‘Let’s Just Make Each Other Laugh’: Inside the Chaotic First Week of SNL
In an excerpt from his new book “Laugh Lines,” original SNL writer Alan Zweibel remembers what it was like at the very beginning.
“Let’s just make each other laugh. And if we do, we’ll put it on television.”
Those were the first words I remember Lorne Michaels saying in the very first meeting of Saturday Night Live. The actors and writers had piled into his office on the seventeenth floor of what was then called the RCA Building to discuss this new show. And to this very day, so many years later, I can still say that reporting for my first day of work as a television comedy writer was the most exciting professional moment I’ve ever had.
When I was growing up, I often came into Manhattan during days off from school to run errands for my dad. Alfran Jewelry, named after me and my sister, was on East Fifty-Second Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues, but no matter where my destination was, I made sure that I went by way of Rockefeller Center . . . 30 Rock, to be exact. I would walk through the great art deco lobby and slow down when I reached the studio elevators with hopes that I’d catch a glimpse of any one of my heroes. Upstairs Johnny Carson was doing The Tonight Show, and in the mid-sixties there was a comedy news series called That Was the Week That Was produced by a man named Herb Sargent that starred, among others, Buck Henry. It excited me. There were people in that building who were doing what I wanted to do someday.
On July 7, 1975, that someday had come.
I entered that same lobby, showed my temporary NBC pass to a uniformed security guy, and rode the elevator up to the seventeenth floor for the first meeting of this new show. As he had told me during my interview, Lorne repeated that there was an audience out there that TV was not playing to—a younger generation with shared political views and social experiences who grew up on television but wanted something more relevant than what was being offered. To achieve this, Lorne had scoured the country (make that two countries, when you include Canada) for a cast and a staff of writers whose individual and collective sensibili- ties would bring a different voice to the medium. He said that this would be a variety show—then elaborated by saying that that meant it would be a variety of different kinds of comedy.
This was made immediately clear to me about ten minutes before our first meeting began that day. When I entered Lorne’s office, I saw Michael O’Donoghue—the brilliant satirist who had founded the National Lampoon magazine, written for the Paris Review, and was going to be a staff writer on this new show—standing at the window that overlooked the Rockefeller Center skating rink and wrapping the cord from one of the venetian blinds around Big Bird’s neck and then raising the blinds as if hanging this yellow stuffed character to show his disdain for the fact that the Muppets were going to have a recurring spot on this new show.
“You like the Muppets?” he asked me.
I did like the Muppets. A lot. In fact, I thought they were adorable. But looking at Michael glaring back at me through wire-rimmed sun- glasses while Big Bird hung behind him looking even more inanimate than it did a few seconds before, I couldn’t help but feel that I might not want to let on.
“I hate the Muppets. Those furry little bastards make me sick to my stomach,” I told him.
O’Donoghue held his glare. For quite a while. And I got worried that he knew I was lying. I remember telling myself to hold our locked look for as long as Michael found necessary, for fear that to turn away could be interpreted as insincerity.
“Good,” said Michael, nodding. “Very good,” he said as if I had passed some kind of nihilistic comedy litmus test.
“I’m Alan,” I said while shaking his outstretched hand. He held his stare. Even when the handshaking part was over.
“You may want to rethink that shirt,” he eventually said.
I was wearing a plaid Brooks Brothers shirt. A brand-new one that I’d bought about an hour before downstairs in a Rockefeller Center men’s shop for my first day of work. For the record, Michael was wearing what I later learned was vintage clothing. A loose-fitting off-white shirt. Loose-fitting, pleated, off-white pants. Oh, and a Panama hat that was, if memory serves, off-white.
“Yeah, this shirt sucks,” I agreed while trying my damnedest to duplicate the same conviction I’d faked when I told him how much I hated the Muppets. “I just threw this piece of shit on, but, trust me, you won’t see it again.”
O’Donoghue stared at me some more before putting what I later learned was a hand-rolled cigarette into his mouth and walking away.
I had never met another person like him before, and I was now a little nervous.
Shortly afterward, the room started to fill with the likes of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Chevy Chase, and Al Franken—none of whom I knew, but I saw how funny they were by the improvs they were performing with one another right there in the room. They were creating short scenes in front of us, and I had never witnessed anything quite like it. Remember, I was little more than a slightly overweight Jewish gag writer from Long Island wearing a plaid Brooks Brothers shirt who now found himself in the same room with people who had arrived here via Second City, The Groundlings, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and an “underground” comedy show that had played downtown called Lemmings.
So sitting there listening to Lorne describe what was going to be an off-Broadway version of what was ordinarily seen on television and looking at the extraordinary comic minds I would be working with, I became so consumed by the fear that, if called upon, I could never measure up, I sought refuge in a corner of the office behind a potted plant. That’s right, I was at the first meeting of the biggest day of my life, and I was squatting behind a plant. Moments later, another unknown actor by the name of Gilda Radner spotted me and started talking to me through the leaves.
“Can you help me be a parakeet?” she asked.
“I think it would be really funny if I stood on a perch, scrunched up my face, and started talking like a parakeet. But I need a writer to help me figure out what the parakeet should say. Are you a good para- keet writer?”
And though I had no idea what she was talking about, I assured her that I was.
“Why are you squatting behind that tree?” she asked. “Nervous?” “A little.”
“First TV show, Alan?”
“Yes. How did you know my name’s Alan?”
“You’re the only one wearing a name tag.”
Yep, I was. I had found one lying on the receptionist’s desk and, well, let’s just call this a gross miscalculation and move on to the part where Gilda asked if there was room behind the potted plant for her to also crouch. Because this was also her first TV show and she was also a little nervous.
So I scooted over, and she came behind the plant and squatted next to me. We got to talking and made each other laugh, and it was there, during that very first meeting of this new show, that Gilda and I decided that we should write together. Actually, it was Gilda who decided that she and I should write together. I was thrilled. And it was also then that she said that we would be platonic friends forever. That I was less thrilled about, because I was already in love.
My life changed immediately. As an apprentice writer mak- ing $350 per show, I could now afford to move out of my parents’ house on Long Island and get a small studio apartment in a brownstone on Manhattan’s extreme West Side about a mile short of Kansas. Still, I was living in New York City, which, in the mid-1970s, seemed incredibly provincial despite being the biggest city in the country. The baby boom- ers were now out of college, and many settled in Manhattan, where they entered the workforce, and back then it was unusual to walk down city streets and not bump into someone you knew. It was a post-Woodstock, pre-AIDS era when sex was still casual and some of the boomers’ newly disposable income was spent on comedy albums and concert tickets. For the most part, they did not watch television at 11:30 on Saturday nights. They were out getting laid. Or, if they were home, they were pissed off that they weren’t out getting laid.
Still, I was indescribably excited. I had a job. A place to go to every day. For at least seven episodes, that is. That was NBC’s commitment to the show they were going to now call NBC’s Saturday Night, because ABC had a prime-time show called Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell that was going to premiere before we did . . . before we did—so it wasn’t until 1977 that the show was officially called Saturday Night Live. Lorne said that he had insisted on a multi-show order as opposed to doing a pilot because he felt it would take a number of shows for the series to find itself.
I was given a desk that had a push-button phone on it. The desk was not in an office but in an open area behind Tom Schiller, who was a writer and filmmaker whose sensibilities could not possibly be further from mine. Tom (whose father, Bob, wrote dozens of episodes of I Love Lucy and All in the Family) knew everything about Eastern philosophy and nothing about sports and ultimately made some of the most memorable stylized short films on SNL, including “La Dolce Gilda” and “Don’t Look Back in Anger,” in which Belushi played an older version of himself visiting the cemetery where all the other cast members were buried. And when our country was considering going metric to be in step with the rest of the world, Tom had Dan Aykroyd describe the Decibet—the new ten-letter alphabet.
Lorne later said he purposely put my desk behind Tom’s, thinking that we would get along, and he was right. Tom and I became good friends, well aware that we both observed each other with the same intrigue as one would a member of another species.
“You know, that binder was on Henry Miller’s pool table,” he said about the book with the 1,100 jokes that had served as my audition for getting the job on the show. Apparently Lorne had shown the book to Tom, who had just so happened to have it with him when he was at some guy named Henry’s Miller’s home.
“Henry Miller?” I asked.
“He wrote Tropic of Cancer.”
“Oh, of course,” I lied. “I thought you said Henry Aaron.” “Henry Aaron?”
“Last season he broke Babe Ruth’s lifetime home-run record.” “Oh, of course,” he lied.
After pushing “9” on my phone dozens of times to call everyone I’d ever met to tell them I had a job, I got to work. Started writing. As an apprentice trying to prove that I belonged, I practically chained myself to my desk, writing commercial parodies, sketches, and anything I thought might make the others laugh. Lorne, Chevy, and O’Donoghue were my triumvirate, and it was they I worked hard to please and learn from. Chevy’s comedy was silly and physical. Not only falling down impersonating President Ford, but I remember a commercial parody of a drug called “Triopenin,” which was just a close-up of Chevy’s hands unsuccessfully trying to remove the childproof cap of a prescription pill bottle; it was hilarious. O’Donoghue was dark. Death was a favorite theme. Like the joke he wrote about the murder of a vaudevillian comic named Professor Backwards, whose act consisted of him spelling and saying words backward, and O’Donoghue reporting that after Backwards was shot, no one responded to his cries of “Pleh! Pleh!” I soon realized that O’Donoghue was a total original, unlike anyone I could ever have imagined existed on this planet. Says original SNL writer Anne Beatts, “Michael was considered to be a tastemaker. Even at the National Lam- poon, he was the one that everybody wanted to please. To make Michael take that cigarette out of his mouth and say, ‘That’s funny’ before putting the cigarette back into his mouth and walking away. You felt validated.”
As for Lorne, he could not have been more encouraging and receptive of what I was writing. I was treated like an equal. Which included being made fun of when it came to my work ethic—with Chevy dubbing me “1,000 Monkeys,” paraphrasing the theory that, given an infinite amount of time and an infinite amount of paper, a thousand chimpanzees typing at random would almost assuredly write one of Shakespeare’s plays.
But I put in my time because sketch writing was a new frontier for me that I forced myself to learn. Prior to SNL, I wrote jokes that played to the ear. Setups and punch lines that sounded funny. Even if the joke painted a mental picture, its delivery by a man dressed in a tuxedo facing his audience was relatively one-dimensional.
But writing for actors who spoke to one another, had wardrobes that helped define their characters, and could get a laugh by merely raising an eyebrow was a new world for me.
It was fun. A lot of fun. As it was when I first started writing jokes for those Catskills guys to tell on a nightclub stage, I was now writing whatever I thought was funny but knowing that what I was doing could very well end up on television. I was even in one of the first pieces ever filmed for SNL. It was a commercial parody written by Al Franken and his partner, Tom Davis, for a product they called Spud—the beer made from potatoes. In it, I was cast to portray a hospital patient who’d just had electroshock therapy, as the tagline for Spud was “For people who don’t know the difference.” So as I was led back to my bed, I tried my best to act like someone who’d just been zapped with God knows how many volts—stunned and zoned out. But after each take, the director Dave Wilson said, “Cut,” and asked that we do it again. After about seven of these unsuccessful attempts, Dave took me aside and gave me the note to not act the part. To just be natural and look the same dazed way I always did. The next take I did exactly what he said and walked into the room the exact way I walked through life. Everyone laughed, Dave yelled, “Print!” and we broke for lunch.
In total, during my five years with SNL, I appeared as an extra in about fifty shows. Whenever they needed a large Semite to be dead, drunk, in the shower, or to play a donkey that the Virgin Mary rode into Bethlehem on, it was me. The scariest thing was how terrified I’d get when appearing on live television. I’d actually lose sleep the night before. Afraid that I’d faint. Forget how to read my lines off the cue cards. Or suddenly develop a case of Tourette’s syndrome, and involuntarily start shouting dirty words or confessing to crimes committed before I was born. As a hedge against such possibilities, Gilda usually gave me a shot of vodka to calm my nerves before the scene started, and, for the most part, it worked. Although there was one piece where I played a corpse lying in a coffin in a funeral sketch, and, if you look closely, the corpse’s hands are shaking.
‘Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier’ by Alan Zweibel will be released on April 14th, 2020 and is available for pre-order now.