Alan Zweibel has been funny for at least four decades, launching his career into the stratosphere in 1975 as a writer for the first incarnation of NBC's "Saturday Night Live." On his first day there, he met Gilda Radner, who would become one of the comedy show's breakout stars and his closest friend. Together, they created the characters Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella, and maintained a special friendship until her death from ovarian cancer in 1989.
Five years later, Zweibel recounted the relationship in the book "Bunny, Bunny: Gilda Radner — A Sort of Love Story," which he soon transformed into a play that mingles comedy and a quirky romantic tension that has seen multiple productions since its off-Broadway debut in 1997. The newest staging is at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank through March 2.
The New Jersey-based writer, whose play with Billy Crystal, "700 Sundays," appears on HBO on April 19, plans a visit to the Falcon this week to see himself and "Bunny Bunny" brought to life. Zweibel, now 63, spoke with Marquee last week about his years as Radner's closest confidant and the reasons for writing their unusual love story.
Does it surprise you that the play has continued to live on?
It's a tribute to Gilda. People still seem to be intrigued with her. She was one of those personalities that they felt they knew — even though they never met her. Plus, it hits other themes — boy/girl relationships, friendship, the loss of people in your life.
You meet a lot of unusual characters in comedy. How did she stand out for you in that crowd?
There was a chemistry that we had. We made each other laugh. I didn't know anybody, and she was new to New York. We were like two kids that gravitated to each other. There was this vulnerability there that I responded to as well.
What was that scene like at the first incarnation of "Saturday Night Live"?
It was exciting. [Producer] Lorne Michaels said "Let's just make each other laugh and we'll put it on television." And that's what we did. I was there for the first five years, and we spent all of our time in the office or in the studio. On hiatus weeks or over the summer I would do college lectures and they would come out to see a writer. I'd get applause if I told them I wrote Roseanne Roseannadanna. This was unusual. But I didn't know how unusual it was until I left the show. When I was there, it was a bona fide hit, but there was no way anyone could have predicted it would last 38 years.
How would you describe the kinds of things that you wrote for Gilda?
It's funny, there are scripts I'm even writing today where I think, OK, how would Gilda have done this? When you write, you have your own little cast in your head — who's gonna play this, who's the prototype for that? I like those kinds of characters, not only funny but the sense of vulnerability. There's a wit to them. A little quirky.
Did you ever think of your relationship as a potential subject for writing?
Never. I wrote the book at the behest of my wife Robin in '93. I resisted it. It was too private and I didn't want to make money on that relationship. She said, "The hell with that. Your best friend died and you haven't cried yet." So I did it for my own therapy. I wanted to revisit the relationship one more time. The book is pure dialogue: I talk, she talks, I talk, she talks — for 14 years of our friendship.
The experience of writing that must have been a lot different from other writing you've done.
It was so personal. The book was mostly legal pads on the passenger seat of a car — on my way to a TV show I was doing, or a movie I had written or a play. This was the after hours, the in-between stuff. I had to reach back. The first draft of the book is probably the most accurate in terms of what happened. Then when I decided to publish the book, I looked at it like an editor: "Gee, I can use a better joke here."
James L. Brooks helped me stage some readings. The first ones were at the Geffen Theatre in L.A. and the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway with Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus reading the lead roles. Then I found out that Holly Hunter did it with Woody Harrelson. It always worked because if the actors looked like they went with each other, that's where the heart of the play is — the love story. There's no impersonation. It wasn't written that way.
Was it an unusual experience to see yourself portrayed like that?
Somebody running around saying they're me? Oh yeah. And when I get out to L.A. next week to see it — I don't know if its going to be weirder for me or weirder for the actors. I have not seen it since the late '90s.
Was it intentional that you haven't seen any of the other productions?
Well, they're far away. So I wasn't able to get to Pittsburgh that day.
Will you be sitting in the front row at the Falcon Theatre?
No, I probably will go see it with Garry Marshall or Penny Marshall — the producers. I have no idea where they will be sitting, but I'm praying that it's towards the back. These guys have a performance to give. I don't want the guy playing "Alan" to see me there to see if he's doing me right. That's not fair.
My guess is that it's going to be very nostalgic and very emotional for me. She was godmother to my three kids. She was my wife's best friend towards the end of Gilda's life. I suspect its going to touch a couple of nerves.
There is a moment in the play where Gilda asks why you two never got married.
It is a very romantic notion. The fact of the matter is, it would have been a disaster. [Laughs] I was like the guy version of her, she was the girl version of me. We were both sort of flaky. It would have been the blind leading the blind. That's the reality of it. That conversation did take place, but it's a very romantic look back. At the time, it would have lasted 10 minutes. It's best this way.
You've been on camera frequently, but you've never really pursued a performing career.
Oh, I can't act. I do a great me. That's my range. I've never had the desire to act. I can't do accents. I love showing up as me.
Is there something you're missing?
Yeah, it's called talent. When I was doing SNL, I used to get very nervous whenever I was on camera. Gilda would have to push me. If they needed a big Jew to look scared or nervous or dead, I would go out there. There was one sketch where I was a corpse, and I just had to lay in a coffin, but I was so nervous that if you look closely my hand was shaking. That's how nervous I was as a dead person.
I like going on the talk shows now. I love doing my speaking engagements. I'm comfortable in my own skin. I can write stuff for me or take stuff from my real life and make it funny.
What: "Bunny Bunny – Gilda Radner: A Sort of Romantic Comedy"
Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank.
When: Through March 2. Performances Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m.
More info: (818) 955-8101, falcontheatre.com
Follow Steve Appleford on Twitter: @SteveAppleford.