Saturday Night’s Children: Alan Zweibel (1979-1980)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 38 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
There are many paths to getting hired on Saturday Night Live, but Alan Zweibel — who served as an original writer in 1975 and spent a portion of the fifth season credited as a featured player — had one all his own. Zweibel struggled as a young joke-seller before finding the perfect comedy collaborators on SNL, giving way to some of the most memorable characters of the show’s early years, from the absurd physical comedy of John Belushi’s Samurai to the fragile brilliance of Gilda Radner’s Weekend Update regulars Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna. Zweibel went on to enjoy a steady career as a writer and producer of the stage, screen, and page, but it all began with his contributions to SNL and “platonic love affair” with the great Gilda “Bunny Bunny” Radner.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Long Island, Zweibel began his comedy career after graduating from the University of Buffalo. He moved back in with his parents on Long Island, where he worked as a deli meat slicer by day and sold jokes to Catskills comedians for $7 each. Unsold jokes formed the young Zweibel’s standup act, which he took to Manhattan clubs like Catch a Rising Star and the Improv alongside a young Billy Crystal, who carpooled with Zweibel back and forth from Long Island to comedy clubs in the city. He got some notable feedback after a show in 1975 when he was just 24 years old and a man at the bar called him the “worst comedian I’ve ever seen in my life” but asked him for more of his written material, which he delivered in the form of a packet of over 1,000 jokes three days later. The man at the bar, it turns out, was a young producer named Lorne Michaels scouting for writing talent, and he eventually hired Zweibel as a writer for SNL’s debut season. Here’s how Zweibel recalls his hiring in Live from New York:
So I went back to Long Island and I stayed up for two days straight and I typed up what I thought were eleven hundred of my best jokes, jokes that I wrote for the Borscht Belt comics, jokes that I practiced writing for other comics, jokes I heard in third grade – I mean, I just went nuts. And so I took my phone book full of jokes and went into the city for my interview with Lorne.
He takes the phone book of jokes, opens it, reads the first joke, and goes, “Uh huh.” And closes it. And he says, “How much money do you need to live?” I said, “Well, I’m making $2.75 an hour at the deli – match it.” So he said to tell him more about myself. He figured before he’d commit to that kind of money, he wanted to know what he was buying. I said, well, Woody Allen’s my idol, I love Monty Python, and maybe my career will go like Albert Brooks’s you know, short films and then bigger ones. “But,” I said, “if there’s one fucking mime on the show, I’m outta there.” And he gives me the job.
Zweibel was a formative creative force during his five-year run on the original SNL writing staff, having written all but one of the John Belushi “Samurai” sketches as well as multiple collaborations with Gilda Radner, from beloved but disgusting consumer affairs reporter Roseanne Roseannadanna to the elderly Emily Litella, whose hearing problems spawned long-winded editorial oppositions to issues like “violins on television” and “endangered feces.” Zweibel also wrote the 1978 sketch “Mr. Death,” in which host Christopher Lee plays the titular character and visits a little girl (Laraine Newman, though the part was originally written for Radner) whose dog just died: “I’ll come and visit you on your fifteenth birthday!”
Zweibel also showed up in a handful of bit parts for the first few seasons. He was the Tin Woodman in the 1976 sketch “Metal Detector,” an electroshock therapy patient in the commercial parody for “Spud Beer,” a priest in the 1977 Tom Schiller short La Dolce Gilda, Marlon Brando in the 1979 “Apocalypse Now” sketch, and a background actor in the “Bees” and “Olympia Cafe” sketches and had a handful of Weekend Update bits including one as Gary Morton opposite Radner as his then-wife Lucille Ball. After John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd left SNL in 1979 to make The Blues Brothers, the show promoted Zweibel and several other writers to featured players. He was brought onscreen — in his own words — when the show needed “a Jew, a dead person or someone needing electroshock therapy.” Here’s Zweibel talking about a 1978 Weekend Update segment he wrote about the death of Mister Ed:
After Lorne Michaels and the SNL cast and writers left the show in 1980, Zweibel went on to write material for Radner’s concert film Gilda Live as well as The New Show, Michaels’s short-lived post-pre-SNL career sketch show (Zweibel also wrote for one episode of SNL the same year). Soon after Zweibel landed a second career-defining gig when he teamed up with comedian and TV writer Garry Shandling to co-create and write the sitcom parody It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which ran for four seasons on Showtime from 1986-1990. Gilda Radner made her final television appearance playing herself on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1988; she died from ovarian cancer the following year, and a decade later Zweibel published a collection of their most personal memories together called Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner – A Sort of Love Story. Zweibel and Radner may have kept their relationship platonic across its nearly 15-year span but as he says in Live from New York when recalling their first meeting, “I was nuts about Gilda. I was crazy about her.” Bunny Bunny was later turned into an off-Broadway play, and all the proceeds from Zweibel’s book went to Gilda’s Club in his late friend’s honor.
Beyond his work on SNL and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Zwiebel also created and executive produced two short-lived CBS sitcoms (The Boys, Good Sports) as well as 1992’s The Please Watch the Jon Lovitz Special. He’s written and/or appeared in several shows (Monk, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Law & Order, Late Show with David Letterman) and movies (Dragnet, North, The Story of Us) and has penned novels (North, The Other Shulman), a children’s book (Our Tree Named Steve), personal essays (Clothing Optional), and a 2012 comic novel collaboration with Dave Barry called Lunatics, which follows two rivaling New Jersey soccer dads and is in development as a film starring Steve Carell. Zweibel also collaborated on several Broadway productions including Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me (2006) and Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, which won a Tony in 2005 and became an Emmy-nominated HBO special this year. “To this day, I look back on those first five years with incredible fondness,” Zweibel says of his SNL stint in Live from New York. “I tend to romanticize the experience, because it was way more good than bad. But when it was bad, it was very painful. It was very, very painful.”