Great comedians are rarely solo acts. For five decades, some of the best in the business have leaned on Alan Zweibel, who will be reading from his latest book, “A Field Guide to the Jewish People,” Feb. 5 at the Twin Cities Jewish Humor Festival.
Lorne Michaels tapped him as one of the first writers for “Saturday Night Live,” where he befriended Gilda Radner, the subject of his bestselling biography “Bunny Bunny.” He served as showrunner for the fourth-wall-shattering sitcom “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and has teamed up with Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd and Larry David. Right before our phone conversation earlier this week, he had been exchanging notes with Billy Crystal, his collaborator for the Tony-winning “700 Sundays,” on an upcoming film.
We started the chat by talking about one of his mentors, Buck Henry, who passed away earlier this month. In addition to co-writing the screenplay for “The Graduate,” Henry hosted “SNL” 10 times.
Q: What made Buck Henry such a great host?
A: There was such a wit to him, a certain naughtiness. He was such a great writer and I think we all wanted to come up to his level and impress him. I used to write the “Samurai” sketches for John Belushi and Buck was the perfect stooge for that. He had such an understated approach. He would walk into a delicatessen, order a sandwich and not even notice that there was a Samurai warrior behind the counter. He would be talking about the Super Bowl the next day.
Q: How would you compare “SNL” today with when you were there?
A: I think the guys today have a harder job. There are so many shows now doing what we did, especially when it comes to political humor. But I love what they’re doing. Every so often someone like Kate McKinnon comes around. Or Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. I’m a big Cicely Strong fan. I met my wife on that show. We watch every week.
Q: Who is the most brilliant comic you’ve worked with?
A: To pinpoint one person would be difficult. Larry David is in a class by himself. Martin Short belongs up there. I can’t think of anyone more versatile. He even dances funny. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gilda.
Q: So often you’ve written for comics who have a very specific voice. How do you write for someone like that?
A: In some respect, I make believe I’m them. Early in my career, when I was writing for stand-ups, I would train my ear. I’m making this up now, but say the subject of the week is buying a house. On Monday, I’d write a routine as if Jack Benny was buying a house. On Tuesday, it’d be Joan Rivers. Wednesday, Richard Pryor. By the end of the week, I’d have five different monologues for five different voices.
Q: Do you have to know someone well to work with them?
A: “SNL” was like a giant dormitory, so you got to know all of them personally. There was a comfort level there. I wrote a lot for the Emily Litella character, but I didn’t create her. She was based on a nanny Gilda had. But Rosie Shuster wrote a lot for her. I think [St. Paul native] Tom Davis came up with the name. There were a lot of fingerprints on that one. When I was on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I knew what made both Larry and I laugh. It was like every phone conversation we’ve had since 1974. For the record, he’s one of the nicest people in the world.
Q: I love the story that you carry Roger Ebert’s scathing review of the movie you wrote, “North.” Is that to keep you humble?
A: He wrote a review where he used the word “hate” like 10 or 12 times. I still have it in my wallet so I can pull it out during speaking engagements. There’s no hidden psychologic reason. I don’t go under a tree at 4 in the afternoon and read it to keep me humble. The movie was based on a book I had written. It was very personal. It’s not like I gained a thousand pounds and didn’t get off the couch, but it was devastating. About a year later, I was on the David Letterman show promoting “Bunny Bunny” and I said, “When they first asked O.J. Simpson where he was during the murders, his alibi was that he was in a theater watching ‘North’ at the time but there was no one else there to corroborate his story.” That’s when I realized I could have a sense of humor about it.
Q: Why do you continue to write?
A: It’s a question that comes up all the time, but not from other writers. I have a lot of friends who are businessmen who retired at 55 or 60. To a great extent, I envy them. I’m going to be 70 in May. But writers write. Stopping is like saying, “Hey, would you like to stop breathing?” Carl Reiner is 97 and he’s still coming out with books. The truth is, I’m ill-equipped to do anything else. Sometimes when I go to the supermarket, I wonder if I know how to scan.