(This is an excerpt from the Alan Zweibel‘s new book, Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier published by Abrams Press. © 2020 Alan Zweibel)
So there I was in 2015 at the cocktail party hosted by NBC before the Saturday Night Live “40th Anniversary Special.” This evening was all any of us had been talking about for some time.
The previous fall Billy Crystal and I were sitting in a Manhattan Chinese restaurant when Jason Sudeikis came over to our table, introduced himself, and after a brief chat left, saying, “See you at the 40th.” A few weeks later, I ran into Paul Simon, who told me that he would be touring in Australia but planned to fly back just for the SNL 40th and then fly out again shortly afterwards. And even Lorne Michaels, to whom I’d written an e-mail wishing him good luck at the start of the current SNL season, wrote back, signing off with “See you at the 40th.”
“See you at the 40th” became a mantra among all of us who’d been associated with Saturday Night Live over the previous four decades. It was a fraternity whose members felt a real kinship with one another no matter which era of the show they had been a part of. We had the camaraderie of army vets — even when they hadn’t served together. I looked around the room and saw old friends. Elliott Gould. Candice Bergen. Jane Curtin. Laraine Newman. There was Larry David, who is one of my oldest friends. Keith Richards, who’d looked old when the show launched in 1975 and who’d somehow managed to stay looking just as old. There was Penny Marshall sitting at the edge of a huge flowerpot in the center of the atrium. And there was Sir Paul McCartney sipping a glass of wine and chatting with Martin Short while Senator Al Franken grabbed an hors d’oeuvre from the same passing tray as Jimmy Fallon. And when I went to the men’s room, I saw Peyton Manning at the urinal to my left and his brother Eli at the urinal to my right. It was, to the best of my recollection, the first time I’d ever peed between two All-Pro quarterbacks while I was wearing a tuxedo.
Some nerves accompanied the excitement. To begin with, my weight. As I had done with every one of my high school reunions, I started dieting about six months earlier, but was it enough? Or did I stand the chance of overhearing the notoriously quiet Prince, whom I’d never met, come out of his shell long enough to whisper to the notoriously dour Bill O’Reilly, whom I also didn’t know, “Boy, it looks like Zweibel has put back those same 35 pounds he’s been gaining and losing since his Bar Mitzvah.”
But the bigger concern, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, had to do with another kind of insecurity. With how I regarded my status in this room. Whether I was content with what I’d accomplished both professionally and personally to account for my time since I’d left the show. Truth was, this was such a formidable crowd that even the most prominent icons in this gathering were craning to see who else was there.
“Jesus, look at all the celebrities that are here,” said a familiar voice behind me.
“It is a little intimidating, isn’t it?” responded another familiar voice.
I turned around and couldn’t help but raise my own voice when I saw exactly who was speaking
“You’re intimidated!” I yelled at Steven Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg. “Then how the hell am I supposed to feel?”
“Invisible?” Whoopi asked before giving me a big hug.
“That’s about right,” I answered.
Comedy writers learn early on that we have a high degree of anonymity. Our words are spoken publicly by others who often have famous faces. Or by unknown people on their way to having famous faces. So the fact that I was hardly a high-profile figure this particular evening was understandable. Still, in the weeks leading up to this reunion, I had taken inventory, given careful consideration to the hits and the foul tips, and concluded that I was fine. I had somehow weathered the challenges of the previous three and a half decades. And though I was humbled by the giant shadows cast by so many around me, I felt confident that I had enough checks in the plus column to comport myself among this collection of cultural overachievers without embarrassment or the need to make excuses.
“Zweibel, I really liked your last book.”
Once again I turned around, and this time saw Dan Aykroyd, whom I’d lost touch with and hadn’t seen in a couple of years. I had sent him the novel Lunatics that I’d co-authored with Dave Barry, but I’d never heard back from him.
“You read it?” I asked.
“No, but my assistant said the 30 pages she read were good and that I’d enjoy it.”
“You’re such an asshole,” I said, laughing.
“I love you, man,” he said before enveloping me in a bear hug. I’d forgotten about Danny’s bear hugs. Danny is intense. Whoopi’s hug didn’t hurt. Danny’s hurt a lot.
“See you after the show, Zweibs.”
He then ran off.
As the lights started flashing to signal that we should begin working our way to Studio 8H, I paused to remember it was here that everything had begun for me. It was the 40th anniversary of the show for which I was one of the original writers. The show that I’d worked on with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, in addition to Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Eric Idle and my boyhood hero, Buck Henry. It was also the show where I’d met my wife, Robin, who was now holding my hand as we entered Studio 8H as if it were a shrine.
Robin had been a production assistant who joined the show at the beginning of our third season. We fell in love and dated secretly until a big fight in this very studio, at which point our relationship ceased being a secret to everyone at the network. We got married Thanksgiving weekend of the show’s fifth season.
“Excited?” Robin asked as we looked around and saw Martin Scorsese and Tom Hanks and Tina Fey and Jerry Seinfeld and, for some ungodly reason, Donald Trump (yes, the same Donald Trump) and the Reverend Al Sharpton (yes, the same the Rev. Al Sharpton) taking their seats.
As I looked around, I also saw the ones who were missing. The ones who had left us since we had all worked here. Gilda, a can of Tab in her hand, off to one side, making members of the crew laugh. Belushi, dressed as a samurai, raising an eyebrow before slicing a tomato with a sword. Fellow writers like Herb Sargent, Tom Davis and Michael O’Donoghue showing pages with rewritten lines to the actors. Director Dave Wilson blocking a scene while eating a jelly donut. I not only felt their presence but could see them as they were back then. Frozen in time. Forever the same age. Wearing the same clothes. Unaware of what the future had in store for them.
“Yeah, really excited,” I answered Robin, emerging from the daze. “Look at what we were so lucky to be a part of.”
Like everyone who attended that evening, I was celebrating the longest-running staple in television comedy I had been fortunate to be with, that had provided enormous opportunities for me as a result. The doors it opened. The people I got to work and become friends with. And the life I’ve been privileged to lead. Tonight would be both a celebration as well as a milestone on a journey that had begun for me some 42 years earlier. Long before I ever dreamed of peeing between two All-Pro quarterbacks while wearing a tuxedo.
— Alan Zweibel
Alan Zweibel is an original Saturday Night Live writer whom The New York Times says has “earned a place in the pantheon of American pop culture.” He has won multiple Emmys and awards from the Writers Guild of America and The TV Critics Association for his work in television, which includes It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (which he co-created and produced), Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Late Show With David Letterman. A frequent guest on late night talk shows, Alan can currently be seen on stage at New York’s Triad Theater as an ensemble performer in Celebrity Autobiography. Alan’s theatrical works include his collaboration with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award-winning 700 Sundays, Martin Short’s Broadway hit Fame Becomes Me, the off-Broadway plays Happy, Comic Dialogue, Between Cars, Pine Cone Moment and Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner-A Sort of Romantic Comedy, which he adapted from his bestselling book. Alan has appeared in episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm and Law & Order. But the production he is most proud of is the family he’s co-produced with his wife Robin — their children Adam, Lindsay and Sari along with their grandchildren Zachary, Alexis, Kylie, Jordan and newest member, Sydney.