According to Wikipedia, short stories originate from an oral story-telling tradition usually involving a swiftly sketched situation that quickly comes to its point. How apropos then for sketch comedy and original Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel to nail the short story genre with his latest book, Clothing Optional.
The book begins with a hysterical foreword by Zweibel’s high school English teacher, who is absolutely shocked that her former student can write at all, let alone well. This type of personal humor at the expense of the author persists throughout the book with tales of running the NYC Marathon and being passed by a polar bear, “a thin person wearing two hundred pounds of white fur,” and corresponding with a passive aggressive fan, “Mr. Zweibel… I guess congratulations are in order (for your) Thurber Prize for American Humor nomination. I’m speechless. One can only conclude that this has been a slow year for the comic novel. Sincerely, Kevin.” Like any good comedian, Zweibel understands that when done well, self-deprecation is funny stuff.
The author’s honesty continues as he divulges intimate tales about his own family. For instance, in the title story, Zweibel begs his wife to visit a nudist colony that he is researching, for a much needed conjugal visit. In another story, the author receives valuable advice from his fifth grade daughter after his movie is panned by the critics, “Dad…There’s something I really want to tell you, but I don’t want to get in trouble for it… Those people who are saying those things about you and the movie. F**k ‘em.”
Without putting his own pride or that of his family at risk, the author skirts the boundaries of culturally Jewish stereotypes and realities. Many of the Jewish characters, like his first comic mentor, Stu, or an elderly Jewish woman who sues him after a mild car accident, will resonate with those who enjoy Jewish humor. But Zweibel draws on more than just cultural Judaism; he also manages to entertainingly weave without mocking Torah and religious teachings into his comedy.
Stories like “My First Love,” a childhood memory involving a major crush on the matriarch Sarah, is a good example. In the story, an eleven-year-old Alan Zweibel imagines himself as Avraham Zweibel, or the real Avraham Sarah needs in her life. Beyond the hilarious “romantic” dialogue between an eleven year old boy and a ninety year old woman living 6,000 years apart, are direct passages from the Torah, periodically inserted and modifying the fantasy. After reading Genesis 17:15, young Alan processes new information changing what he had previously thought would be a future without children for Sarah and himself, “Oh, so she wasn’t barren at all… My guess is that anyone who took only seven days to create everything that existed would be able to kick-start that ghost town of a uterus without breaking a sweat.”
If ever a writer could move a short story along in a timely way while still providing ample meat and comic gristle to keep the reader entertained, sketch comedy writer Alan Zweibel is just the man for the job.
On Trying to be Funny in a Room by Myself
by Alan Zweibel
It’s been said that the most creative thing writers do is figure out things to do instead of writing. And while I have no clue who originally said this, I’d be more than happy to research it as it will give me something to do instead of writing.
Once again, the distractions beckon. Attempting to lure me from the laptop whose output my wife and children depend on for shelter and sustenance. Then why are these side trips even a consideration when so much is at stake? Allow me to explain.
I got spoiled at an early age. My professional break came when I was chosen to be on the original writing staff of “Saturday Night Live.” Needless to say, it was great fun. Television writing is social. A team of like-minded people pooling their talents to make a script as good and as funny as possible. A purposeful party that takes place in offices with open doors or around a giant table with pizzas at all hours of the night.
Consequently, that show’s great success opened doors that have allowed me to create my own television programs, motion pictures, Broadway plays, novels, and children’s books — a writer’s dream, as it gives my ideas the opportunity to be expressed in what I believe to be the best form in which they should exist. That’s the good news.
At the present moment, however, I am incredibly lonely because everything I’m writing does not involve the participation of other human beings. Or, for that matter, any creatures even capable of eating a pizza. It’s just me in a room at the mercy of unseen collaborators. Muses who, when they are equal to their job description, tell me what order to put my words in and essentially make me an observer of manufactured characters who take on a life of their own and inform me who they want to be, where they want to go, and what they want to say. People that I enjoy getting to know — like new friends. Friends who keep me company.
But when these mythological writing partners decide to take a day off? Or an extended vacation that renders my new friends either mute or socially constipated to the point where they bore the hell out of me? It’s about that time that I start sniffing around in search of activity. Like watering my vegetable garden an hour after it’s rained. Or seeing what happens when you google Google. To combat this urge, I like to shift gears and redirect my efforts to developing other ideas. Diversifying the portfolio, if you will. This practice not only guards against a lapse in discipline but provides me with an honest answer should someone ask, “What are you working on?” — so that particular someone doesn’t think I’m a liar while I’m lying to him about what I’m working on.
During these arid stretches, I prefer ideas that are not meant to be spoken by actors. Or deserving of all the paper that, when glued to a binding, is commonly referred to as a book. No, I usually drift toward those whose capacity is limited by a single notion that is best told in a burst. A literary shot of adrenalin. A mere handful of pages during which a point is made, explored and fulfilled. In the form of a short story. Or an essay. With every hope that this outburst will not only produce something that a magazine will eventually publish, but also light a fuse under the invisible behinds of my invisible collaborators so we can resume our other work and I can get back to my new friends.
Sometimes this exercise is effective. Sometimes it actually manages to rally the creative troops and jumpstarts the process. And other times? Like now? Upon completion of this very magazine piece with nary an invisible writing partner in sight? Well, I’m off to the mall. Want anything?
Alan Zweibel is an original “Saturday Night Live” writer, and collaborated with Billy Crystal on the Tony Award winning Broadwayshow, “700 Sundays”. His novel, The Other Shulman, won the2006 Thurber Prize for American Humor. Alan’s most recent book, Clothing Optional — And Other Ways To Read These Stories was published by Villard.