Editor's Choice: His Studies Were A Laughing Matter
He may have graduated with honors in psychology in 1972, but what Alan Zweibel really studied during his years at UB was comedy. "I didn't want to be a psychologist," he recalled. "I wanted to be a TV comedy writer. At the time, that was a vague kind of undertaking. There weren't that many courses to constitute a major in becoming a comedy writer. It was something you pretty much took on as a hobby with the hope that you'll be able to turn it into a living."
(UBT Spring 1995)
That hope has been amply fulfilled for the Brooklyn native, who has been making a substantial living for the past 20 years as a groundbreaker in the field. He was a member of the original writing staff of "Saturday Night Live" from 1975-80, creating such indelible characters as the samurai swordsman for John Belushi and Roseanne Rosannadanna for Gilda Radner. Then, in the '80s, he was critically hailed for developing "It's Garry Shandling's Show" for Showtime, which was celebrated for breaking down the "fourth wall" between performers and audience through its direct acknowledgment of the viewer at home.
He reminisced recently about his formative years at UB during a phone conversation from his Beverly Hills office at Castle Rock Productions, home of Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld.
Growing up on Long Island in the '60s, Zweibel was captivated by Rob Petrie's job on "The Dick Van Dyke Show," writing jokes all day at the office with Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam "and then going home to sleep with Mary Tyler Moore."
He set his sights on comedy writing, but there was a noticeable lack of comedy schools. After a year at Buffalo State College, Zweibel transferred to UB in 1969. "I ended up with psychology only because it had the least amount of distribution requirements. You didn't have to read Beowulf or any of that stuff. I wanted to be a writer, so I didn't want to get too involved in stuff that was sort of off-course. What I wanted to do was a little out of structure."
Zweibel remembers those years as tumultuous, with class schedules vying with war protests. "It was really easy to get laid if you got tear-gassed that afternoon," he laughingly recalled. "There was a whole new system of standards. I had fun at UB. The times were very liberal-a lot of independent study and community service things that you could, in fact, get credit for and even grade yourself. I took advantage of it because what I wanted to do was out of the scope of the curriculum anyway. So it sure gave me enough time to start making my inroads."
From his room in Tower Hall on the Main Street campus, Zweibel studied the monologues of Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett every night on TV. He became familiar enough with their formats to write topical jokes that he would send to them and which they occasionally would use. He also sold material to that off-course literary staple, Mad magazine.
Much of Zweibel's material was drawn from his campus observations. "Being from Long Island, I was a pseudo-hippie. I used to observe the insincerity that a lot of people had about whatever that movement was supposed to be...strike, boycott, then call off the revolution so you could fly home for Yom Kippur."
Zweibel describes his experience at UB as very positive. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd go to UB. Even the weather would give me something to write about. I drew from everything. The times were such that the kind of thinking that was promoted was less than restrictive and that was the kind of mindset that everyone who started 'Saturday Night Live' ultimately had."
After graduation and a failed attempt to enter law school, Zweibel moved back with his parents in Long Island and worked in their delicatessen in Queens for a couple of years. He spent his nights writing jokes and selling them for seven dollars each to Borscht Belt comedians like Freddie Roman and Morty Gunty who played the Catskill resorts. While he would soon graduate to more noted comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Freddie Prinze, Zweibel was frustrated.
"I had a Woodstock kind of reference and these guys were looking for material like, paving the driveway. I soon realized I was getting nowhere fast, so I took all the jokes they wouldn't buy and I put them into a stand-up comedy act for myself. I went to the Improvisation and Catch a Rising Star in New York City and hoped that someone would come in and give me a job as a TV writer.
"Billy Crystal, who I share a suite of offices with here now, was starting out at the same exact time. He lived about three towns over on Long Island and we used to drive in together every night. He used to pick me up at my parents' house in his little Volkswagen and we'd drive in, tell our jokes, then drive home. I was doing this for about five months and one night I was on stage and having a real hard time making a bunch of drunks from Des Moines laugh. It was two in the morning. So I come off the stage and I went to the bar and waited for Billy to drive me home. A guy comes up to me and says, 'You're the worst comedian I've ever seen in my life, but your material's not bad. Do you write it?' I said, 'Yeah.' So he asked if he could see some more of it. I said, 'You bet.'"
The man was producer Lorne Michaels, who was scouting the comedy clubs for writers and performers for a new late night show that would premiere the following fall on NBC-TV. Zweibel met with Michaels a couple of days later, lugging a book of 1,100 jokes that he had written. The producer looked at the first joke, then closed the book and gave Zweibel a position on the writing staff of "Saturday Night Live."
What was the one that clinched it for him? "I had written a joke about a stamp that the Post Office was going to issue commemorating prostitution in the United States. It's a 10-cent stamp-if you want to lick it, it's a quarter." The writer describes the SNL experience as "the most intense, the most wonderful, the most memorable five years I probably will have in my life. We had no idea what we were starting. Lorne just said let's do whatever we think is funny. I met Gilda, and eventually my wife, who joined the show (as a production assistant) in the third year."
He likened the Shandling show to the excitement of SNL. "It was like lightning struck twice. With Garry, I found another writing partner who to me was like tantamount to writing with Gilda. All the networks had turned us down. Showtime didn't have any original programming at the time so they were hot for it, plus they left us alone. So Garry and I ran amok a little bit. The critics embraced it. We ran for four years, did 72 shows and really had fun."
Last summer, the writer encountered a career valley and yet another peak within just a few weeks of each other. "North," the first Rob Reiner movie to flop, was based on Zweibel's 10-year-old novel. However, Bunny, Bunny, the book he had been writing on his long friendship with Gilda Radner, was due out soon.
"I had a sneaking suspicion that should 'North' not work, Bunny, Bunny would. So I had that to cushion the blow. 'North' opened in July and the book was in stores by late August. So it was only like three weeks since I started getting good feedback again. All the reviews of Bunny, Bunny were great. Even in death, Gilda was saving my ass."
The book, which is written entirely in dia- logue, is going into its fourth printing. Zweibel is working with producer James Brooks ("Terms of Endearment") to develop it into a play to be done on Broadway next year. The writer is also working on a screenplay for a romantic comedy in which he'll make his debut as a film director next fall.
"I like to work on at least two things at the same time, sometimes three, so that if I block on one, I can shift gears and work on the other," he explained. Amidst all this activity, he found the time to visit UB last November during a local appearance at the Jewish Community Book Fair. "I never saw the Amherst campus until then. I was just blown away," he recalls. "That Center for the Arts is unbelievable. It's the greatest I've ever seen, and that includes places out here (in California)."
No joke. Alan Zweibel's allegiance to his "comedy school" seems unbounded. He may indeed be the funniest psych major ever to graduate from UB. JIM BISCO is a writer with Creative Concepts of WNY, Ltd., an advertising/video production company in East Aurora, N.Y.
By Jim Bisco