Comedy writer Alan Zweibel spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone last week to discuss his newly released memoir, Laugh Lines.
Laugh Lines is coming out on April 14, 2020. I read the book within a 24 hour period. When did you decide to write your memoir?
Alan Zweibel: I was asked to maybe seven, eight years ago because I do speaking engagements all over the country—colleges, fundraisers, and corporate events. In the hour that I speak and before the Q&A, I do a distilled version of what this book is. It’s always very successful and very effective. There have been publishers and my literary agent said, why not put this down? I didn’t want to. I don’t want to look back—I’ve got so many other things that I’m still doing. I just wrote a movie with Billy Crystal that finished shooting and was supposed to come out in the fall, starring him and Tiffany Haddish, but I don’t know about the release date. Now it might be pushed back because it is pandemic stuff. My agent prevailed on me and some of my friends like Martin Short, said yeah, you should do it—you have a story to tell? I guess I actually actively started writing it maybe three years ago. I would do it on and off and then once it got sold to the publishing company, it was still on and off because I was shooting the movie with Billy. I was producing the movie with him. I had to be on set every day. But it finally got done. I hope I answered your question.
Well, my next question was going to be how long did it take you to write the book?
Alan Zweibel: Well (laughs), it took a few years. Look, it’s a hard one for me to definitively answer because like I just said, I had all of these stories and this history already down on paper or at least in my head because it’s what I would speak about. Committing it to paper, crafting it into a book, and then going deeper and deeper into those aspects of my past and career that I don’t talk about, it started giving away—I had forgotten about when I first met Michael O’Donoghue the first day of SNL, when he was hanging Big Bird by leash and blind cord. And oh, you’re right. I should write about—I don’t talk about that in my speeches. It built on itself.
Was there an anecdote that you considered putting in but couldn’t really find the right spot?
Alan Zweibel: Well, that’s a pretty good question. There were anecdotes with some of those old Catskill mountain comedians that I wrote about. One guy who lived in the next town when I moved back in with my parents after college—a guy named Bob Melvin had been living in the next town. He lived in a garden apartment with his wife and my parents had a big house. He suggested one day that he and I—I was 21 and he was 50-55. He said, “Your parents have a garage. To make extra money, why don’t want to ask them if we can raise puppies in there and sell them?” What a nutcase! There were ancillary stories about Rodney and Garry but most of them I censored because the ones that wouldn’t show people off favorably, I didn’t want to commit to paper and embarrass anybody.
I’m a big fan of Sid Caesar and smiled when you wrote about the viewing party at Rob Reiner’s house. Is that one of those experiences that you never forget?
Alan Zweibel: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting. When I spoke to Rob Reiner about this book and I asked him some questions we had a long phone conversation. I brought up that night because I think of that night a lot. He remembered everybody who was there and Billy and Larry David and Tom Hanks. Yeah, it was like a milestone evening. But what Rob didn’t know and I told him during our conversation—and I have it in the book. I just never told him. It was an after the fact thing. That evening was this glorious evening and the next day was one of Rob’s children’s birthday parties. I have it in the book. My wife and I and kids pulled up to the house and Carl and Estelle Reiner were in the car right behind us. When I asked Carl, “How was last night for you guys? Like for us, it’s like we died and went to heaven.” And he put his arm around me and what he said, “What you kids did for Sid last night, you gave him 10 extra years on his life.” I told Rob that during the phone call and he never heard that.
To have been a fly on that wall in that writing room!
Alan Zweibel: Oh G-d, think about it! Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart. All those guys. Aaron Ruben. It just keeps on going on and on and on. I mean, the Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner stuff from this past CBS Sunday Morning. I don’t know if you watch it but they had a whole segment on Carl and Mel and how they’re handling the pandemic. It’s really quite terrific. Carl is 98 and Mel is a young 93.
What’s been the hardest part about promoting a book when you have to stay home?
Alan Zweibel: Well, I gotta rely more on social media and media outlets. I’ve got things like NPR. I’ve got things like Marc Maron. I’ve got things like you but I’ve got to do more and more of these. I did Dennis Miller yesterday and I’m gonna do him again. I did his podcast yesterday and in a couple of weeks, I’m doing what’s called Dennis Miller Plus One. I would always do these but the hardest part is—on the one hand, it’s really hard because I love being in front of people.
I had an event that was supposed to take place a week from tonight at the 92nd Street Y here in New York with Lewis Black all about the book. The following Monday, April 20, Larry David and I were both in LA to do the same thing. Both were sold out and all of that. That’s a discouraging because I love being in front of people and selling the book that way. On the other hand, it’s a little easier because I don’t have to be in airports. I’m not flying from here to there. You know what I mean? You’ve got to be a little bit more inventive. I understand the pre-sales are very good and all that. I’ve just got to keep plugging away like this. I see that Norm Macdonald’s got a podcast. Oh, let me call Norm and get myself on that. I’ve got to do a little bit more hustling than ordinary—a little bit of hustling but not going anywhere. I’m just staying here in my house (Laughs).
Has there been much of a change to your daily routine—are you still getting up to write at 5:30 AM?
Alan Zweibel: Absolutely, absolutely. You still wake up at 5:30 AM to write. It’s a little harder to focus because I usually keep the TV on. Well, the thing is the death toll keeps going up just like everywhere else. What is harder about it in terms of focusing is just the mere thought of going for a walk or going for a run or anything like that. You’ve got to wear a hazmat suit. You’ve got to think twice. Gee, is it worth it? Do I have to—just to go down to Whole Foods and then wait in a line for maybe sometimes a half hour to just get into the store. There is a break in the action. There are a couple of scripts that I’m writing right now. I should be much further ahead especially given all this time that we have to right so the focusing becomes a problem. We have grandchildren and we don’t get to see them. So it’s Face-Timing. That part is fine. That’s fine. But as far as working is concerned, everyone I know is still adjusting. I’m working on something with Martin Short, cross country. We’re going to speak today because I sent him a bunch of notes the other day and we’re excited about it. We’re very, very excited about it but at the same time, don’t feel the urgency that one normally feels when you’re working on something. It’s got to be mustered a little bit.
I’m a writer myself. I’ve been reading all these biographies of the old school early studio moguls and I decided while reading the second one to write a satire of the Hollywood Golden Age. There were a few days where I was able to get some stuff done but since then, it just really hasn’t popped out.
Alan Zweibel: That’s what I’m saying. I relate to that to you and what you’re saying completely.
I love how you discussed the writing process behind co-writing one of my favorite books, Lunatics, with Dave Barry. What is the status of the film adaptation at this time?
Alan Zweibel: It’s still somewhat virginal. We had a deal with Universal. They bought the rights. We wrote a script and by the time we handed it in, there was a new administration there. There was a new president, this and that. It really hasn’t made the round since. I think once this is over with, I’m going to resuscitate that because all the studios and all the production companies have new personnel and why not go out? I always looked at that as our version of the original In-Laws, just two strange bedfellows having to be with each other on a trip.
Whenever friends of mine or people I barely even know ask for book recommendations, Lunatics is the first one that I tell them.
Alan Zweibel: Oh, that’s so nice to hear. Thank you. That means a lot.
How far along were things on Here Today before Hollywood started shutting down for business in March?
Alan Zweibel: We’re done. We shot it. It’s edited and we locked the picture. Now it’s a matter of scoring and those kinds of things but we got it in. It’s not like we were shut down mid production. We ended shooting in November and Billy went to work on the post-production. I flew out for the first screening in front of an audience in Pasadena. The post production process was well underway. Stuff that was supposed to happen with music and whatever—we were scheduled to do certain things in April. Alright, let’s do it in June. We got it in. We were lucky.
It’s been interesting to see which films are being postponed altogether and which ones are getting released Digital/VOD.
Alan Zweibel: Well, yeah, I mean look, you think about the marketing now and you think about where the audience is and whatever. This has always been a theatrical release and film festivals and whatever so you just push the hold button. I’m not—Fred Bernstein is the producer with Billy and the two of them—so I just wait for people to tell me what the plans are. Right now, I think that everything is just treading water.
Thank you for taking the time this morning and hang in there.
Alan Zweibel: It was a pleasure talking to you. I was happy to help wake you up.