laughs began at UB for
Saturday Night Live writer and UB alumnus recalls what sparked his passion for comedy
Alan Zweibel, B.A. ’72, is a ground-breaking comedy writer who was part of the original Saturday Night Live writing team from 1975 to 1980, and later went on to reinvent the sitcom with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1987.
During a two-day visit to UB in October, Zweibel recalled how his career of creating laughs began as a student living on the South Campus in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “sitting in my room and writing jokes.” He sent these jokes to late-night talk-show kings of the period, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. “I didn’t mind not being paid,” he says. “It was all I needed—to send in a snow joke from Buffalo on Tuesday and hear them tell it on Thursday night.”
In an address sponsored by the UB Department of Media Study, Zweibel spoke to students in the Center for the Arts Screening Room. He noted that the curriculum opportunities in media study today didn’t exist when he was a student. The campus atmosphere at the time, however, nurtured his passion.
Zweibel’s discovery came after his UB years when he was toiling in a New York deli and doing a stand-up comedy routine after work. In one bar, a man who had been watching him said, “You’re the worst comedian I’ve ever seen in my whole life, but your material’s not bad. Can I see more of it?” Zweibel proceeded to type 1,100 jokes at his mother’s kitchen table and rushed them to the Plaza Hotel where Lorne Michaels was waiting. The young producer hired Zweibel and the beginning of a cult show was born.
During his fall visit, Zweibel screened an excerpt from the pilot of Saturday Night Live as well as some of Gilda Radner’s monologues as the character Roseanne Rosannadanna, whom he created on the show’s “Weekend Update” segments. “I’d often be lying under the desk writing last-minute jokes based on the latest news,” he remembers.
Part of his recent Buffalo visit also included a special presentation of “Remembering Gilda” to benefit Gilda’s Club, a nationwide foundation for cancer patients founded by the late comedic actress. The material is based on Zweibel’s book, Bunny, Bunny: Gilda Radner—A Sort of Love Story, which became an off-Broadway play (Bunny, Bunny: Gilda Radner—A Sort of Romantic Comedy) and is now being turned into a film.
An episode of the Shandling series was also shown and Zweibel notes how the “fourth wall” was eliminated so that the viewer became part of the show. “It was a precursor to Seinfeld,” he observes. “To break a mold, it takes a big stroke of luck and timing.”
Zweibel is proof that the “big stroke” has sustained more than 25 years of an innovative style that continues to inspire new crops of laugh scribes, including the Comedy Writers Club that was recently formed on campus. As he says to one of the club’s members, “All I want in return is that, when some kid writes you a letter to help him some day, you’ll say, ‘Yes.’”
This image of Alan Zweibel was adapted from a promotional poster prepared for his October 4 appearance at UB. Photo based on original image, courtesy of Alan Zweibel