A talk with "It's Garry Shandling's Show" writer Alan Zweibel
by Jason Bailey
The name of Alan Zweibel is one you might not recognize right away, but for us comedy geeks, he's one of the legends. In addition to extensive resume of impressive television and film writing and producing credits, he was one of the primary writers for the original, legendary seasons of Saturday Night Live, and he co-created (with the show's star) the groundbreaking series It's Garry Shandling's Show, serving as that show's producer and frequent writer for its entire four-season run on Showtime (with Fox airing re-runs). This month, at long last, the entire series is being released on DVD by Shout Factory, in a handsome, 16-disc set. I had the chance to chat with the affable Mr. Zweibel about the show, its influences, SNL, and the final TV appearance of his good friend and collaborator Gilda Radner.
JB: Well, first of all, I know I speak for a lot of TV buffs and comedy fans when I tell you how great it is to finally get "It's Gary Shandling's Show" on DVD. I guess we should start at the beginning--did you know Gary before you worked together on the show, or were you put together specifically for this project?
AZ: Well, what had happened was, we were both managed by the same management company. I was with Bernie Brillstein, he'd been my manager since I was on Saturday Night Live; he was with Brad Grey. And when Bernie and Brad got together to form their own company, Garry was doing a special for Showtime. I think it was called Garry Shandling's 25th Anniversary Show, and it was a parody of a talk show, a Johnny Carson Tonight Show, where he made believe he was on the air for 25 years with this talk show, and they were having their anniversary show, where they made up clips and they showed a retrospective. And they were having, well they needed some fresh eyes for this script. So Bernie Brillstein called me, asked me if I knew who Garry was. I had seen him on TV, I thought he was funny. I read the script, I thought I could be of help, I went out to California, helped with the special, and then he and I got to talking about a show that he was thinking about... I told him a show that I was thinking about... they were both very, very similar. And we said hey, why don't we just combine them and do them together? So that's what happened.
JB: So you guys came up with the actual concept for the show fairly early on, without a lot of false starts? Was it always that kind of non-conventional idea?
AZ: Well, you know, I'll tell you... how it started in Garry's mind was he played himself, talking to camera, right? I had an idea where, because I was married and had two children already, so my idea for a show was the same thing, but where it was a married guy who was a comedy writer, and the married guy spoke to camera. So we combined the two ideas, if you will. And maybe writing the pilot, we knew what we didn't like on television, we know what was sort of conventional, so we tried to figure out how we would do it, how we would come up with our own way of doing something. You know, with my Saturday Night Live background, we had, when we started that show, we had always looked at, okay, a typical variety show would do it this way, how would we do it? And with It's Garry Shandling's Show, we pretty much did it the same way--okay, this is what's ordinary, what can we do different about it, which is fun, but also satirizing whatever the convention was.
JB: Gotcha. One of the things that's great about the show--and I know this has been commented about ad nauseam--is that it's sort simultaneously cutting edge and hip and new, but it's also a bit of a throwback, and influenced by things like "The Burns and Allen Show" or "The Jack Benny Program." How cognizant were you guys of those influences when you were putting the show together?
AZ: We were very cognizant, very respectful of it. We knew exactly what our roots were. And so what we did was, we always acknowledged that yeah, George Burns spoke to the camera, and he spied on everybody by looking at their lives on a TV monitor. And the simplicity of Jack Benny and being presentational like that, absolutely. We were very cognizant of it. So what we did was, we went back to that as a jumping-off point, and then as we went forward, started parodying--what else could you do? What else could you know to have the same kind of omniscience that George Burns did? We acknowledged the audience, and then "The Graduate" episode was the first time that we drove a car from one set to another, you know, and you saw the audience. And so we started expanding, but our jumping-off point by all means were the shows that you just cited.
JB: Right. And that's what great, is how you started with those ideas, and then expanded them into things like "The Schumakers Go To Hollywood" episode, where Grant and Pete end up in the studio audience...
AZ: (Laughs) Right.
JB: And throughout the series, there's a wonderful kind of love of old-school show-biz, with the guest stars and things like the Red Buttons episode. Were you guys more interested in sending up those conventions and that style of comedy, or sort of embracing them, or doing a mix of both?
AZ: That's a wonderful question. Garry and I both had an affection for what the roots were, we embraced it. Now if we had fun with it, that's only because that's what we do. But to have Red Buttons on the show meant that we were having a guy who was there at the inception of television, who helped start the whole thing with his shows... it was, you know, look who we had! We had Carl Reiner, we had people who made us laugh when we were growing up. We had Norman Fell in "The Graduate" episode, and with all due respect to Norman who was great, he was fantastic, if I'm not mistaken--and I could be wrong here--in the discussion that Garry and I had as to who was going to come through the door from The Graduate, I was pitching my friend Buck Henry, who wrote The Graduate. So once again, it was an acknowledgement of the people who made television possible, movies possible, people that we idolized, you know? I mean, one of the greatest thrills I've gotten from It's Garry Shandling's Show was as recently as two months ago, when Mike Nichols asked me for a copy of "The Graduate" episode. He had seen it many years ago--Mike directed The Graduate--and Mike had asked me for it a few months ago because he wanted to show it to his wife, Diane Sawyer, because she had never seen it.
AZ: So this is total respect for what preceded us and what influenced us.
JB: At the time that the show aired, there was not a lot of original programming on Showtime, like there is today. And then when Fox started re-airing episodes, it was kind of a similar situation, where that was a fledgling network as well. Was it frustrating to have that kind of relatively low visibility, or do you think it allowed you to take chances and experiment in ways that you might not have been able to do otherwise?
AZ: It was frustrating, because Showtime, like you said, didn't have a lot of original programming. New York, where I'm from, Manhattan wasn't totally wired for Showtime. I remember we would do these shows, I would run up an enormous FedEx bill, sending out tapes to people to prove that I was indeed working, and this is what I was doing! So they gave us total freedom, which we embraced and made the most of, but we were frustrated that people hadn't seen it, or had heard about it but hadn't seen it, weren't able to access it... And so when Fox came along, it was an opportunity to say, okay, maybe more people can see what we're doing. We were proud of it, we were very, very proud of it, and even when we failed--when there was an episode as good, let's say as the preceding one or our other ones--that we tried, there was a nobility to the intent, you know I mean? But there was a great degree of frustration, that there weren't more people that knew what we were doing.
JB: Well, a couple of nights ago, I was watching the second season episode where Garry falls down the hole, and I'm watching a show where literally nothing happens for the first five minutes of the show, except that the theme song runs twice and people are wandering around looking for him. And all I could think in the back of my head as I'm watching was, "If this show had been on ABC at that time, there's no way that they could have gotten away with this opening."
AZ: Well, you're absolutely right, because what happened back then... Well, once again, there was no cable back then. When we started there was no Fox. It was ABC, CBS, and NBC and that was television. Situation comedies were, by and large, formulaic. You know what I mean, there was "X" amount of jokes per page, you know what I'm saying?
JB: Set-up/punch-line, set-up/punch-line, sure.
AZ: Yeah, so where we come along, and we don't start the show, or start on an empty set because Gary's down a hole... (laughs) There's no other place we could have done it! Nobody else would have even stood for it!
JB: Yeah. I'm sitting there, and I'm laughing because it's funny, but I'm also laughing that you guys had the balls to do it, and got away with it.
AZ: There was such an audacity that we had--it was always the "what if." There are certain things that writers, producers, you know, go "what if," and nine out of ten times, maybe even more frequently than that, you are told, "No, you can't!" And here we come along and go, "what if... Whoah, they're not gonna stop us! Holy shit! They're looking the other way, my God!" (laughs)
JB: I have to ask about this--I know you worked a lot with the Gilda Radner on "SNL," and how close you two were, and she made her final TV appearance on "It's Gary Shandling's Show." It's a wonderful episode. How exactly did that appearance happen?
AZ: Well, very simply, Gilda loved the show. And when I came to L.A. to do it, she and I were sort of reunited as friends, because there was no emails, there was no Internet or anything like that, and I lived in New York, and she was out here doing movies. And when I came out here to start the show, she and I sort of resuscitated our friendship. After that, you know, when we started the show, she got sick, and what she had requested of me as her friend was just to make her laugh, just to make her think of positive things and not the harp on what was happening to her body. So Garry and I would do a show every week, and we would send her a tape, like a Hallmark card, just to make her laugh, she was such a fan of it, you know? And when she started feeling stronger, she kept on--well, she kept saying all along, "Once I feel stronger, I want to come on and do your show." And she had an open invitation obviously, she was Gilda, she was my buddy, and Garry admired her; everybody with the show, you know, the week that she decided, "Okay, I can do it this week," you know, they were just in awe. But what had happened was, Gilda said, "Okay, I'll do the show." But then she got some cold feet, thinking she hadn't been on TV in six or seven years at that point, and was afraid that no one would recognize her when she came through the door. She looked different, her hair was shorter, and she wasn't Roseanne Roseannadanna anymore, you know, that person. And also she was afraid people had forgotten who she was completely, because it had been so long. And just as I was about to tell her don't be silly, she stopped me and she said, "You know something, I have to do your show. My comedy is the only weapon I have against this fucker." That's what she referred to the cancer as, "this fucker." And she looked at me and she said, "Zweibel, can you help me make cancer funny?" And so the cancer jokes that got into that episode, she wrote. And there were more of them that didn't get in, for one reason or another, but this was a mission of hers, to show the world that you can still do stuff, and get the better of this disease. And she got nominated for an Emmy for that appearance, and she felt so good that she and Shandling and I started talking about creating a show for her for HBO. As a matter of fact, somewhere in my house, in a box somewhere, are those notes. But then, you know, she had, you know...we thought she was in remission, and then there was a relapse, and then the inevitable happened. But that's basically how that episode came about.
JB: Well, I just watched it again last night and it's a wonderful addition to her legacy.
AZ: Oh, that's nice to hear, thanks.
JB: Now, one of the great things about the DVD set is that so many of you are involved in it--you and Garry and several of the other writers do commentaries and interviews for the featurettes and so on. How long had it been since you'd looked at these shows, and how do you think they hold up?
AZ: What a treat it was to come back out here, this was a few months ago, I came out here to do the commentary--with Garry, by myself, blah blah blah. And they put us in a room, and they showed us a load of episodes. And you see on the DVD, we comment on them. I can't even begin to tell you what a treat it was, because yeah, there was something nostalgic about it, but there was an also an emotional detachment that I had--and I'm sure Garry did too--where we had forgotten what we had done. So we were looking at it with a certain objectivity as if it was, "Oh, look at this show." And genuinely enjoyed it, and were laughing! And on occasion, we'd look at each other and go, "Holy shit, we did that?" (laughs) It was really, really fun. And then I remember going out for lunch after one of the sessions, it was me and Garry and Tom Gammill and Max Pross, and we just went through it all. It was like playing catch-up about the work. And it was the kind of show that attracted really good writers, and really good people--the fun of it was, for me, it was lighting striking twice after being part of the original Saturday Night Live gang. You were given the opportunity to do what you wanted to do, but responsible enough not to abuse the privilege. You know what I mean? In the four years we were on, I don't think we said the word "shit" ever, even though we could have because it was cable. It was about the work. And now that it's taken 20 years or whatever it is for the DVDs to come out, we're just clicking our heels! We're like, ah, finally! Every time The Onion would print the list of the shows that should be on DVD but aren't, I'd see the show, I'd see it elsewhere, and I'd go, "Damnit, let's do it!" So we're thrilled!
JB: I would be remiss if I didn't ask at least one quick question about "SNL". The fifth season is coming out on DVD in December, and this was a kind of transition season where you appeared on-camera much more than in previous shows, it was the last season for a lot of you. It's not a season that is as widely seen as the first four years--are you looking forward to that particular season being more widely available?Yeah, I am looking forward to the availability of this one in particular. When we were doing it, I didn't know it would be our last year. So, there was always that thing of, would Lorne be coming back next year, would we be coming back next year, blah blah blah... So even when we were doing the show that year, and as the season started winding down, there were murmurs of this and that. I think there was a part of all of us that thought, oh we'll probably be back. So we didn't necessarily know it was the last season. So that being said, I think of the work that was done on that is really good. It's so many years ago now, it's hard for me to--I sort of remember what we did. I know we did Lord Douchebag, which was a bit that I had mentioned to Franken and Davis many years before... So there were certain things that were memorable to me that I'm really happy that people are going to be able to see.
JB: Well Mr. Zweibel, it's a tremendous pleasure to talk to you, I'm such a fan of your work. Thank you so much for taking the time.
AZ: Thank you very much, it's a pleasure."It's Garry Shandling's Show: The Complete Series" will be released on DVD on October 20th. "Saturday Night Live: The Complete Fifth Season" will be released on December 1st.
DVDTalk chats with William Friedkin and Emile Hirsch
DVD Talk chats with Laurie Berkner
Colin Trevorrow Interview
Down in the Holler: Acting out with the The Heart, She Holler Crew