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A Life in Laughs 

click to enlarge Alan Zweibel has earned his status as a legendary comedy writer in his work for "Saturday Night Live" in the early '70s, his collaborations with Billy Crystal, and his recent production credits on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
  • Alan Zweibel has earned his status as a legendary comedy writer in his work for "Saturday Night Live" in the early '70s, his collaborations with Billy Crystal, and his recent production credits on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

The plot of Alan Zweibel’s Thurber Prize-winning novel The Other Shulman (Villard, 2006) is based on the premise that a doppelganger might be formed from all the weight one gains and loses over 30 years. It’s a premise zany enough for “Saturday Night Live,” where Zweibel wrote some of the most memorable skits for the original “not-ready-for-prime-time players” in the late '70s. Zweibel, who created the Rosanne Rosanadanna character with Gilda Radner, later wrote a book about his intense friendship with the comedienne, Bunny Bunny, Gilda Radner: A Sort of Love Story (Villard, 1994), which he later turned into a play after workshopping the production at Powerhouse Theater in 1995. His credits also include cowriting Billy Crystal’s Tony Award-winning one-man show 700 Sundays, cocreating the influential “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” as well as producing Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

Zweibel brings his latest project, “The History of Me,” a one-man show tracing the ups and downs of his career in comedy, to Vassar this month for further development and a three-night stand. “The History of Me” will be presented July 18 through July 20, part of Powerhouse’s “Inside Look” series at the Susan Shiva Stein Theater.
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You started out writing jokes for Borscht Belt comedians. What was it like to write jokes for the Borscht Belt in the late '60s, when the counter culture was in full swing?
It was frustrating because I was 21 and they were 40 and 45. It was like writing for my parents and it was certainly not my sensibility. So I was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to start writing jokes. But ultimately, it became frustrating because my sensibilities were more Woodstock-ish, as opposed to paving the driveway. So it was a little difficult for me because I wasn’t able to write what I wanted to. That’s why, when “Saturday Night Live” came along, it was perfect, because that was my generation and that was my peers and with my life experiences and political and social views.

What would have been a typical joke that you would have written for a Borscht Belt comedian?
Oh God, do I have to do this? They paid me $7 a joke back then. That was the going rate for somebody who had no credits. They would tell you what they wanted jokes about, then you wrote those jokes. If they needed jokes about sperm banks, I’d write a joke saying there’s this new thing now called a sperm bank, which is just like an ordinary bank, except here, after you make a deposit, you lose interest.

I read that [“Saturday Night Live” creator] Lorne Michaels had called you the worst comedian he had ever seen.
Well, he had seen me at Catch a Rising Star, where I had grown tired of writing for those guys. I took all the jokes they wouldn’t buy from me and I started hanging out at the clubs in New York City, which were on the rise at that time, and the plan was to go on stage and to deliver the jokes with the hopes that somebody would come in and like the material and give me a job as a TV writer. And that’s what happened when Lorne came in one day and saw me and was totally underwhelmed by my stand-up, because I had only been doing it for four months and I wasn’t a performer. I was just saying the jokes basically, but he liked the material, and he wanted to see more of it. So we met a few days later, I showed him a lot more jokes, like 100 jokes that I had written, and based on that, he gave me a job.

What are some of your favorite bits that you wrote for “SNL?”
I don’t know, jeez it’s so long ago. My God. Let me think. I used to like writing the Roseanne Rosannadannas for Gilda—that’s pretty much up there.

How much of that was scripted and how much was her improvising?
It was all written. I wrote the whole thing. There was no riffing.

What about the John Belushi samurai bits?
It was scripted. He would veer from it, but when you’re on television, the camera expects you to be at a certain place at a certain time, so there can be little ad-libs within somethings. But generally, they have to know where you’re going.

How did “The History of Me” come about as a project?

When I was on a book tour, I kept on writing stuff for me to do in speaking engagements to promote the book, and at the end of it, I had about two hours of material. I basically took the lectures, the anecdotes, all the stuff that I was talking about—myself, my family, whatever—and slowly started the process of turning it into “an evening with,” as opposed to a guy at a podium. So I did it at the Aspen Comedy Festival and it worked very, very well there. Right now, it’s OK. It gets laughs and it touches you in a spot, but I know in the writing there’s a lot of work I still have to do. Right now, it sounds too much like “And then I wrote this, and then I wrote that.” As funny as it is and all that stuff, I know there is another level to the piece that I want to explore up at Vassar.

Is this your first one-person show?
Oh yeah, I’ve never done anything like this before. I have just speaking engagements all over the country, but I’ve never done anything theatrical before.

Are you nervous when you perform?
Oddly enough, no. I don’t know why. [Laughs]. I’m not a stand-up comedian. But I have found that people listen to these stories, even in their primitive form if you will, and that their attention spans are longer than I ever thought. “The History of Me” is old-fashioned; it’s like a fireside chat. And people just sit back and listen. It’s very encouraging to me that people in this day and age, where everything has gone so quickly—computers, MTV, and the pace of media—that people will sit back and they’ll just listen to stories. I find comfort in that. It takes the pressure off me a little bit because I don’t have to get a laugh every two seconds.

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