“Comedy writers learn early on that we have a high degree of anonymity,” Alan Zweibel writes in the beginning of his new memoir, “Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier.”
Although Zweibel’s name may not ring a bell outside the comedy writing world, many of his projects need no introduction.
In addition to being one of the original writers for “Saturday Night Live,” Zweibel, 70, co-created “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” consulted on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and helped his old friend Billy Crystal develop his Broadway show “700 Sundays.”
Zweibel appeared at Temple Sholom in Broomall on Dec. 9 to talk about his book. The event was part of the synagogue’s author series, which was created in partnership with the Jewish Book Council.
“Laugh Lines,” which came out in April, chronicles Zweibel’s path to the world of comedy and his adventures working for celebrities who now regard him as a professional peer. He got his start at 24, when he didn’t get into law school and worked in a deli while selling jokes to the last of the Catskill comedians who entertained Jewish families at summer resorts (his first contact was provided by his mother).
He started doing stand-up and was discovered by “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels after bombing onstage one night. Zweibel wasn’t a great performer, but Michaels liked his material. He went on to join the team that would forever change the landscape of American comedy, creating iconic sketches and characters for performers like John Belushi and Gilda Radner.
The memoir serves as both the story of Zweibel’s career and a tome of cultural history that shepherds readers from the sun setting on the Borscht Belt to the rise of the latest generation of “SNL” performers.
Writing and stand-up are often portrayed as lonely endeavors, with the creator alone with the thoughts in their head or in front of an audience.
Many of Zweibel’s book projects, such as his memoir about his friendship with Radner and his novel “The Other Shulman,” were deeply personal and solitary affairs, but he also writes about the pleasures of working with a team on projects like “SNL.”
“I had no idea when I first started what it was like, but when I got to ‘SNL’ it was a group, you helped each other, you’re there to give each other better jokes and make the jokes as good as possible,” he said in a separate interview.
Zweibel said he has enjoyed the relative anonymity that his part of show business offers — his passion has always been for writing and getting his jokes in the mouths of performers. He feels he’s gotten enough of the spotlight while appearing on book tours and late-night talk shows.
Zweibel has worked with his fair share of celebrities, but he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be a young 20-something just starting out and meeting childhood heroes. He remembers being starstruck when he met Paul Simon. At the time, he was still working in a deli, poised to start writing for a show that hadn’t been made yet.
“I was just blown away,” he said.
Although today’s aspiring comedians are unlikely to get their starts selling jokes to comedians at resorts in the Catskills, Zweibel wants younger audiences to learn from his experiences.
“I have some chapters about failures,” he said. “The book isn’t just my greatest hits. What I want to convey over the course of everyone’s life is there’s peaks and valleys. If you feel that you are meant to do something, do it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or you shouldn’t.”
He writes about his experience with a critic, the late Roger Ebert, who loathed one of his movies so much he used the word “hate” 10 times in the review. Zweibel went into a tailspin before deciding he wasn’t going to give Ebert power over him. The two men even ended up on friendly terms when they recognized each other in the bathroom of a restaurant in Chicago.
“And I just have to tell you, Roger, that that sweater you’re wearing? I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate that sweater,” Zweibel said.