Alan Zweibel clearly knows funny. He’s accrued multiple Emmy wins and nominations for his time on the comedy writing teams of “Saturday Night Live” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” the latter of which he co-created, plus writing credits on several hit films, books, theater works and comedy/variety specials for mega-talents such as Paul Simon, Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal and Steve Martin.
In his book “Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier” (Abrams Press), which was published April 14, Zweibel’s life lessons, tricks of the trade and insights on how to chart the path from your brain to someone’s laugh center are all revealed. Don’t be deceived: Zweibel makes it sound easy, but that’s after nearly 50 years toiling at funny bone tickling. He was first in the pages of Variety in 1973, when one of his jokes for Borscht Belt comic Freddie Roman got quoted in a review.
Your name first appeared in Variety in the 1970s, including in 1975 as part of the original writing team for “SNL.”
I started writing jokes when I saw Rob Petrie lying on his back writing jokes with Buddy and Sally.
You were a fan of “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Yes and I would watch Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett and study opening monologues. I would send my jokes into them, and they never used them.
How do you know they even saw them?
I have books of rejection slips from God knows how many shows, and Mad magazine, who I sent jokes to in the hopes that someone would answer me. Marshall Brickman was the producer of “The Dick Cavett Show” and I still have that rejection slip from Marshall, on “Dick Cavett Show” letterhead.
When did you get your first “non-rejection”?
In the summer of 1972 I was working in a deli on Hillside Avenue in Queens, slicing God knows what, and Mom and Dad went to Lake Tahoe for vacation. The opening act for Engelbert Humperdinck was Morty Gunty. So my parents approached Morty and told him about me and he gave them his name, address and phone number. Morty Gunty was the first guy who paid me. I have a Xerox of the check from October 1972. It was for $25. I swear to you, I have no idea how many jokes I had to write for that $25.
Did you stick with Morty, or branch out?
Pretty soon I was writing jokes for Vic Arnell, Dick Lord, Dick Capri, Billy Baxter, Corbett Monica.
The timeline between all of this and your start on “Saturday Night Live” is pretty brief. In early 1975 I had a dilemma. It was feast after famine. I got an offer to write questions and bluff answers for Paul Lynde on “Hollywood Squares.” And I got an offer to work on “SNL.” At the time, “Hollywood Squares” had prime-time TV stars, Las Vegas acts. It was a real entree into the business. As for “SNL,” it was like: 11:30 [p.m.] to 1 a.m.? Who’s John Belushi?? But I said, “I want to do this ‘Saturday Night Live’ thing.”
And you brought your jokes with you.
I had a book filled with 1,100 jokes. I presented it to [“Saturday Night Live” producer] Lorne Michaels, and he showed it to [programming executive] Dick Ebersol at NBC. I guess Lorne had to pass it upstairs, but he told me I was hired after he read the first joke.
Do you remember the joke?
It’s in my book. And we used it on Weekend Update. Chevy [Chase, Weekend Update anchor] said: ‘The post office is about to issue a stamp commemorating prostitution in America. It’s a 10-cent stamp, but if you want to lick it, it’s a quarter.’ And as far as remembering jokes, you said my first time in Variety was when I was mentioned as part of the new writing team on “SNL” in 1975. But I think my real first time was in 1973 when [Variety] reviewed Freddie Roman’s act and included a joke I wrote.
I stand corrected, and that will now be your official first time. What was the joke?
It was big time for the mainstreaming of porno, so I had a porno joke for Freddie. “I watched a porno the other day and it had a very unusual scene. It was a Hasidic orgy: men on one side of the room, women on the other.”
Comedy writing requires an acceptance of rejection that is swift and brutal. I guess it did faze me at the beginning. But when someone said, “No, I don’t want to buy that joke,” I didn’t mind the rejection, but I got frustrated. I didn’t take it personally. I never thought, “F–k, I’m not funny!” I guess that’s a combination of moxie, modesty and naivete.
How long did it take to develop a thick skin?
Usually that’s acquired, but I had the balls early on. You know it’s one thing to make your parents and friends laugh, but another to make strangers laugh. It jumps to a different level.
Someone once said all writing is rewriting.
Exactly. I looked at it like, “No, I think this is funny, but I think this is just the wrong joke for them, and they have needs and I didn’t fill their needs” or “They don’t want this kind of sensibility.”
What was the best thing about the early days of your career just before “SNL”?
The best thing about that time was that my father manufactured jewelry at a place on 56th between Fifth and Madison. So I always went by 30 Rock and knew it was the place where they made “That Was the Week That Was.” And on July 7, the Monday after the 4th of July weekend, I went in there
for my first meeting to talk about this new show. Ten years earlier, I had a friend who got me a temporary pass that could get me upstairs and I would hang out by the elevators gawking at Buck Henry.
Then suddenly you’re working with him and other brilliant comedians. Were you intimidated?
The scariest thing for me was that I was in awe of people who did improv. Suddenly there were people from groups like the Groundlings and Second City: Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi. I’m a Jewish gag writer, and that scared the shit out of me.
What was the worst thing about those days?
I had the elation about getting the job, then I was scared. What scared me the most was that I was going with a girl and suddenly I didn’t have any excuse to not get married. The guilt was overwhelming.
I hope this story has a happy ending.
I met my wife, Robin, who worked on the show, and we’ll be married 40 years in November.