UB-bred comedy writer Zweibel follows this mantra: Keep on rowing

UB-bred comedy writer Zweibel follows this mantra: Keep on rowing

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NEW YORK CITY — Alan Zweibel and his friend Billy Crystal were deep in conversation a few years ago. This is not a surprise. The two have been close since the mid-1970s, shortly after Zweibel graduated from the University at Buffalo, returned home to Long Island, and started performing stand-up at open mics in Manhattan.

A not-yet-famous Crystal, who lived just 20 minutes away, used to pick up Zweibel in his Volkswagen.

"He was a large man, so it was challenging at times to get his head inside the car,” Crystal recalled recently, buttressing his joke with a percussive laugh.

Since then, they have also shared births and deaths and bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings and a Tony award. (The men collaborated on Crystal's one-man Broadway show, "700 Sundays.") In this conversation, they were sharing a realization: They were not kids anymore; comics were rising and ready to take their place. Which prompted Crystal to share this observation: “You’ve just got to keep rowing.”

Zweibel, who at 67 is two years Crystal’s junior, has followed his friend’s words and repeats them often, too. On this day, he was sharing them over lunch at the Friars Club, a midtown Manhattan brownstone that is a private enclave for show-biz types like Zweibel, whose stand-up career was short-lived, but who instead became one of the pre-eminent comedy writers of his generation. He's done television, movies, theater and books, and has a collection of awards to go with that Tony. Among them: Emmys, Writers Guild of America honors, and the Thurber Prize for American Humor, which he won for his his novel "The Other Shulman," one of his nine books.

It's been a decorated career. But he's still rowing.

Still writing.

“What’s the next move?” Zweibel said between bites in the Frank Sinatra Dining Room. “What’s going to keep me current? What’s going to keep me —”

Zweibel stopped to redirect himself. He was about to utter a word he’d rather not use. “I hate the word ‘relevant,’ ” he said. Still, Zweibel knows he needs to be conscious of his relevance to popular culture.

It's a subject he knows well. One of Zweibel’s go-to stories is how he got his first big job: After performing onstage at the Catch a Rising Star comedy club, he was sitting at the bar, waiting for Crystal to finish his act. A shaggy-haired guy approached him:

“You’re the worst comedian I’ve ever seen,” the guy told Zweibel.

“Thank you,” Zweibel deadpanned. “I really need to hear this now.”

The guy at the bar pushed on. “Your material is good,” he said. "Did you write it?”

The man introduced himself. His name was Lorne Michaels, and he was hiring writers for a television show he was creating. It was called “Saturday Night Live.”

* * *

It's unlikely that Zweibel will ever do anything that will convince his obituary writer to not lead off with his first big comedy job: From 1975 to 1980, he was a writer for the original "SNL" staff. He worked with a cast that included John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and the late Gilda Radner, who became Zweibel's close friend.

But his path to the writers' room at 30 Rock started in his dorm room at UB, where he penned jokes about snowstorms and Richard Nixon, and reflecting on the late ‘60s on-campus wave of demonstrations and boycotts. Zweibel sent jokes to “The Dick Cavett Show,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” to Bill Cosby, Rich Little, to Mad Magazine, and was uniformly turned down. (Zweibel still has a folder of the rejections.)

“It was fun,” Zweibel said. “I would write jokes on a Monday, mail it to ‘The Dick Cavett Show,’ and on a Thursday, I’m not saying they used it, but it was close enough to encourage me that, gee, maybe I had something to offer.”

Zweibel graduated from UB in 1972 with a psychology degree and briefly toyed with becoming a lawyer, but was rejected “by every law school in the country.” So he stuck to his plan: becoming a comedy writer. Zweibel moved back into his parents’ home, went to work in a deli, and wrote jokes on the side for comedians who played the Catskills resorts. For seven bucks apiece (or less, if the comic felt people didn’t laugh hard enough) he sold jokes like this one: “They have a new thing now called sperm banks, which is just like an ordinary bank. Except here, after you make a deposit, you lose interest.”

For those comics, Zweibel was writing jokes for people of his parents’ generation. On SNL, he was creating humor for then-young adult Baby Boomers — his own generation. He wrote Samurai for Belushi, and Roseanne Roseannadanna for Radner. One time, he hid under the Weekend Update desk, writing jokes and passing them to the anchor to read live on air.

“The only rule was write what we think is funny, and if we make each other laugh, we’ll put it on television,” Zweibel said. “The time at SNL was fantastic. It opened a thousand doors.”

* * *

Zweibel and his wife Robin, who was a production assistant on SNL, have three adult children. When their eldest, Adam, was little, he was flipping through television channels one day and asked his father, “Dad, why is Aunt Gilda on TV?”

To the Zweibel kids, Radner wasn’t a celebrity. She was that nice lady who came over to sit on the floor and play with them.

“They had Tom Hanks and Jon Lovitz and Billy Crystal over to the house all the time,” Zweibel said. “Larry David. They’re ‘Uncle Larry’ and ‘Uncle Billy,’ you know what I mean?”

Zweibel is writing a memoir called "Laugh Lines: Forty Years Trying to Make Funny People Funnier." It will inevitably include stories of his collaborations with people like David (Zweibel was a consulting producer and occasionally appeared on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”); Martin Short (he co-authored the comedian’s one-man Broadway show, “Fame Becomes Me”); and the late Garry Shandling. Zweibel co-created “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” in the 1980s and wrote much of the pilot script from an upstairs room in the Friars Club, faxing pages with Shandling, who was living in Los Angeles.

“Alan is one that connects and glues people together in a way that most people don’t,” the comedian and actor David Steinberg, Zweibel’s longtime friend, said after a talk at the Chautauqua Institution. “They get to work together, they forget whatever the negatives are. It’s an incredible gift to be able to help people like that.”

Zweibel, who also was speaking during a week of comedic-arts programming produced by the National Comedy Center, sat up front during Steinberg’s conversation with writer Kelly Carlin, daughter of the late comic George. At one point, Steinberg referred to Zweibel in front of the crowd of a few thousand that filled the amphitheater. Afterward, as Zweibel waited to say hello to Steinberg (the two men and their wives were getting dinner that night), he was approached by a woman of about his age, with her husband in tow.

“Mr. Zweibel, you are very funny,” she said.

Zweibel was gracious. “Well, thank you,” he said.

The woman continued: “I have an idea for ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm.’ ” She recognized Zweibel from his cameos on the show, and knew that Larry David was shooting a new season.

Zweibel politely tried to stop her, explaining that for legal reasons, producers don’t accept ideas from the public. (This is a standard Hollywood rule that helps creative types avoid accusations of stealing ideas.) But the woman was insistent. At one point, her husband almost apologetically said, “We really appreciate your time.”

Zweibel, whose large head (thank you, Billy Crystal, for noting that detail) has an accordingly large face, with an accordingly sizable mouth, arced that mouth into a polite smile. He thanked the woman and said something about perhaps passing on the idea if he ran into the right people. He also invited the couple to come to his talk later that week in nearby Jamestown. This was his way of humanely exiting the conversation, which happened not just because Zweibel is a funny man whom this woman admired, but because he is a funny man who is approachable.

“Everywhere I’ve ever gone with him, he’s known like half the people there,” said the writer Dave Barry, who has co-authored two (and soon to be three) books with Zweibel. “I’m sure that would be true if you were to go to, like, Uzbekistan. Some Uzbekistani would come up and say, ‘I went to high school with you!’ He just knows people, collects people, because he’s a likable guy.”

Zweibel’s humor is punchy, not raunchy, and has a broad appeal that fits his demeanor: Zweibel has gentle eyes and a voice that can be tender, if he’s talking about someone like his late friend Gilda, or affable, if he’s joking about, say, the late film critic Roger Ebert, who in 1994 trashed Zweibel’s film “North” with this review: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it.”

That stung. “To say the least, the review was embarrassing,” he wrote years later in The New Yorker. “And hurtful.”

But in that same New Yorker essay, called “Roger and Me,” Zweibel also revealed how he handled it the next time he ran into Ebert. It ended with a smile and handshake.

“I think in the movies they would call him ‘a big lug’ — and I mean that in the best of ways,” Crystal said. “He’s a large guy. You feel like he’s your friend. He’s a real charming everyman.”

* * *

Zweibel was in full reminiscence mode in the Sinatra dining room. Three decades ago, he would come to the Friars Club and sit in this same spot, near a corner table where Milton Berle, Red Buttons, Alan King and Henny Youngman and other comics regularly met for lunch.

“I would sit here, making believe I was still writing, but just eavesdropping,” Zweibel said. “This was 1983, ‘84, and they’re still cursing out these critics that gave them a bad review in Vaudeville.”

In 1986, Zweibel and his then-young family moved to Los Angeles, where he worked on the Shandling show, and variety of other films and series. He lived near a shopping center called the Brentwood Country Mart. There was a coffee shop where he used to go for the newspaper, and in the corner there was a table of old-time comedy writers who wrote for Jack Benny and George Burns.

“They were unemployed now, and incredibly bitter,” said Zweibel, who realized even then, “If everything goes wrong, I’ll be at that table. I don’t want to be at that table. So I just keep rowing!”

After lunch today, Zweibel will find a spot in the Friars Club – maybe in the wood-paneled, marble-bar Billy Crystal room, which is just down the hall – and work on a TV adaption of his novel “The Other Shulman,” a semi-autobiographical story about a man who runs a marathon as he grapples with his own mid-life realization: My world is changing. How can I adapt? What will I do next? Zweibel wrote "The Other Shulman" in the early 2000s, when he was wrestling with those questions. “My career was sort of flatlined a little bit,” Zweibel said. “My marriage was sort of flatlining. The kids were starting to leave the house."

Zweibel and his wife moved back to the New York area in 2004, to be closer to their adult children, who were leaning eastward when they left home. "The Other Shulman," which was published in 2005, helped jolt Zweibel's career off that plateau by winning the prestigious Thurber prize. In New York, he started picking up speaking gigs at cultural hot spots like the 92nd Street Y and TV talk show appearances. Zweibel performs, too: Several times a year, he joins a slate of actors onstage at The Triad theater in Manhattan to read funny, often ridiculous book passages in show with a name that is quite literal: "Celebrity Autobiography."

“I always liked the idea of being a New York writer," Zweibel said. "I thought there was something special about it."

* * *

After leaving the Friars Club this evening, Zweibel is heading across town for a dinner meeting with his friend, the actress Brooke Shields, who wants to talk about collaborating on a show. Then tomorrow, Zweibel will be doing what he does seven days a week: waking up at 5:30 a.m. and heading to the office inside his Cliffside, N.J. apartment.

As the sun rises, he'll work on multiple ideas. He has many projects in the works: “Bunny Bunny,” his book about his friendship with Radner, who died in 1989 of ovarian cancer, is being prepared for a Broadway run. "The Other Shulman" was recently was optioned by Sony Television as a mini-series. Zweibel and Crystal, as the producers, are shopping it to networks and streaming services.

His memoir is in the works. Zweibel is also writing a handbook called "How to Jew" with his friends Dave Barry and Adam Mansbach. (It's a follow-up to their 2017 parody "For This We Left Egypt? A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them.")

Zweibel has written for children and young adults before, but wants to write a great kids story, one that would last for all time. “I wish I wrote ‘Shrek,’” he said. “I wish I wrote ‘Goodnight Moon.’’

So he will try.

Sometimes Zweibel gets lost in his thoughts, creating stories in his head, even without a yellow pad in hand or a keyboard at his fingertips.

“Let’s say it’s perfectly quiet,” said his wife, Robin, “and it’s just the two of us, and he’s standing in the kitchen, staring at the window, and I’ll say, ‘Alan, did you speak to — ’ And he’ll say, ‘Can’t you see I’m writing?’ ”

Alan Zweibel

Why you know him: Zweibel is one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers and was behind the creation of some of the show’s most memorable early sketches. With his close friend and collaborator Gilda Radner, he created characters such as “Roseanne Roseannadanna.” Years later, after Radner’s untimely death from ovarian cancer, Zweibel wrote a book about their friendship called “Bunny Bunny: A Sort of Love Story,” which may soon be brought to Broadway. Zweibel is also the writer or producer of several movies, television shows (including “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), plays and books.

Career: After graduating from the University at Buffalo in 1972, Zweibel moved home to Long Island, where he wrote jokes for Catskills comics and performed at open mics in New York City, hoping to be discovered. He was — by Lorne Michaels, the creator of SNL. After working for Michaels from 1975 to 1980, Zweibel branched out and began writing for both screen and stage. He relocated his family from the New York area to Los Angeles in 1986, when he and Garry Shandling started their show, and worked in Hollywood until moving back east in 2004. Today, Zweibel keeps a busy speaking schedule, and rises at 5:30 every morning to write.

Age: 67

Residence: Cliffside Park, N.J.

Family: Married to Robin Zweibel. They have three adult children – Adam, Lindsay and Sari – and have five grandchildren.

WNY Roots: Zweibel studied at SUNY Buffalo State for one school year (1968-69) before transferring to the University at Buffalo, where he graduated in 1972 with a psychology degree. In 2009, UB awarded Zweibel an honorary doctorate.

Books: “North” (1994), a novel about a boy who declares “free agency” from his parents; “Bunny Bunny” (1994), an all-dialogue story about his friendship with Gilda Radner; “Our Tree Named Steve” (2005), a children’s picture book based on a letter Zweibel once wrote his kids; “The Other Shulman” (2005), Zweibel’s Thurber-winning novel about a stationery store owner who runs a marathon to recharge his life; “Clothing Optional” (2008), a collection of Zweibel’s writings; “Lunatics” (2012), a novel co-written with Dave Barry; “Benjamin Franklin: Huge Pain in My ___” (2015), a children’s novel co-authored with Adam Mansbach; “Benjamin Franklin: You’ve Got Mail” (2017), a sequel, co-authored by Mansbach; and “For This We Left Egypt?” (2017), a parody of the Haggadah written with Barry and Mansbach.

Billy Crystal on Zweibel's work approach to "700 Sundays:" “Once we opened – and thank God we got great reviews and business was tremendous – he didn’t stop coming. He’d be there just about every night and every show. It became a painting where there was still a little bit of paint on the brush."

Robin Zweibel on her husband's writing gift: "His ability to make you laugh and cry at the same time, within minutes of each other, is his talent. He does it in such a way that you’re not expecting it to happen."

Dave Barry on writing "Lunatics" with Zweibel by email: "Not only writing was fun, but insulting each other endlessly in emails, which really probably we spent more time on that the actual book itself, was fun. Then going on a book tour with him was fun. Despite his head size, it was fun.”

Zweibel on his greatest insecurity: "There's a part of me that wonders if I'll dry up. One of the reasons I keep working as hard as I do is to keep the engine going."

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