Review of 'Laugh Lines' by Alan Zweibel

One of the benefits to having two older siblings when growing up is that they had the opportunity to “babysit” me, their younger brother. Oftentimes those nights fell on a Saturday which meant that I was treated to some fare on television that many other kids my age didn’t have the chance to enjoy in those days. On those Saturday nights, I watched the CBS-TV lineup which consisted of Mary Tyler Moore, All In The Family, The Carol Burnett Show and MASH. Legendary shows that, overall at the time, went over my head. Yes, I loved laughing at Ted Baxter’s and Major Frank Burns’ buffoonery on those shows, but viewing those same episodes years later makes me realize how many of the references and the context that I clearly missed as a kid.

It didn’t take long for my sisters to introduce me to NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which aired at 11:30p Eastern, beyond late for a kid in those days. I loved laughing at a guy named Chevy Chase who made falling down an art, but I wondered to myself, “Can he get away with this? He’s making fun of the president? Can they jail him for that?” As it turned out, Chevy and scores of others “got away with it” for now, almost one half century! Well, these days, I do wonder if a certain actor, who plays the current president, is okay. Let’s hope he’s not getting “wiretapped.” Still, the ‘SNL’ political implications and current event references went well over my head, especially on the “Weekend Update” segments in which Mr. Chase “anchored.” But, on “Weekend Update,” I loved the News for the Hard of Hearing and Emily Litella. On one segment, Mr. Chase did a bit with a man named Alan Zweibel. Perhaps it was the guy’s name or maybe just his huge head that made Mr. Zweibel’s appearance memorable to me. 

As those first five years of ‘SNL’ went on, I noticed Alan Zweibel’s name in the credits as a writer. LIttle did I realize at the time that Mr. Zweibel was beyond instrumental to that show/franchise’s success. Mr. Zweibel worked with and wrote for comedy legends including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and far too many to count in this space.

Years later, I stumbled on Zweibel through social media where he has been posting about his myriad accomplishments in show business. From the sketches that he wrote for SNL to the many books that he wrote. Those successes are better collated in Zweibel’s latest book, Laugh Lines: My Life Making Funny People Be Funnier. Part autobiography/part career “greatest hits,” Zweibel writes about crafting jokes for Borscht Belt comedians and making ends meet at a New York deli. While it all sounds exhausting to go through that just to work in the world of comedy, Zweibel shows that perseverance more than pays off. Zweibel vividly writes about painstakingly writing jokes for comedians who were part of a scene that was becoming extinct. To say that this guy paid his dues would be more than an understatement. 

It took a while for Zweibel, like so many after him, to get that legendary offer from Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels. Zweibel must have felt “10 feet tall” after getting that offer to join the fledgling show. Wait a minute, make that feeling about “14 feet tall,” the guy is already like seven feet tall. Who knows, maybe he is eight feet tall these days. 

The most touching moment in the book is when Zweibel meets cast member Gilda Radner. I refuse to give away the details here, because well, you need to buy the f-ing book -- because Zweibel worked hard on it from writing a rough draft to dealing with editors. Anyway, it’s such an innocent, sweet memory. And that’s Zweibel’s style: going from absolutely hilarious anecdotes to diving into a heartfelt moment like when he writes about his sister Franny to what sounds like an awesome wife, Robin. 

I’m sure a billion people have their own “SNL connection story,” so I don’t want to make this review about myself. So, I used to watch the show just about every Saturday night. I was a Belushi/Aykroyd fan while one of my sisters was a huge ‘Gilda fan.’ Actually she was more than a fan. She tape recorded Miss Radner’s Roseanne Roseannadanna and studied those bits, so much so she did an act at the local synagogue. Little did I know that Mr. Zweibel was behind those “Weekend Update” appearances. Now that ‘s what I call an impact on the culture.

So, now I didn’t become a comedy writer like Mr. Zweibel. I flirted with the idea for years and even took a comedy class and did a standup routine. The whole world didn’t appeal to me, but I came close to working in comedy: I have been in the news business for over 30 years. So, for me, the two worlds have been colliding since I joined the business and are now reaching a crescendo that I never predicted. Hmm, what goes around, comes around. 

As usual, I digress. I mentioned earlier that a writer like Zweibel can go from the ultra-funny to poignant. That is beyond evident when watching 700 Sundays, the one-man Billy Crystal play in which Zweibel collaborated. Zweibel is right: so many connect with the Crystal performance because it’s based on family -- and we all come from families. In this play, Billy Crystal made me deeply laugh at one moment to cry the next. I know Zweibel is behind that! The same goes for how he writes about his relationship with Gilda Radner. So much of comedy is based in tragedy, but it’s true that it is a mechanism for dealing with life’s many unfortunate events.

A few years after Zweibel’s SNL tenure, I had the opportunity to see Mr. Chase live at a fundraiser along with Robin Williams and musical guests, Peter, Paul and Mary. One of my best pals Chuckie has been friends with PP&M’s Peter Yarrow. Somehow we got into that event. I got to see up close, Mr. Chase doing his pratfall. Well yeah, it hurt -- no wonder he went on pain meds. As a teen, some of Mr. Williams’ Reagan jokes went over my head, but wow, what a talent! I mention this because Zweibel was lucky enough to work with Mr. Chase as well as Dan Aykroyd, who I always admired. Here was a guy who reinvented himself after his close friend/comedy partner died at a very young age. I swear I’m not making this about myself. By the way, I got to see Dan Aykroyd here in Atlanta during the Olympics. 

Anyway, go out and buy ‘Laugh Lines. Zweibel leaves you “wanting more,” more ice cream that is. Okay, that wasn’t at all funny. Seriously, Zweibel’s book is “to-the point,” unlike this review which is longer than the book.


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