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Fun Becomes Him

October 19, 2006 By:
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Alan Zweibel

The one man to see for one-man shows is Alan Zweibel.

The go-to guy of "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me" and "Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays" doesn't have his name in the shows' titles, but those shows wouldn't have earned their titles as high-tone hits without his epigrammatic if not eponymous contributions.

The back story of this guy who prefers to remain in the background backstage is one of a self-described "huge Long Island Jew" long on talent and Martin Short on humor. Indeed, his "Martin Short" Playbill credit of "additional material by Alan Zweibel" is a play on words, since his wit and witticisms add much to the merry mishugas staged nightly at Broadway's Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.

Call him a play doctor with an M.D. full of Mischievous Deviltry, a give 'em hell healer whose medical scrip morphs manuscripts into healthy hits.

But it wasn't always such. At one time, bread and butter was Zweibel's ... bread and butter. Not that he intended to be a deli worker all his life -- although he may be the only legendary laughman to include it in his professional background.

Hold the wry? Not Zweibel, who took his University of Buffalo 1972 degree in psychology and proceeded to turn it into chopped liver, getting a job as a deli-slicer in Queens as he minced mirth and words selling jokes for $7 a slice to comedians in the Catskills.

Pickles and punchlines? Perfect together!

"I am most proud of that one," muses Zweibel of his slice-of-life bio credit as a cut-up man.

"You name it, I sliced it."

It was while he was sandwiching in jobs as Jewish deli cut-up and joke writer that Zweibel zigged, then zagged, becoming a stand-up whose work didn't stand out. But one customer who heard him offered some sound advice to schtick it out: "You're the worst comedian I've ever seen, but your material is pretty good," opined Lorne Michaels.

Just like that, Alan Zweibel was hired by producer Michaels and became part of TV history: Live, from New York -- it was Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and a key writer, Alan Zweibel -- as "Saturday Night Live" helped transform the cool medium of TV into the hip, ultra-cool medium.

The weekend warrior behind the humor of "Weekend Update" and the Sumari sage who helped Belushi cut it with sword-sharp swipes of humor was suddenly a smash success: Zweibel as Zorro of the zeitgeist.

But if his humor enlivened "Saturday Night Live" so much, it was his special relationship with comedian Gilda Radner that made it radiant. He rose to the occasion writing her Rosanne Rosannadana character and Emily Litella before he lit out for other ventures, including "It's Garry Shandling's Show," which Zweibel helped create, produce and script.

From deli to deconstrucion worker: It was "Shandling's Show" and its breaking of the fourth wall that helped make this Burns & Allen avatar such breakthrough TV.

Ever since, Zweibel's built a bio with mirth as mortar, including movies ("North," adapted from his own novel; "Dragnet") and other TV work ("Good Sports").

But it is Broadway today that sports some of Zweibel's best stuff. "It touched a nerve in me," says Zweibel of the special thrill he got from working with "SNL" alum Short.

But don't short-change what was on stage before Zweibel's additional material was added. "I love how often people get it wrong," says the writer of friends and fans who think certain "Short" contributions are his when they're not.

Take the Jewish lines -- please! One of the most comical aspects of Short's show is the scene in which his "brother" appears in the audience, decrying and kvetching how Short has given his Jewish heritage short-shrift in the show.

"Not mine," chuckles Zweibel of the material, especially funny since Short is, in real life, Catholic, not Jewish, for which he's often mistaken.

Make no mistake, says Zweibel; it's easy to see why. "It's interesting to me that even though Martie's not Jewish, he does have an appreciation for Jewish humor. We're the same age, and we grew up liking the same kind of comedy."

Funny thing about that; if things had been somewhat different, Zweibel would have been writing torts rather than tart humor.

Zweibel for the defense? Indefensible! "I was rejected by every English-speaking law school in America," he says of a different stage of his life post-U. of Buffalo.

Belly laughs instead of bellying up to the bar? A comic counselor? "I think they all got together," he says of Law Schools 'R Us, "and said, 'Let him become a comedy writer.' "

These days, he rests his case before audiences at the Jacobs Theatre. But Broadway isn't his only beat; Zweibel's newest novel, The Other Shulman, reflects another side of his literary leanings, as do his many magazine contributions. There is also the charitable side -- his speaking engagements on behalf of Gilda's Club, the ovarian-cancer support network formed after his best friend died of the disease some years back.

Zweibel does more than pay lip service to Radner's rich heritage of humor; he's written about it, too, including the touching Bunny Bunny, which Zweibel ably adapted for the stage -- and which premiered in Philadelphia before an off-Broadway run.

That long loving relationship he shared with Radner -- whose Broadway one-woman show he also wrote -- was at once haimisch and human. "She was my muse," says Zweibel, whose wife of many years long understood their specials, decidedly platonic pal-ship.

And even as his timeless humor is legacy for "must-see TV" these days -- "SNL" is the focus of two different NBC series this season -- Zweibel can still get a good laugh out of his past.

"I [discovered] myself in writing" for Radner, he says. "I found all I wanted to do was make her laugh."

He's got others to joke with and for these days. It's his world -- and welcome to it! And nowhere was that greeting more welcomed -- and appreciated -- than the call Zweibel recently received, informing him that he was a finalist for this year's coveted Thurber Prize for American Humor.

"I was surprised because it's such a literary honor, and that's not a genre I've really gone into."

Others would disagree, calling him a literary light, not literary-lite. If his humor instructs even as it cuts to the quick, maybe it's because, in his own way, Zweibel is a rebbe with a cause.

In fact, he admits, he had some heightened interest in just that path over the recent High Holidays. "I was listening to the rabbi, and thought, 'I could do that,' " says the Jewish joker of beaming sermons from the bimah.

"Of course, the Hebrew part could befuddle me, but I could come up with a 15-minute sermon."

Uh, Alan ... being a rabbi comes with other responsibilities beside those 15-minutes-of-fame advisories to congregants. "Okay, so I wouldn't look forward to doing the brises -- that you can keep. But I'm good for a 15-minute talk."

Live, from the shul -- it's Friday night! Maybe, quips Zweibel, he can handle the rah-rah part of the Torah, inspiring without all the scholarly sidebars.

"That's what I could do," says the writer of his new ambition for which he's Short-listed.

Fun becomes him: "I could be the D.R. -- the Designated Rabbi!"

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