In Alan Zweibel’s play “Bunny Bunny — Gilda Radner: A Sort of Romantic Comedy,” the saga of his platonic love affair with the famed comedian, Radner first spots Zweibel as he hides behind a potted plant on his first day of work on the iconic late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” (“SNL”) in July 1975.
The series’ talented stars, including John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, are milling about the room, and the intimidated Zweibel — recently hired as a writer for the show — is afraid they’ll call on him to present ideas for a skit.
Just several months earlier, Zweibel had been working at a Queens deli, scribbling jokes for Borscht Belt comics for $7 a bit, while plying his trade as a novice stand-up comic in New York clubs. He had just finished a dismal performance one evening when “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels approached him at the bar and said, “You’re the worst comedian I’ve ever seen, but your material isn’t bad. Do you have anything else to show me?”
Impressed by the 1,100 jokes Zweibel sent him, Michaels promptly hired the 20-something Zweibel as a writer on “SNL”; that’s how the author found himself huddling behind a palm tree on that day in 1975 when Radner suddenly peered between the leaves and tried to draw him out by asking him to help her create a bit in which she would impersonate a parakeet. At the subsequent staff meeting, Radner credited Zweibel with the idea for the skit.
“Bunny Bunny” (opening in previews Jan. 29 at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank; regular performances begin Feb. 7) details that act of kindness, as well as the ensuing 14-year friendship between Zweibel and the comedian, which lasted through marriages and failed relationships and the duo’s creation of iconic Radner “SNL” characters like Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna until Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in May 1989 at 42.
“We just had an instant connection,” Zweibel, 63, recalled during a recent telephone interview from his home in Short Hills, N.J.
Zweibel would go on to become a lead writer on “SNL” and to co-create Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” as well as collaborate on Billy Crystal’s one-man show,.“700 Sundays.” With Radner, he said, he shared a Jewish brand of neuroses.
“Gilda used to call me a big Jew, and any time she was mad at me, she’d say, ‘You’re acting like such a Jew,” the multiple Emmy-winning Zweibel recalled with a laugh.
“There was also a commonality in terms of what made us laugh and the characters in both of our families, so we had a kind of shorthand,” he added. “I had a male version of her [hang-ups]: She had problems with guys; I had problems with girls, and there was an insecurity that we both shared in those early years. So we were dependent on and leaned on each other.”
The two artists never became lovers, despite a mutual attraction: “Our histories with the opposite sex were such that when any relationship ended, it crashed and burned,” Zweibel explained. “So we took turns trying not to let that happen to us. When I’d get a girlfriend, I would always keep an eye on Gilda to make sure she was OK, and she’s do the same in my direction.”
But, he admitted, the chemistry sometimes created tension in their friendship.
“I sometimes grew resentful of the platonic nature of the relationship, just as a guy,” he said. “And workwise, there was residual resentment that I would be up all night writing a [skit] while she was out on a date or at a club. She would come in the next morning and take a red pen, like a teacher, and correct what I had done, and I’d look at her corrections and go, ‘Oh, s---, she’s right.’ Then I would take it back upstairs to my office and go, ‘I’ll show her,’ and try to top her, and that would go on all day. By the time she did it on the air, we hated each other’s guts and weren’t talking. But we would often call and make up the next day.”
Zweibel was there for Gilda through her battle with bulimia and her chronic fear of abandonment; she confronted him when his cocaine use threatened his relationship with his wife-to-be, Robin, an “SNL” production assistant.
“One day, Gilda came into my office and said, ‘I know we hate each other right now, but you’re acting like an ass----; you’re f------ things up, and you can’t let that girl get away,’ ” he recalled.
Like Radner’s fans, Zweibel was moved by the actress’ fragility.
“She bared her soul, even if she was wearing a wig or using a funny accent,” he said. “Her vulnerability came through, and you just felt like holding her and saying, ‘Don’t worry, Gilda, it’s going to be OK.’ ”
In the late 1980s, when Radner told him she had been diagnosed with cancer, she had just one request for her best friend: “Make me laugh.”
It was Radner’s husband, Gene Wilder, who phoned Zweibel early on the morning of May 20, 1989, to tell him the actress had died: “I just went around in a stupor,” Zweibel said of that day. “May 20 also happens to be my birthday, so it’s as if Gilda said, ‘You’re not going to forget the day I died, ass----!”
Zweibel served as a pallbearer at her Jewish funeral, which took place during a torrential downpour in Connecticut, and over the next four years, he said, “Her death was like a throbbing, an ache.” Yet, even so, he felt he was unable to sufficiently mourn the loss of his friend.
“It was only when I started writing the book [version] of ‘Bunny Bunny’ that I cried for Gilda,” he said.
Zweibel said he wrote that 220-page “outburst” all in dialogue form, strictly as therapy, and that he never intended to publish it until Wilder and others encouraged him to do so. A play version of the 1994 memoir premiered three years later off-Broadway, where it enjoyed a successful two-month run.
Zweibel titled the book and the play “Bunny Bunny” after the good luck phrase the superstitious Radner used to utter on the morning of the first day of each month to ward off bad luck. (Once he phoned her so that her first word would be “Hello,” and her wrath was genuine, he recalled.)
Zweibel hasn’t seen the play since its off-Broadway run, when viewing the production was sometimes painful. He’s not sure what to expect when he experiences “Bunny Bunny” at the Falcon: “I’m wondering what nerves it is going to hit.”
For ticket information, visit this story at falcontheatre.com.