Episode 304: Alan Zweibel, Bess Kalb, Jason Molina

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
John Belushi as samurai character from "Saturday Night Live"
(C) Sean Davis via flickr CC 2.0

Today, Alan Zweibel talks about a lifetime in comedy from his days at “Saturday Night Live” to co-creating the groundbreaking TV show, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” Also, comedy writer Bess Kalb channels the inspirational voice of her Grandma Bobby Bell in her debut book. And biographer Erin Osmon introduces us to the Midwestern singer/songwriter Jason Molina.

Featured in this Show

  • Comedy Writer Alan Zweibel On 40 Years Of Making People Laugh

    In his new memoir, “Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier,” veteran comedy writer Alan Zweibel takes readers on a hilarious behind-the-scenes tour of what it was like to be one of the original writers on the comedy institution “Saturday Night Live” and to collaborate with the late comedian Garry Shandling on the groundbreaking deconstruction of the situation comedy, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.”

    After graduating from the University of Buffalo in 1972, Zweibel sold jokes for the Borscht Belt standup comedians in the Catskills. He charged seven dollars a joke, with one of his favorites being: “They have a new thing now called sperm banks, which is just like an ordinary bank. Except here, after you make a deposit, you lose interest.”

    Zweibel started doing standup himself. One night in May 1975, he had a particularly rough set at a “Catch a Rising Star” club in New York City. A young man with long hair approached him in the bar afterward and told Zweibel that he was one of the worst comedians he’d ever seen, but his material wasn’t bad. That young man was Lorne Michaels, who was scouting the clubs in search of new talent for the revolutionary new comedy television show he was creating for NBC.

    “Lorne Michaels saw me, wanted to see a bunch of my jokes, and I typed up what I thought were my best jokes, eleven-hundred of them,” Zweibel told WPR’s “BETA.” “I gave him this tome of eleven hundred jokes and he opened it. And he read the first joke and he just sort of nodded and went ‘very good.’ And then he closed it up.”

    And what was that first joke? “The joke was, and this is to show you how old it was from the reference points in it. I’d written a joke saying that the post office was about to issue a stamp commemorating prostitution in the United States. It’s a 10-cent stamp. If you want to lick it, it’s a quarter.”

    Just a few days after that meeting, Zweibel learned that he had got a job as a writer on the brand-new show.

    One of his proudest “Saturday Night Live” accomplishments was writing the well-known samurai sketches for John Belushi.

    “Buck Henry was to come in and host and Lorne said to me, ‘You worked in a delicatessen before you got here, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Can you write ‘Samurai Deli’?’ And I went, ‘Oh, yeah, you bet.’”

    Zweibel is also very proud of the character Roseanne Roseannadanna that he created with Gilda Radner.

    “A writer named Rosie Shuster had written a sketch called ‘Hire The Incompetent.’ It was a public service announcement where people who got fired from their jobs because of their incompetence. This was to say, ‘Please hire these people even though they’re incompetent,’” Zweibel said.

    Radner put on a wig, used a dialect, and was scratching her arms and picking her nose for her appearance in the sketch. A few weeks later, Zweibel had dinner with Radner. Zweibel was running the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live.”

    “And I said, remember that sketch you did? I said, why don’t we take that character and move her into ‘Update,’ give her a name and let her do consumer reports. And she would get a letter every week from a letter writer named Richard Feder from Fort Lee, New Jersey. I would write a letter to her in his name. That’s my brother-in-law from Fort Lee, New Jersey,” said Zweibel.

    Zweibel left “Saturday Night Live” after five seasons and did some freelance work. A few years into the transition, he met Shandling and did some work on a Showtime special for the comedian.

    “It was like lightning struck a second time, as it had done with Gilda. He was somebody I could write with, where we got each other. We could make each other laugh. But our senses of humor were just a little different to make the alchemy something that neither of us could have done alone. After the special was over, he told me about an idea that he had for a show where he would play himself, Garry Shandling, the comedian who would talk to the camera,” said Zweibel.

    Zweibel told Shandling that he had a very similar idea. So they joined forces to create a meta take on sitcoms called “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.” The show seemed to take the Pablo Picasso quote, “Every act of creation begins with an act of destruction,” as its guiding principle.

    “Garry and I, when we would write this show, we would say, ‘Okay, ‘Three’s Company’ would do it this way. They would dissolve from this scene to that scene. Well, what I had Garry do was we went theatrical. I would have Garry look to camera and say, ‘Okay, here’s where we are in the story. It’s now three hours later and I have to deal with this cop.’ And we would have the cop standing there. And he (Garry) would turn back into the scene and continue the episode.”

    After all he’s accomplished in his comedy career, is there anything that Zweibel’s itching to do?

    “A brochure,” he quipped. “I’ve never written a pamphlet.”

    Besides the brochure, we can also look forward to a movie that Zweibel co-wrote with Billy Crystal. It’s called “Here Today.” Crystal directed the film and co-stars with Tiffany Haddish.

    “I’m 70 now. Billy’s a couple of years older than me and I would say to him more than once: ‘Look how old we are. And we’re still doing this,’” said Zweibel.

  • Author Bess Kalb Channels The Voice Of Her Grandmother

    Bess Kalb spent eight years writing comedy for Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night television show. She was nominated for an Emmy for her work and also wrote for the 2012 “PrimeTime Emmy Awards” ceremony hosted by Kimmel. Now she’s written her first book — a best-selling poignant and funny memoir called “Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A true (as told to me story).” She told WPR’s “BETA” the origin story behind the book.

    “I was tasked with delivering a eulogy at my Grandma Bobby’s funeral, and I was at a complete loss for words. I didn’t know what to write, how to properly eulogize the woman who meant so much to me. And so I decided to just do a riff on one of the voicemails that she left me,” Kalb said.

    “I did it for my whole family. It killed,” she continued. “They were laughing. Some of them cried. And most of all, they recognized her voice and what I was doing. So I just kept doing that. I kept sort of extrapolating from conversations we had and voicemails she left me. I kept writing as her. And that was a way for me to feel close to her when she was gone.”

    “It was one of the easiest writing assignments I’ve ever had. It really did come naturally to me,” Kalb said. “She and I spoke so frequently during her life that I felt like I had almost downloaded her into me. I had 10,000 hours of conversations that I could sort of autogenerate her at a moment’s notice.”

    In the book, Kalb goes back three generations by having Grandma Bobby talk about her own mom — Kalb’s great-grandma, Rose. Rose died long before Kalb was born but Kalb has vivid memories of Grandma Bobby’s constant references to her. Through research and interviewing family members, Kalb learned that her great-grandma was “nothing short of a hero.”

    “She’s an immigrant who escaped the shtetl (a small Jewish town) in the Pale of Settlement in Belarus under czarist control when she was 12 years old. And she did that by herself and she did that with nothing,” Kalb said.

    Kalb’s great-grandma came to the United States unable to speak English, and managed to raise four boys and a daughter in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Kalb said that Rose wasn’t a very affectionate mother. But as a woman who came from a culture and life of suffering, Rose sacrificed everything for her children. Rose taught Grandma Bobby lessons that Kalb has internalized. Lessons such as “if you’re having a rotten day, buy yourself an ice cream soda and a new hat.”

    Kalb interviewed her own mom several times for the book. And from these conversations, she learned that Grandma Bobby was a “distant bad mother and a close, good grandmother.”

    “Initially, the project of the book was to explore how love can skip a generation,” Kalb said. “And that was something that I think a lot of people can relate to, which is grandmothers who weren’t necessarily present moms ended up being super-attentive, doting grandparents. And what I found was much more complex than that. My grandmother deeply loved my mother and my mother deeply loved her mother, even though their relationship was fraught and tense and full of rebellion and fights. I found that there were some big moments in my grandmother’s life with her daughter where she was absolutely a hero.”

    Such as the terrible first marriage that Kalb’s mother found herself in. Grandma Bobby showed up at Kalb’s mother’s door in the middle of the night and drove her to the airport to leave the country and stay at her friend’s home in Canada. Then Grandma Bobby and Kalb’s grandfather handed the husband a check to walk away.

    “I think there’s this sort of distance that makes a relationship closer, that she wasn’t my mother, she wasn’t the person responsible for getting me into my winter jacket, you know, insisting that I eat my broccoli,” Kalb explained. “She was somebody who would just sort of waltz in and have the fun times — a friend. And so with that sort of layer of removal from my everyday life, I felt like she and I just got along without any of the tension that a parent-child relationship might be subjected to.”

    Grandma Bobby was always supportive of Kalb’s desire to write: “She always celebrated even the smallest paragraph … She learned how to use a laptop because most of my writing early in my career was online.”

    This encouragement gave Kalb the confidence and determination to enter a writer’s room where there were only a couple of other women writers and a dozen men.

    Kalb points to two important life lessons that she learned from her grandmother.

    1. “The most important life lesson is if you’re in a dressing room and you have to think about whether or not it looks good, it doesn’t look good.”
    2. The second is “when the earth is cracking behind your feet and you feel like the world is going to swallow you up, you put one foot in front of the other and you keep going forward.”

    So what does Kalb think Grandma Bobby would think of her book?

    “I think she would be glad that she has this megaphone now,” said Kalb. “My grandma loved to tell stories and I think she’d be really heartened by the fact that everyone who’s read the book now knows her stories.”

  • Author Explains Why Midwestern Singer/Songwriter Jason Molina Matters

    Singer/songwriter Jason Molina was born in the Rust Belt in 1973. He was a visionary and prolific artist who built a faithful and solid indie following as the frontman for Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. With shades of Neil Young in his voice and a poet’s ear for lyrics, Molina’s minimalist style made fans out of his contemporaries, including Ireland’s Glen Hansard. Molina died in March 2013 of organ failure related to alcohol abuse. He was only 39.

    Erin Osmon is the author of the definitive biography about his life and music, “Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost.” WPR “BETA’s” Steve Gotcher spoke with Osmon over Zoom to learn more about the story of Molina’s life and music and how the song “Cabwaylingo,” off his debut album, struck a chord with her.

    “One of Jason’s songs sort of filtered down to Evansville (Indiana) through a cassette tape trading network that we had,” Osmon said. “It’s from ‘The Black Album,’ which is the first Songs: Ohia record. And it really struck a chord in me because it embodied a lot of the punk qualities that I loved. It was a low-fidelity recording. And it had kind of an underground spirit. It was an acoustic guitar-based song. It was really plaintive and poetic and sort of sounded like Neil Young.”

    Osmon says she thinks Molina is “a really important figure to the fabric of the arts in the Midwest.”

    Molina spent his childhood in Lorain, Ohio, a northern industrial town 25 miles west of Cleveland. His father taught middle school.

    “He grew up in a trailer park essentially,” Osmon said. “But it’s not what you might typically think. It was really kind of a pastoral and beautiful landscape.”

    Molina lived with his brother and sister; they grew up fishing, exploring the woods and doing a lot of reading.

    “All of his ideas were born of this imagination that was fostered in this remote area where he grew up,” Osmon explained. “And I really relate to that, having grown up in southern Indiana two hours away from any major city. I didn’t have a lot of access to record stores. I couldn’t just walk in and buy any CD that I wanted.”

    Osmon said she thinks this is a story shared by many children who grew up in the Midwest away from major cities and from the coasts. As a result, you have to create your own ideas and build your own scene.

    “It’s a really DIY (Do-It-Yourself) pursuit. And I think Jason is really just a paragon of that. He’s a pinnacle of what happens when a Midwestern kid who’s keenly intelligent and curious about the world and exploratory — what could happen when all these things kind of come together and are given a shot.”

    In her book Osmon writes that Molina found his footing in the progressive campus of Oberlin College.

    “Jason’s time at Oberlin was really transformative,” Osmon said. “Before Oberlin, Jason was playing in kind of a wild punk slash alternative band with some guys from high school. But when he went to Oberlin, he transformed into this guy with a guitar and became more of a folk singer. And he met like-minded people both on and off campus who were supportive of his new idea about who he was as an artist.”

    A few of Molina’s friends gave one of his demo tapes to singer/songwriter Will Oldham (also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy) at a Cleveland show. Oldham was impressed and issued Molina’s first single through Drag City, the iconic indie record label in Chicago. Molina went on to sign with the homegrown indie record label, Secretly Canadian, based in Bloomington, Indiana. He became the label’s flagship artist. In 1997, Secretly Canadian released Molina’s “Songs: Ohia” album (also known as “The Black Album”).

    Two years later, Molina received a fan letter from the Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard. As Osmon writes in her book, Hansard said that “The Black Album had become a sort of religious refuge for him, something he enjoyed musically but also craved emotionally, much in the vein of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ or Nick Drake’s ‘Five Leaves Left.’”

    “(The Black Album) has this really timeless quality because the fidelity of the recording is pretty low,” Osmon said. “It was recorded in the house in Oberlin. And oftentimes, Jason was singing in a bathroom with his guitar. So it has a lot of Jason’s oblique poetry sung over acoustic guitar. And that’s it. There’s minimal instrumentation by some of his friends at Oberlin. It’s just one of those records that came out at the right place and time. I think it affected deeply the people that were able to find it. The cover was really beautiful and mysterious. It’s just black and it has a screen print image of a hair on the front. And I think, you know, Glen had the same experience that many of us did when we heard this record. It was really unique. It was really touching.”

    In 2000, Molina released the album, “The Lioness.” The first song is a really haunting lament called “The Black Crow.”

    “That song really socked me in the gut the first time I heard it,” Osmon said. “And ‘The Lioness’ is a lot of fans’ favorite record for good reason, but it is a darker, moodier record. Jason started playing with electronic or synthesized elements a little bit on this record. It was recorded in Scotland with members of (Scottish indie rock band) Arab Strap and also (Scottish folk musician) Alasdair Roberts, who’s a Drag City recording artist and a great friend of Jason’s. It’s also a love record, but it’s more mature and it’s more, I would say, holistic in terms of the work that goes into relationships and kind of the heartache that you can feel.”

    Molina’s struggle with alcoholism ultimately led to his death. On March 16, 2013, he was found dead in his Indianapolis apartment.

    But his legacy lives on, Osmon says.

    “He is really part of the canon of great American songwriters. In my opinion, he belongs in there with Townes Van Zandt and with Neil Young and Dylan. And all the greats. He was never on a major label. He was never playing huge stadiums. I think his body of work and his point of view and his poetic outlook are deserving of that level of attention, of that level of study and at that level of celebration.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Alan Zweibel Guest
  • Bess Kalb Guest
  • Erin Osmon Guest

Related Stories