My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier: A Cultural Memoir
By Alan Zweibel
A VERY PUNCHABLE FACE
By Colin Jost
It’s not literally true that “Saturday Night Live” has been around forever. But it is true that for two generations of viewers — and, for that matter, for all the members of the current cast — there has never been a time it didn’t exist.
The undeniable fact, though, is that until the fall of 1975 it didn’t, and somebody had to invent it. Lorne Michaels justifiably gets most of the credit for bringing unorthodox and irreverent sketch comedy to late night, but he didn’t do it by himself.
Alan Zweibel was among those present at the creation. A member of the original “S.N.L.” writing staff, he never became as famous as the performers he wrote for, or even fellow writers like Michael O’Donoghue and Al Franken (who got a lot more screen time than he got, or wanted). But few of his colleagues have gone on to more diverse or distinguished careers.
In “Laugh Lines,” Zweibel looks back, affectionately and informatively, at a career that began when he was a young deli worker grinding out jokes for old-school borscht belt comedians in his spare time, and that, after his “S.N.L.” years, included rewarding collaborations with, among others, Garry Shandling, Billy Crystal, Martin Short, Larry David and Dave Barry.
Like most show-business memoirs, “Laugh Lines” becomes less interesting as its author becomes more successful. The stories of people making it up as they went along at “S.N.L.” — and especially of his close personal and professional relationship with Gilda Radner, about which he has written before but still has a lot to say — are fascinating. But “Laugh Lines” eventually devolves into a litany of name-dropping and “And then I wrote …” reminiscences, which is much less so.
Zweibel’s failures are ultimately more fun to read about than his triumphs. His saga of writing “North,” the 1994 Rob Reiner flop that famously inspired Roger Ebert to declare that he “hated hated hated hated hated this movie,” is probably more entertaining than the movie itself, which I confess I have never seen. And while I do remember seeing an episode or two of “Good Sports,” the ill-fated and extremely short-lived 1991 sitcom Zweibel created for Ryan O’Neal and Farrah Fawcett, I don’t remember it well — but I have no doubt that it was as big a misfire as Zweibel says it was, or that the stars made the crew’s lives as miserable as he says they did.
Colin Jost has been a “Saturday Night Live” writer for 15 years, a tenure 10 years longer than Zweibel’s. And by virtue of having been on camera since 2014 as co-anchor of the “Weekend Update” news segment, he is almost certainly better known.
But Jost, who was born in 1982, obviously has less of a career to reflect on, and his is more one-dimensional, even if he acknowledges that he is “preparing mentally to leave ‘S.N.L.’ in the near future.” (He says he hopes to continue doing “Weekend Update” at least through the 2020 election, so “maybe Donald Trump and I will leave our jobs at the same time!”)
It is not surprising, then, that a lot of Jost’s memoir, “A Very Punchable Face” (to be published in July), is not about his work but about subjects like his strange childhood — he didn’t speak until he was almost 4 years old — and the many stupid things he did in his teens and 20s, about which he writes with dry wit and, as his title indicates, a great deal of self-deprecation.
Jost also makes a cameo appearance near the end of “Laugh Lines.” “I first remember meeting Amy Poehler, Seth Meyers and Colin Jost on the picket line during a Writers Guild strike,” Zweibel writes, right after saying he doubts that he could write for “Saturday Night Live” today because “I’d sound like an old man trying to figure out what would make younger people laugh.”
That’s both a striking confession and a telling observation: Comedy does indeed change with the times. Jost arrives at a similar point from a different direction when he recalls the epiphany that led to his career as a stand-up comic, which in turn led to “S.N.L.”
Although he had long loved comedy, he writes, it did not occur to him that he could be a comedian himself until he saw young performers like John Mulaney and Zach Galifianakis doing “weird material” at an East Village club in the early 2000s. (One performer, he recalls, “read aloud from a diner menu and described what kind of fart went with each item of food.”) The comedians he had admired growing up, like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock, “seemed of a different generation and also way more polished.” The purveyors of this looser and more askew comedy showed Jost a new path, just as the nascent “S.N.L.” had done for Alan Zweibel.
The notion of Seinfeld and Rock as the old guard took me aback, but for Jost’s generation that’s exactly what they were: The age difference between Colin Jost and Jerry Seinfeld is actually more than the 21 years that separated Alan Zweibel and Morty Gunty, the first Catskill comic he wrote for.
So, yes, comedy changes. On the other hand, I love seeing John Belushi as a samurai warrior in sketches written by Zweibel 40-something years ago as much as I love the interplay between Jost and Michael Che on “Weekend Update.” And if I’m in the right mood, even a vintage Catskill joke, like Zweibel’s line about the pacemaker that accidentally opens the garage door, can make me laugh.
If there is a lesson here — and it’s fine with me if there isn’t — it’s just this: Funny is funny.