Alan Zweibel talks Saturday Night Live, Larry Sanders and Garry Shandling

By | November 2, 2009 at 11:12 am | No comments | Interviews | Tags: , , ,

Alan Zweibel

In four decades of comedy writing, Alan Zweibel’s work has provided an enormous range of good answers to the constantly shifting cultural question of “What’s funny?” From the mainstream to the bizarrely experimental, Zweibel has written a number of plays, novels, films, sitcoms, one-liners, and sketches. He sold jokes to Catskills comics for $7 a piece in the early ‘70s before he was hired by Lorne Michaels to be one of the original staff writers on the first five years of Saturday Night Live, where he was responsible for the iconic Samurai sketch with John Belushi and worked alongside Gilda Radner to create many of her most memorable characters.

After leaving SNL, Zweibel met up with another writer/comedian with avant-garde tendencies and roots in traditional comedy: Garry Shandling. In 1986, the two co-created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a bizarre reinvention of the sitcom in which Shandling played himself in a TV show about a comedian fully aware that his life is a TV show, complete with time manipulations and interactions with the studio audience and the cameras.

While some of the jokes and certainly some of the hairstyles are dated, there’s no getting over just how much meta-weirdness Shandling and Zweibel managed to sneak into their underappreciated Trojan horse. It’s fascinating for reasons far beyond its obvious role as a predecessor to Shandling’s brilliant HBO series The Larry Sanders Show. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show is part sitcom, part anti-sitcom, and part acid trip.

The series ran for 72 episodes on Showtime and, later, in reruns on Fox. Thanks to Shout! Factory, the makers of that essential Freaks and Geeks box set from a few years ago, the entire series has just been released on DVD with an astonishing amount of special features, outtakes, and commentary tracks. In the years since Shandling’s Show left the air, Zweibel has worked prolifically; his most recent story collection Clothing Optional was released last year, and he co-wrote Billy Crystal’s one-man show 700 Sundays (which is currently in the process of being adapted into a film). I recently spoke with him about It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. What a spectacularly weird thing.
What a wonderful way to put it. You’re absolutely right.

What’s surprising is that both you and Garry Shandling came from very mainstream kind of comedy paths. Do you think the background you had in writing for Catskills comedians in the ‘70s and the background Shandling had in traditional sitcom writing pushed you in that direction?
Absolutely. What happened was, when I started writing jokes for those comics in the Catskills, it was my entrée into the business. And, it was difficult for me to do it. I was 21, these guys were 40 or 50. They were my parents’ generation. When SNL came along, I was much more comfortable, because it was anti that. We were the sons and daughters of that generation that I’d been having trouble writing for, and I’d rather have been making fun of them or satirizing them.

So, when Garry and I got together, Garry had a sort of a legitimate background. What I wrote on SNL was all about satire and about parody and Garry was more straight than me given that he wrote Welcome Back, Kotter and Sanford & Son. The two of us knew what we didn’t like, and we knew what we wanted to parody.

So, whenever we would get to a point in any script or on the floor in rehearsal or even in editing, we would say, ‘Okay, an ordinary situation comedy would do it like this – they would dissolve from one scene to another – why don’t we just have a turkey there on the counter and then replace the turkey with a skeleton of a turkey and then say, ‘Okay, it’s two days later.’

My goal was always to try to make it more theatrical than it was television, only because I thought that’s what would be different about it. Just like SNL was more of an off-Broadway version of variety shows at the time. Later on, when I did Curb Your Enthusiasm and Letterman and even in some of my plays, it was ‘What is everyone else doing? How do I do it a little bit differently?’

It’s kind of hard to imagine now the unlimited freedom you had on SNL and Shandling’s Show. Not only could you do almost anything, but also you had practically no guidance to work from, since no one had done anything like it before. There’s a scene in the book Saturday Night that describes a moment in the first writers’ meeting of SNL where you ask Lorne Michaels if it would be okay to write parodies of other TV shows. Given everything we know and think about SNL today, that’s kind of crazy.
But, you have to understand, I was 24, everybody else was approximately the same age, give or take a year or two. And we didn’t know what that show was. And, I remember asking that question, ‘Are we allowed to do that?’ It’s not like anybody else looked at me like I was weird. It was ‘Who are we? And what are we doing?/ SNL – the one model we had when we started – was that we had to make each other laugh. And if it does that, we’ll put it on television, and hopefully there’s an audience out there that thinks the same way we do. And that’s exactly what we did.

So, when I got together with Garry Shandling, for me, it was like lightning striking a second time, because sure, there were some classic television shows, like Burns & Allen, where George Burns broke the fourth wall, but we shattered it, driving cars from one set to another and doing some of the other stuff we did. But, by and large, we just wanted it to be different.

Cable was still starting. When we started that show, I moved out to L.A. from New York, and New York City was not totally wired for Showtime. There were pockets or neighborhoods that didn’t even get it. I can’t even tell you how high my Fed Ex bills were sending tapes every week to people who I wanted to show the show that I was doing, because they didn’t believe that I was working.

When we had the power to do whatever we wanted, we created a show that had its own rules. We expanded the rules every week, but at the same time, we tried to be vigilant. I don’t think we said one dirty word in the 72 shows that we did. We had a respect for the medium, and we just tried to play with it.

One of the other strange things about the show, just in terms of structure, is how long it can go before the plot kicks in.
That’s absolutely right. We would go sometimes half a show before the story would begin. We felt that if there was a story that we could hang everything on, it would give us some stability, as opposed to a half hour of video tricks. So, even if it was loosely hung on something that sort of resembled a plot, it was easier to do the tricks that we wanted to do. It felt a little more organic than just playing around. The episodes that Garry and I always felt were not as successful as the other ones were the ones where at the end of the show you went, “What the hell was that?” But, we like that also.

In the commentary track on the episode you directed (“Family Man”), you say, at one point, “I have no idea what that means.”

First of all, it was so long ago. It was the first time I’d ever directed anything. Back then, a traditional situation comedy had 200 or 220 cuts in it. I think that particular episode had maybe thirty or forty cuts. I was hell bent on letting the action just take place in front of us, instead of indicating to the audience what they should be looking.

We certainly have our favorite episodes, though. Mike Nichols called me about two months ago, because Billy Crystal and I are working on a film version of 700 Sundays, which is a play that we wrote that won a Tony award. And, we’re working on the movie version, and we’ve been talking to Mike Nichols, and Mike asked me if I could get him a copy of “The Graduate Episode.” Of course, he directed the movie. So, I sent it to him, and I hadn’t seen that episode in many years. We used a lot of parodies of other TV shows, but this was doing a parody of a movie that was such an iconic thing for a whole generation.

That’s one of the first episodes that really beings to explore how bizarre the premise of the show is. Were you still figuring out the possibilities as you went along?
We were figuring it out. We went by a certain impulse. In “The Graduate Episode,” I can’t remember what we decided we couldn’t do. We ultimately figured out – and when I say ultimately, I would say about half a dozen shows in – that Garry lives in this condo complex, and he happens to have the apartment that’s on television. Anyone who lives in that apartment is on television and has his own TV show. Once we figured that out, we said, “Okay, he’s got a certain amount of omniscience. He can look in on other peoples’ lives. He’s very rarely surprised, or, if he is surprised, we can make fun of that.”

But, in “The Graduate Episode,” we go in and out and up and down. On the one hand, I’m going to say there’s a theatricality to him not going through the invisible wall of Mrs. Robertson’s house, but going around and going through the door. But, on the other hand, you see cameras, Garry talks to the stage manager who is reading the script of the show that is happening right now, you have Norman Fell coming through the door as a guest saying that he was watching the show and seeing that we were having trouble with The Graduate. I mean, god, you could throw your back out trying to figure out where you are. So, in the suspension of reality, the audience is going, “Okay, I’m going to go along with this ride,” and the stuff that we try to take out is the stuff that we thought was too jolting.

And you don’t think of this as an anti-sitcom?
You know, it was critics who used that phrase. In practicality, I would be wrong if I said it wasn’t an anti-sitcom, when Garry and I said, “If an ordinary sitcom would do it this way, we should do it that way.” But, we never set about to set the situation comedy on its ear. We only tried to be funny in a way that was different. And, if that meant being unconventional given what the sitcom formula and the sitcom standard faire was at the time, so be it. But, we didn’t wave the flag and say “We’re an anti-sitcom,” even if some critics were doing that very favorably.

You’ve called the show a fourth grade play that you were putting on every week. I want to suggest that it’s actually a live-action version of an animated TV show. The obvious thing is to say that’s a precursor to what Garry would do in The Larry Sanders Show, but I see a lot of this in The Simpsons too. [A number of writers from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, including Michael Reiss and Al Jean, went on to work for The Simpsons.]
When you say that it’s like a live action animated show, I’ve never heard it put that way, and I think you’re a thousand percent right. Kids love this show, because you have a so-called grownup acting goofy and acting kid-like.

When I said it was a fourth-grade play, I meant that we did it in the sense of let’s do the best we can, let’s not be pretentious. We blew the whistle on everything we were doing; we were totally exposed. That being said, in its own way, it helped others who came after us to show some of the possibilities if given the chance. We were very fortunate, cable was just starting, and Garry had just done a number of very successful specials for Showtime. And, all of the networks turned it down. I think HBO turned it down too. We pretty much backed into Showtime, by default. That’s my understanding.

Do you think it’d be possible for a show like that to get on the air now?
I think things go in cycles, and I don’t know where the cycle is right now. When you think you can’t do anything innovative, something like Ally McBeal or Family Guy comes along. As far as doing a show like this, I would hope you can. I do know that in the wake of the Shandling show, when I would go to try to sell shows that had a little bit of trickery in them, sometimes it would be a hard sell and sometimes it would be an easier sell. If in 2009 or 2019, you’re asking if it could happen now, I’m not trying to be evasive when I say I sure hope so. Maybe if this DVD is a success, people will say, hey, that’s fun, let’s do another one or something like it.

About the Author

Rob Turbovsky