan co-created and produced It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, won a Tony for co-writing Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, co-wrote the Broadway shows Gilda Live and Martin Short’s Fame Becomes Me, as well as writing his own Off Broadway plays Happy, Comic Dialogue, Between Cars, Pine Cone Moment, and Bunny Bunny (adapted from his bestselling book). His other books include Clothing Optional and Other Ways to Read These Stories; the novels The Other Shulman (which won the Thurber Prize for American Humor) and Lunatics (with Dave Barry ); the children’s books North and Our Tree Named Steve; and most recently For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them, co-written with Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach, for which he recently completed a 17-city book tour. Alan has two new books that are soon to be published: A Guide to Judaism from Feh to Oy again with Barry and Mansbach, and the cultural memoir Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier, in which he serves as a tour guide through American comedy from the Catskills to the present.
Among Alan’s other awards are five Emmys, a Tony, two Writers Guild of America Awards, and a WGA Lifetime Achievement Award. As a performer he has appeared on SNL, Curb Your Enthusiasm (where he was a consulting producer), and is a frequent guest on late night talk shows including many appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman (for which he also wrote) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. He can often be seen on stage at New York’s Triad Theater in the long-running revue Celebrity Autobiography!.
In 2012 Ferne Pearlstein and I interviewed Alan for our documentary The Last Laugh, out on Netflix June 24th. For this conversation, we spoke at the legendary Friars Club in midtown Manhattan, where Alan was recently named Friar of the Year for 2018.
THE KING’S NECKTIE: Thanks for sitting down with me, Alan. It feels like there’s a weird thing in comedy right now where it’s going in two opposing directions at once. On the one hand, there’s the PC movement, which is restricting things, but on the other hand, because of the current political situation, it feels like comedy has been energized as a means for social commentary.
ALAN ZWEIBEL: Absolutely. Comedy is supposed to give us a look at ourselves, it’s supposed to be reflective, it’s supposed to a commentary on us as individuals and on society as a whole, politically speaking, religiously speaking, in terms of the sexes, and so on. So there is a dichotomy.
If you look at late night shows, every night you’ve got Kimmel, you’ve got Colbert, you’ve got Fallon, Seth Meyers, and then Bill Maher on Friday nights, you’ve got SNL on Saturday nights, you’ve got Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah. It used to be I’d come home at night and (my wife) Robin would say, “Hi honey.” Now her first words are, “Did you hear what that asshole did today?” Meaning Trump, of course.
TKN: It’s exhausting.
AZ: One of the things that was so cool about this book tour I just did was that I was in all these different hotels, and I didn’t know which channel was which, so I ended up watching a lot of Law & Order and no MSNBC and no CNN. I can’t take it anymore. If you turn on Morning Joe or New Day with Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota, it’s like, “What did he tweet already this morning when I was still sleeping?” So I think that humor is necessary, that acknowledgement of it, letting us all know that we’re not individually crazy.
TKN: You said before that comedians have always been kind of truth-tellers, and it’s never felt more so than now, when the news has lost so much credibility. Because there’s the fake news, by which I mean Fox — which is just ridiculous and not even worth discussing — but as a result people don’t trust the legitimate news either. They think everything is politicized and therefore relative and all equally suspect.
Arguably the legitimate media has had a lot of trouble figuring out how to cover a liar like Trump, because they’re simply not used to someone that brazenly dishonest, they’re not equipped to handle a demagogue like that, and they wind up enabling him. So people look to comedians. They look to those people you just named.
AZ: Absolutely. They look to them for the truth. It’s a reality check, in a way. Sometimes just out of curiosity I’ll watch CNN and then I’ll turn to Fox to see what their slant is on the same thing. And I wonder, “How is it possible that they see it so differently?”
TKN: You’re tougher than I am. I totally believe in the idea of not just indulging your own point of view, but when I jump over to Fox or one of those channels, I can’t take it for very long.
AZ: No no no. I just do it for maybe a minute, if that, because I’m just going “No….No….No….”
There’s such a divide right now. I don’t do anything political; I don’t write political comedy. I leave that to people that are smarter or more bent that way than I am. But how about laughing at ourselves? That doesn’t exist right now.
On the book tour, five of the cites were in Florida on the Atlantic coast, and they all went swimmingly. But the last night before we went off to Washington was in Naples. I thought South Florida was South Florida; I didn’t know that Naples, being on the Gulf Coast, was different. And there were four of five hundred people, which is a lot for a book like this, and I just made an innocuous comment about Fox News, and I got hissed. And this was in a temple!
And then we were in Nashville and Robin went into a store and some kid in there — sixteen or seventeen — made some derogatory reference to Jews. Robin identified herself as a Jew and the blood drained from this kid’s face, and then he said something about her being an exception. And you go, “Whoa, what year is this?” My grandmother and grandfather, who were immigrants, used to tell me these kind of stories when I was growing up. I just figured, naively so, “Oh, that’s in the past.” But it’s come back in droves.
GUY WALKS INTO A BAR
TKN: Even beyond politics, it feels like there are changes being forced on comedy by technology. Which is not something you often think about as an influence, the way it is on music or film or other arts.
Ferne and I and some friends saw Chris Rock do his stand-up act in Atlantic City last Thanksgiving, and you had to surrender your cellphone before you went into the venue. They put it in a neoprene pouch and sealed it with a shoplifting-proof plastic ring. I knew he had stopped doing colleges, but I’d never seen that before. But I totally get it. I heard Chris say in an interview how in the old days he’d go into clubs and work out his material, but he can’t do that now because it’s immediately recorded and goes straight to the Internet.
AZ: I get that. It started a while ago, even before cellphones. There used to be a respect for process. I had a deal with Castle Rock in the early ’90s, I did a couple of movies with them and Rob Reiner, and they would show a cut to some audience fifty miles away in the middle of the desert, a focus group that would rate it and you would see what people liked and what they didn’t like, what edits you had to make, and maybe you would adjust. And then all of the sudden critics started going to those screenings and reviewing movies that weren’t released yet, or even finished yet.
TKN: I think Chris’s comparison was, “When Prince makes a demo, it doesn’t wind up on the radio.”
AZ: Yeah. I don’t blame Chris at all, especially if he is trying stuff out. We saw his Netflix special, Tambourine. It’s really good, and it’s really reflective, funny but in a different kind of way, he talks about the breakup of his marriage in a really insightful way.
Someone else I saw recently at Radio City who I think is just amazing is John Mulaney.
TKN: I love John Mulaney. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t go to that run at Radio City. It was like seven shows and I couldn’t make it to any of them.
AZ: We went the first night, took our daughter Sari, who’s 28. The craftsmanship, the writing…..He did this wonderful thing where he was talking about Trump but never said Trump’s name. He used the analogy of a horse running through a hospital. “A horse doesn’t belong in a hospital; we’re trying to get the horse out of the hospital.” And it was really, really funny.
TKN: I did see the Netflix special that was taped from those Radio City shows, Kid Gorgeous. The robot bit, the gazebo, Mick Jagger hosting SNL….it was fantastic. For my money he’s one of the best stand-ups out there today.
Who were the comedians that inspired you when you were growing up? You mentioned George Carlin; he was one of my favorites.
AZ: Yeah, Carlin’s genius for me was his love of words, the wordplay. “Why do we park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?” Jumbo shrimp. All that stuff. I love words so that’s what attracted me there. But I also loved Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Woody Allen’s early movies and albums, Jack Benny — you know, the usual gang. I grew up watching The Dick Van Dyke Show, so there was Carl Reiner’s imprimatur, and it was the kind of life I wanted to lead. You’ve got this guy Dick Van Dyke, who’s married to a very pretty Mary Tyler Moore, they have a kid, they have a nice house in New Rochelle, and he spends his days at the office lying on a couch joking around with Buddy and Sally. I thought, “I want to do that!” So those were my influences.
And then a little bit later it was Mad Magazine, which not as biting satire as the Lampoon, which came along later, which I also discovered. Marx Brothers movies — I discovered them through Groucho’s TV show You Bet Your Life. I said to my mom and dad, “Who’s that old guy?” and they said, “You don’t understand.” And then I learned about Animal Crackers and A Night at the Opera.
TKN: So when did it first occur to you that you could that for a living?
AZ: That wasn’t until later. There’s a penchant that you have for writing, and for making your friends and family laugh, or writing something funny in class — that’s just an instinct that you have. But I didn’t know I could make a living at it until I started selling stuff. Because that means strangers like you. After I graduated college I started writing for stand-up comedians in the Catskill Mountains, and the fact that they would buy jokes from me led me to think, “Oh, maybe I have something to offer.”
Even before that, when I was still in college in Buffalo, I used to write jokes for Dick Cavett. He had a show, and I’d mail the jokes in on a Monday and they’d arrive at their offices on a Wednesday or a Thursday, and then I would watch his monologue and hear my jokes, or some version of them. So after I graduated college, I thought, “OK, maybe I can do this.”
TKN: But how did you crack that business the first time? Did you go up to Dick Cavett’s producer and say, “Guy walks into a bar….”?
AZ: No, no. My mom and dad had gone to see Engelbert Humperdinck in Lake Tahoe and there was a Borscht Belt comic named Morty Gunty who opened for him, and my mother ran into him in a coffee shop the next morning and told him she had a son who wants to be a writer. So I started writing for him, and then other comics up there started asking for material, because the word got out, “Hey, who wrote that joke?” “Oh, there’s this kid, Alan.” I wrote for the Friars’ Roast. I wrote for special occasions. I wrote for a stripper….
TKN: She told jokes?
AZ: I don’t know. I never went to see her. It was Fanne Foxe, if you remember her…
TKN: Oh, she was in the paper yesterday!
AZ: What did she do?
TKN: It was the story of her and Wilbur Mills and the Tidal Basin incident.
AZ: I got a phone call from an agent, saying “Do you want to write for Fanne Foxe?” I just basically wanted to see her breasts.
LIVE FROM FT. LEE, NEW JERSEY
TKN: So how did you go from there to getting on SNL?
AZ: I got tired of writing for those guys. They were twice my age. So I took the jokes they wouldn’t buy from me and went and did them myself at clubs in New York. And Lorne came looking for writers for this new show of his, and then he asked to see more jokes, and I had all these jokes that I had written for these guys, so that became my audition.
TKN: Did you know Lorne before?
AZ: No, he saw me and approached me.
TKN: I’m sure you’re tired of telling these stories, but what was it like in those early years at SNL?
AZ: It was fabulous. There’s a documentary that just came out that Robin and I are executive producers on, called Love, Gilda, that covers a lot of those early years.
Those days were really fun. We were all mid-20s, it was our first job in TV, and the only rule we had was to make each other laugh. And we put it on TV! Lorne’s feeling was that people out there are like us, so they might tell their friends about it.
TKN: As a fan, it was such a watershed, because it was a younger generation — people your age — doing a kind of humor that just wasn’t on TV before that.
AZ: Right. The logo for SNL very early on was “Saturday Night Live” spray-painted as if it was graffiti on the marble wall of what was then called the RCA Building. And that was emblematic of who we were.
TKN: And that’s how it felt to the viewers. For me as a teenager, it was like a rock & roll kind of thing.
AZ: Yeah, it was Off Broadway. Whereas if you look at all the other variety shows that were on in those days, whether it was Sonny and Cher or Flip Wilson or whoever, they came out in tuxedos and Bob Mackie gowns. We threw Belushi out there in his fucking tie-dye thing with his stomach sticking out.
TKN: I will confess to some fan-boyism here, because when you and I first met for The Last Laugh, I knew that you had created Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella with Gilda, and “Mister Richard Feder of Ft. Lee, New Jersey,” and I knew your face because every so often on Weekend Update they would show your picture playing some character.
AZ: Yeah, whenever they needed a big Jew to look dead or drunk or have electroshock therapy, they’d push me out there. I used to get so nervous….now I do all the talk shows and everything and it’s not a problem, but back then I got really nervous. There was a sketch — I think it was when Hugh Hefner hosted the show — where I was a corpse in a casket and I was so nervous that if you look closely, the corpse’s hands are shaking. (laughs) But Gilda used to just give me a flask and I was like, “OK, fine, I’ll go out there.”
TKN: Did you and Gilda immediately spark to each other? Because that partnership was so special.
AZ: Yeah, from the beginning we hit it off. She was from Detroit by way of Second City in Toronto, and I’m from Long Island so I knew New York, my dad always worked here, so the city was easier for me. So she was like this — I wouldn’t say scared girl in a big city, but she needed a tour guide in a way. So we started hanging out together and we just made each other laugh.
We wrote together a lot. I wrote for everybody — jokewriting was my craft, so I was drawn to Weekend Update and Chevy and everybody else that succeeded him there, and I wrote the samurais for John Belushi and things like that. But those guys taught me another kind of comedy. I hadn’t even heard of Second City before I got to SNL, so to see them make something up right in front of me, something that didn’t exist before and now it did, was really cool. It was writing, but on your feet and acting it out all at the same time. I was agog.
TKN: There was something about the combination of your sensibility and Gilda’s innocence — or the innocence that she projected, this lovable quality but with incredible comedic chops — that was magic.
AZ: We were silly. She would come up with an idea and ask me to write it — something I would probably never think of — and if I came up with something I would mention it to her and she’d just start doing it across the dinner table or in my office. We probably pushed each more than we would have pushed ourselves working alone.
Gilda once said that I brought out the guy in her and that she brought out the girl in me. The sad thing is that Shandling said the same thing to me. (laughs) When Garry and I were writing together we used to fight who was the girl.
THIS IS THE PART ABOUT GARRY SHANDLING
TKN: I wanted to talk to you about Shandling, because he’s another touchstone.
AZ: When I started writing with Garry it was like lightning striking a second time, the way it had been with Gilda. We knew each other’s moves, and it was like alchemy, the synergy, or like 1 and 1 equaling 3.
The first night after Garry and I met for the first time, he called me up, late at night — out of the blue — and he said, “Alan, my dog’s penis tastes bitter. Do you think it’s because of his diet or what?” When he said that joke to me, I just went, “Wow. There’s a mind at work over here.”
TKN: (laughs) That’s the first night you knew each other, he called you up and said that?
AZ: Yeah. He and I hit it off immediately.
We were very similar in a lot of ways, although I had whatever component one needs to have a wife and children. But Garry was smarter than me, he was very analytical. Judd Apatow just did a great two-part documentary about him, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. We’re all in it, if you haven’t seen it.
TKN: I saw it; I thought it was great. I was skeptical when I heard it was four hours — I was a Shandling fanatic from the first time I saw him do stand-up, in the ’80s, so I could watch a ten-hour doc about him. But I wasn’t sure it could sustain that length for a general audience. But it did, in spades.
And it wasn’t just a case of a great subject carrying the movie; the filmmaking was superb. Although Garry is a fascinating character, obviously, and there was a wealth of material with all the archival footage and the diaries especially, even with all those advantages the wrong filmmaker could still screw it up. But I thought it was just superbly done purely as a piece of cinema.
AZ: It’s really good. David Itzkoff had a piece in the New York Times about it. After Judd sent it to me, I likened it to George Harrison documentary that Scorsese did for HBO, Living in the Material World. This is not dissimilar. It’s about comedy, obviously, but the spirituality of part two: that’s who Garry was.
His memorial was really funny. I spoke, Sarah Silverman spoke, Kevin Nealon was hilarious, Tambor was hilarious. You had people telling Garry jokes and Garry stories, but there were also Buddhist monks there, and they showed footage of Garry in robes, chanting. When we left there was a feeling that I think you’re supposed to have after you go to temple.
TKN: (laughs) But you don’t.
AZ: (laughs) But you don’t.
If there is something else after this life, Garry was ready for it. After we did our show Garry and I didn’t speak for years and then we found each other again. I guess we were a little older and maybe a little bit more mature, and Garry was on a different plane. He had more trouble with this world: manners, other people…..But the next world, I think he was just ready for it.
TKN: He kind of defies the stereotype of the tortured comic, because he was certainly tortured, but instead of being self-destructive and channeling into the usual self-abuse, he went in that more spiritual direction.
AZ: On our show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, he played a guy named “Garry Shandling” so there was an autobiographical element thematically, despite the innovative ways that we presented it. Which was fun. But when he did Larry Sanders something else happened. Just a changing of the G to an L, from Garry to Larry: there was a different kind of comedy there, less cartoony and more substantial when it came to the human psyche.
TKN: But both of those shows were so towering and so influential. I remember when I first saw It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, it was so stylistically bold and clever with the form — even just starting with the title. I know that Jack Benny talked to the audience and broke the fourth wall, but building on that the way you and Garry did was so innovative.
AZ: We knew who the roots were, Benny and George Burns. But they didn’t take a little golf cart and drive from one set to another on camera.
TKN: (laughs) Right. It was the meta aspect. I remember so many things, but one that sticks in my mind is when Garry had to fly somewhere on the show and instead of the usual transition — like stock footage of an airliner — you just had a balsa wood airplane. (laughs)
AZ: I remember that episode vividly. And we’d have the audience partake in things. In some ways it was more theatrical, because instead of dissolving from one scene to another, I would have Garry say, “All right, here’s where we are in the story: it’s two weeks later and now I got to deal with this guy.” So we had fun with the form.
Whereas the material that he did on Larry Sanders was more conventional in that there was no trickery, but it was so real. And it was hilarious. Rip Torn was hilarious, Tambor was hilarious, Garry of course. Garry’s weaknesses, Garry’s megalomania, Garry’s character, Garry’s ego — Larry’s I should really say. It was an exaggeration of what Garry had inside of him, through this fictional guy. So whereas my friend Larry David calls himself “Larry David” on Curb Your Enthusiasm, with “Larry Sanders” there was a little bit of removal there. Just a little bit.
TKN: When I was watching Larry Sanders — not knowing Garry personally, of course — I felt like he was putting all of his demons into that character. That was the guy he could have become — insecure, megalomaniacal, and so on — instead of the guy he was.
AZ: Yeah, I think so. I remember after our show ended, Fox offered Garry his own talk show, for a lot of money, and he and I went to dinner and he asked me what I thought. He was one of these people that would ask a thousand people the same question, and I’m sure many others answered the same way I did, which was, “That’s the kind of show you would make fun of. You would satirize that; you would satirize that guy. Do you really want to sit and ask some celebrity about their 9-month-old kid and how they behaved on the plane on their way here?” I’m sure I’m not the only one that said that to him.
TKN: He’d done it already. Even though it was fake, it was satire, why would he want to do it again, even “for real”? Especially after satirizing it.
AZ: I used to go with him when we were on hiatus from our show and he would guest host for Carson — I would help with the monologue and just lend support — and he always did a wonderful job and all that, but Jay (Leno) got the gig. And I understood why.
TKN: The Larry Sanders Show was so influential. It was the beginning of that single-camera, no laugh track style that influenced Ricky Gervais and The Office, that established the template for what’s become the norm in contemporary sitcom…..it just influenced everything in TV comedy as we now know it.
AZ: Yeah, prior to that, the general concern that networks had was that people at home were not going to know that it’s a comedy unless they hear someone laughing. We all said, “Are you serious?” With It’s Garry Shandling’s Show we had an audience, so there was laughter, but on Larry Sanders it was a hybrid. He had a talk show-within-a-show that had a live audience that laughed at the stuff that was happening on the talk show, but they didn’t laugh at the stuff happening in the offices because there was no audience. It was backstage. So Garry straddled both worlds and I think he did it brilliantly.
TKN: Was 700 Sundays (Billy Crystal’s one-man show on Broadway that Alan co-wrote, and for which they won a Tony) after that?
AZ: Yeah. 700 Sundays opened on Broadway in either November or December of ’04, if I’m not mistaken. That was such a thrill. Yeah, SNL was probably the biggest thrill in my career because it was my first job, and all of sudden there’s Emmy awards and, hey we’re on television, and hey I can pay the phone bill every month without interruption of service. But what was so rewarding about 700 Sundays was that my good friend had trusted me with his life. These are characters I hadn’t met. I think I might have met his mom once or twice, I certainly didn’t know his dad because his dad died when he was 15 — hence the title. I didn’t know any of the aunts and uncles or cousins or whoever else he spoke about. But the fact that Billy trusted me with those characters and with putting words into their mouths meant a lot to me. Look: he’s a Jew from Long Island, I’m a Jew from Long Island, we all have the same family. I even gave him the joke, “We all have the same families, they just jump from album to album.”
To put words into my best friend’s mouth and to have that emotional satisfaction every single night. I’d be in the theatre, and even when the show was sort of locked, I would go every night because it was like listening to my favorite song.
And wherever I was, if I was on a book tour and I thought of something, I would email him some jokes from my hotel room because I just loved that world, I loved the characters. I didn’t know anything about jazz, but I learned it from Billy because of that show. He is such a consummate showman, whether he’s doing a mime piece or singing or acting out all the characters at a dinner table. It was almost like writing a variety show, but with one guy.
TKN: You’ve done so many different things in so many different fields: stand-up, live television, theater, feature films, books. Do you have a favorite?
AZ: There’s a pamphlet I want to write…(laughs). No, I would say live TV, which I haven’t done in so long, is the thing that gets the adrenaline going. There’s nothing better than SNL where you write something on Monday and it’s on television Saturday. And even if it’s not live, when it’s taped: every time I was a guest on the Letterman show, the running around…”OK, the audience is coming in,” all that.
That being said, I like the theater a lot. I like the long form, I like the audience, I like standing in the back to see what works and what doesn’t, I like seeing the people’s reactions, both comedically and emotionally. If you are going to do a longer form, theater is much more fun than movies, which are shot out of order and at best you’re trying to make the crew laugh. And certainly more fun than books, where you feel like a rabbi hunched over a Torah.
TV is a collaborative medium, there’s a lot of people around a table with a script saying, “Oh, you have a better joke? OK what’s your joke? That’s great — let’s put that in.” There is a synergy there. But when you’re alone, it’s all the clichés of being alone.
That’s why the last couple of books I’ve written I’ve had collaborators. I’ve had Dave Barry and I’ve had another guy named Adam Mansbach, who wrote Go the Fuck to Sleep. We’ve never been in same room writing, but it breaks up the day when you write something and you email it to each other or put it in a Dropbox and it just builds and it becomes a book.
I did that with Dave Barry where we wrote a novel together called Lunatics where it was two suburban soccer dads who have a feud. It starts off in this little New Jersey town and maybe peace will be brought to the Middle East as a result of what happens, maybe there’s a new pope, let’s see how we can escalate it. Dave wrote one guy and I wrote the other guy, and he had no idea what I was going to write and I had no idea what he was going to write, so it was like having a deranged pen pal. Something would come into the inbox and you’d go “Whoa!”
TKN: So you would write in character?
AZ: Yeah, as the character speaking. My character was low-key and demure and a good citizen —
TKN: Like yourself.
AZ: Like myself. And Dave picked his guy to be bawdy and slovenly. Think of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I was Steve Martin’s character and he was John Candy’s. And so I would send him something which was a little bit more controlled, it was funny but in its anality. And he would send me something like Blutarsky from Animal House, and I would just fucking laugh and then go, “OK, now I got to not only react, but move the story forward.” So we kept on going like that.
TKN: Like that game, exquisite corpse.
AZ: Yeah that’s exactly right. But it was a collaboration that we both got off on. So I like anything that’s either collaborative or offers a little bit more feedback. There are certain things that you write that are just so internal you can only do it by yourself, you go so deep into yourself. But the other stuff is a diversion away from the dedication and the solitude of writing that single thing.
TKN: That would make a great movie, Lunatics.
AZ: It was optioned by Universal, but by the time we handed the script in there was already a new administration who put it into turnaround. But it was very prescient, that book, because we wrote it in 2012 and where it ends with this chapter Dave wrote where we’re at the Republican National Convention and Trump is nominated to run for president which was far-fetched at the time.
TKN: God, back then that was absurdism.
AZ: Now we’d have to change it. People are still threatening to make it into a movie.
TKN: When you wrote Bunny Bunny (Alan’s play about his friendship with Gilda), that was a more solitary endeavor, I presume?
AZ: It was totally solitary. It was influenced by my wife Robin. This was about ’93. Gilda had died in ’89 and Robin said “You should write something about you and Gilda.” And I resisted. I didn’t want to capitalize on that relationship. And Robin said, “To hell with that! Your best friend died and you haven’t even cried yet!” So it was a way of mourning, it was a catharsis where I reconstructed the relationship as I remembered it. Where did we meet? Oh behind a potted plant in Lorne’s office, and all the scenes. It’s not like I was wearing a wire for 14 years, so they were these touchstone kind of events.
It was written mostly at red lights. I was living in LA and working on movies and shit, and I had a legal pad that I kept next to me on the passenger’s seat and I would just write. And when I was done I had 220 handwritten pages and I thought, “Catharsis over.” I showed it to a few people who suggested that I get it published. Gene Wilder gave me his blessing, as did Gilda’s mom and brother. That was by myself, but mentally I felt like I was collaborating with Gilda because I was reliving that stuff. She co-wrote it even though she was dead.
MAN OF THE YEAR
TKN: Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re doing next? Or is that unfair to ask a guy who just came off a 17-city book tour?
AZ: I’ve got a couple of things. I just wrote a movie with Billy Crystal, and I’m looking at my phone every five minutes to see whether or not it’s going to be greenlit. I’m writing two books. One with Adam and Dave again, because the haggadah did so well, that’s called A Guide to Judaism from Feh to Oy. (laughs) But I’m also writing a cultural memoir called Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier. It starts off with me in the Catskills, but contextualized, not just me…..I’m like a tour guide through comedy, and the process, and the state of the art if you will as I passed through it and had my say.
TKN: So how does Barry participate in this? He’s as goyische as they come.
AZ: He’s Episcopalian, he’s the son of a pastor, but he is married to a Jew. Michelle Kaufman is a wonderful wonderful sports writer for the Miami Herald, she’s from Cuba, which makes her a Jewban. So Dave’s got both the outsider’s view and enough of the insider’s, so he brings a different perspective than I can, being steeped in it.
TKN: I’m in that same boat, being married to a Jewish woman. We were at a party once with like ten other couples and at one point the hostess stands up and says, “I want to make a toast to all the beautiful Jewish men here and their shiksa wives.” And everyone laughed, but we looked around and everybody there was in that kind of marriage except Ferne and me, who were the opposite. It’s getting less rare, but it used to be that we could count on one hand the couples we knew who were like us….and one of those fingers was Barbra Streisand and James Brolin. Who we don’t really know. So when we meet a couple like Dave and Michelle we feel like, “Yes! Those are our people.”
AZ: I understand. I get that totally.
People are also threatening to bring Bunny Bunny to Broadway next year for the 30thanniversary of Gilda’s death, with someone playing Alan and someone playing Gilda and then someone playing everyone else in the world. It’s playing in Chicago right now at the Mercury Theater, although that doesn’t have anything to do with a potential Broadway run, that’s another company.
It’s funny, I never saw it produced again after it ran in New York, downtown at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, although it’s always playing somewhere, local places, even colleges. But there was a production of it about five years ago at the Falcon Theatre, Garry Marshall’s theatre in Burbank, and I happened to be in LA and I went to see the show. It was the first time I had seen it in something like 15 or 17 years. And I’m sitting there, and there are two Alans watching it. One was nostalgic because I lived it, but there was also the writer in me going, “Wow, that was a good joke. I wonder if I’m still capable.” (laughs) Or, “Wow, that was smart.” So the duality was funny. If there is another incarnation of it we’ll see what happens. But if you’re going to deal with Broadway it becomes a different animal.
TKN: In closing I want to congratulate you being named Friar of the Year, since we’re at the Friars Club.
AZ: This is a weird month because not only did they name me Friar of the Year, the Chabad named me their Man of the Year. It makes no fucking sense. I was speaking here at the Friars Club one night at the induction for new members, and as I’m leaving a man comes up to me, introduces himself, and says “Are you going to be in town February 27th”? I said, “Yeah, I think so.” And he says, “A rabbi is going to call you.”
TKN: (laughs) This sounds like a joke. “A rabbi is going to call you…”
AZ (laughs): So I go home, and the next morning the phone rings, and it’s a rabbi. And the rabbi says, “I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of you, but I hear you are going to be in town February 27th.” I’m thinking, “What the fuck is this with February 27th?” So I said, “I think so,” and he says, “You want to be our Man of the Year?” I knew nothing about Chabad except they had these telethons or whatever. So I learned about them, they have schools all over, they’re building a new school on Thompson Street downtown, and they had a big reception at Cipriani’s for like 1100 people.
So I gave a speech at the end accepting my Man of the Year thing, and I had my friends Billy Crystal, Larry David, Rob Reiner, Marty Short, and David Steinberg go on tape and say shit about me. And then the rabbi surprised me onstage by announcing that they’re naming the library in the new school after me. And I got very emotional. I said, “Wow, for a writer to have a library named after him….” And the rabbi says, “It’s a children’s library.” (laughs) And I said, “Oh, you mean it’s not the one on 42ndand Fifth Avenue?
TKN: (laughs) No lions….
AZ: I was like, “To hell with you, what do I need that for?” (laughs)
So, yeah, it’s been quite a month. Friar of the Year and the Chabad Man of the Year. It’s so absurd, I know. But it’s very cool to have the library named after me.
Alan Zweibel can currently be seen in no less than four feature documentaries: Ferne Pearlstein’s THE LAST LAUGH, streaming on Netflix beginning June 24th (ahem, my personal favorite, as she’s my aforementioned wife); Judd Apatow’s THE ZEN DIARIES OF GARRY SHANDLING currently on HBO; Neil Berkeley’s GILBERT; and Lisa D’Apolito’s LOVE, GILDA, coming soon to CNN.
@lastlaughfilm / #lastlaughfilm
For more essays and interviews from The King’s Necktie, go to https://thekingsnecktie.com/