The thing about Alan Zweibel is that when you talk to him, you realize two things at once.
First, that he’s a very funny man, who has become successful in ways that most of us can’t dream of being — he was a writer on the original Saturday Night Live! He was good friends with Gilda Radner! He’s a close friend of Billy Crystal’s and collaborated with him on 700 Sundays on Broadway! He’s written for and worked on Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show! He’s won prizes for his writing, including the Thurber Prize for humor!
He’s also a really nice man with a recognizably unglamorous but happy life — he’s been married to his only wife, Robin, approximately forever, he grew up Jewish on Long Island and has remained deeply Jewish in a way that is deeply familiar to those of us who grew up Jewish anywhere in New York or New Jersey.
In fact, although it seems as if he lives in Los Angeles — he did live there for many years, and his phone still has an L.A. area code — he cleared up his willingness to talk in what would have been the West Coast predawn by saying that he’s just moved to Cliffside Park from Short Hills, where he’d lived for many years.
He’ll be speaking on Zoom for the JNF on November 15 (see box).
Among the many things he’ll talk about is his new book, “Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People be Funnier.” It’s a memoir that opens on his childhood on Long Island’s South Shore — he grew up in Woodmere, now one of the Five Towns, but in the 1950s and 60s, before anyone called them that. He had a classic postwar Jewish childhood — his parents kept kosher in the house but ate whatever they wanted outside; eventually there was place in the garage where the family could feast on non-kosher Chinese food, but it never got all the way inside. “I come from a generation where grandparents came over from Europe and to them suburbia was the American dream,” he said. “They tried their best to maintain their Judaism while trying to assimilate.”
Mr. Zweibel has managed that trick himself; not only has he fulfilled his dreams in the outside world, he’s maintained his ties to the Jewish world. He speaks often for Jewish audiences. In 2017, he and two friends — Adam Mansbach, who among other books has written the extremely popular and absolutely hysterical “Go the Fuck to Sleep,” and the well-known and remarkably funny humorist and ultimate Floridian Dave Barry — wrote “For This We Left Egypt?: A Passover Haggadah for Jews and Those Who Love Them.” (Just fyi — Mr. Barry is in the second category.) He promoted the book at JCCs and Jewish club clubs. “We were having fun and paying homage at the same time,” Mr. Zweibel said.
Mr. Zweibel’s book is a social history of comedy as well as an autobiography. He knew that his parents would have loved for him to become a doctor or a lawyer, or even an accountant, but instead, after college, he worked at a deli and at a beach club, another other jobs, as he tried to write. He details that once he decided to become a comic writer he dabbled in doing standup himself but found he hated it, and went on to work on the iconic showcases of his generations (and the ones that followed. SNL has been on the air for 45 years now).
Mr. Zweibel details the way he worked for the generation of comics who were his parents’ age — including one of his mentors, Alan King — and he writes a bit about the Catskill resorts where they flourished. He loved them, but in the end their humor was not his. He wrote jokes for those older comics, but those jokes did not ring true to him. They had little to do with his world. (To be clear, those jokes often were appallingly sexist; still — or perhaps for that reason — they were very true in what they revealed.)
And then he got the job at Saturday Night Live, and his life changed — and he changed and also stayed the same.
“I keep saying that I was a joke writer when I got out of college, but when I got to SNL and I met people from Second City and the Groundlings, with a different approach to comedy, doing improv and creating characters and scenes on their feet, right in front of you — that was a transition.
“There had been a certain rigidity in the Catskills guys. They were not political. The jokes they did were funny, but it wasn’t a progressive mindset. I was appealing to their children. When I was 22, I didn’t want to write for my parents’ generation.”
Now, however, Mr. Zweibel does not write or talk about politics. “I have my own political views, but I write about other things,” he said. There is little to laugh about in politics just now.
Why is he speaking for the JNF? Because it’s Jewish. “It’s for a tremendous cause,” he said. “Anyone who wants to watch it will see that it is very much at the core of where my soul is.”
Who: Alan Zweibel
What: Will do a Zoom talk for the Northern New Jersey region of the Jewish National Fund
When: On Sunday, November 15, at 10:30
Where: On Zoom
What’s it called?: “Funny You Should Say That!”
How much: General admission is $54; it’s a fundraiser, so other categories are available
More information and a Zoom link: Email Northern New Jersey JNF director Jacqueline Yehudiel at email@example.com, call her at (973) 593-0095, ext. 823, or google “JNF,” “Alan Zweibel,” and 2020.