“Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier” by Alan Zweibel
Reviewer: Anthony Pomes
There’s a moment in Alan Zweibel’s delightful new book, Laugh Lines, set at the home of famed director Rob Reiner and his wife, Michele. They are screening for friends and family some restored footage of classic comedy TV sketches from Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. Reiner’s father, Carl, is the guest of honor alongside his fellow legendary show writers Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and then-frail show host, Sid Caesar. During that evening’s post-screening Q&A session, as Zweibel tells it, the three comedy giants continually include and pay homage to Caesar as the man who gave each of them their start as writers. So it is that the three key themes at the center of this memory — writing, friendship, and family — have come to best define Zweibel in his work, and his life.
Described on the front cover as a “cultural memoir,” Laugh Lines tells the story of a funny man’s fascinating 40+ year career trajectory through nearly all manner of showbiz. There is a lot to unpack here — much of it hilarious, but just as much of it poignant and melancholy. Although described as a “comedian’s comedian” not as readily identified alongside his fellow comedy friends and contemporaries over the years — from Billy Crystal and Larry David, to the now both sadly late Gilda Radner and Garry Shandling — it is Alan Zweibel’s fast wit and sweet disposition, both in life and on the page, that provides this splendid memoir its warm and tender glimpse into the frequently painful profession of making people laugh.
His early days are especially interesting: Having grown up on Long Island, New York and then attended college at the University of Buffalo — there’s a crucial exchange between Zweibel and Garry Shandling later in the book concerning colleges, so it’s good to remember this detail — the first chapter has us meet up with Zweibel in September 1972. He is seated near the back of an audience at a Catskill Mountains resort called Kutsher’s, hoping desperately that a joke he has written for $7.00 will be delivered properly onstage by a Borscht Belt comic (one of many, around this time) for whom he has written it. I won’t spoil it by revealing the joke here, but you can be sure that Zweibel’s constant jotting down of jokes while slicing meat in a Queens delicatessen was time well spent. He soon thereafter decides to try stand-up, if only to hear his jokes done right in front of an audience. As recalled by fellow Long Islander Billy Crystal in his Foreword to this book, he and Zweibel would “drive home together listening to our cassette tapes of our sets and help each other get better.” (The two pals would later collaborate in the writing and staging of Crystal’s acclaimed 2004 Broadway one-man-show 700 Sundays, for which Zweibel and team rightfully won a Tony Award.) Zweibel swiftly realizes that he’s better at writing comedy than performing it onstage — a truth hammered home by none other than eventual SNL creator Lorne Michaels, who tells Zweibel at a club one night that while he is one of the worst comics Michaels has ever seen, his material happens to be excellent. Flash forward a few days, to when Zweibel arrives to a formal interview with Michaels — armed with a single white binder filled with 1,100 of his best jokes, but also dressed in his father’s maroon polyester leisure suit that he says must have made him look “like a big blood clot sitting on the Long Island Rail Road barreling toward Manhattan” — and Zweibel’s fate as a key part of the original SNL team is sealed.
While those initial years at SNL have been chronicled by a variety of other books, Zweibel’s recollections stand out strongly here as among the funniest and most joyful yet written. And in those years early on, much of the rest of his life sprang directly from this particular TV show experience: He met and fell in love with his wife, Robin (to whom he has remained happily married for more than 40 years), at the show when she joined on as a production assistant; and he also met and fell in love during these years with the late Bernie Brillstein, the man who would serve him as manager and guide Zweibel through much of the rest of his career in the years following SNL.
For this reader, Zweibel’s relationship alongside the late comedy icon Garry Shandling makes for some of the book’s sharpest insights. As he works like a demon across four seasons of the still-brilliant cable TV gem It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, we are given a front seat to much of the growing difficulty and discomfort that seems to have taken place between Zweibel and Shandling over time. Thanks to his wife, he reaches out to reestablish a friendship with Shandling a few years before his premature death due to pulmonary embolism at age 66. While he was more fully aware of his friend Gilda Radner’s illness leading up to her death due to ovarian cancer at age 42, Zweibel admits how relatively unprepared he was when learning of Shandling’s own passing — the vulnerability with which he conveys that pain to the reader is revelatory and brave. In the laughter biz, there are often just as many tears; it’s a testament to Zweibel’s power and integrity as a writer that he shares it just as handily as he does the funnier aspects of life.
Excited at book’s end by a new project with Crystal — a soon-to-be-released comedy feature film co-written by Zweibel titled Here Today — it’s clear that Alan Zweibel’s comedic pace and embrace of life both remain undiminished. Ultimately, it’s his love for family and loyalty to friends that has kept him happily and healthily in the game. And in a business known as much for its low points as its highlights, Zweibel’s ability to keep presenting his best self across all occasions is what makes Laugh Lines such a rich and inspiring triumph.