Cloth­ing Option­al: And Oth­er Ways to Read These Stories

  • Review
By – January 26, 2012

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.

Mar­garet Teich is a free­lance envi­ron­men­tal writer and eco-con­sul­tant liv­ing in New York City. Check out her blog, Gspot​ting​.net.

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