Saturday Night Love

updated 08/29/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1994 01:00AM

FOR MOST OF HER LIFE, GILDA Radner would summon up a two-word chant that she had recited as a child to ward off the shadows on her bedroom wall. "On the first day of every month, I say, 'Bunny, bunny,' to keep me safe from anything bad," the actress once told her best friend, Alan Zweibel, the writer with whom she created such memorable Saturday Night Live eccentrics as Emily Litella and Roseanne Roseannadanna.

The charm eventually failed her. Struck by ovarian cancer in 1986, Radner died three years later, at 42. But her lucky mantra survives in Bunny, Bunny: Gilda Radner—A Sort of Love Story (Villard), Zweibel's memoir of their intense, often ambiguous 14-year friendship. A three-time Emmy winner, Zweibel, 44, cocreated the acclaimed It's Garry Shandling's Show for Showtime and coscripted the (less-acclaimed) Rob Reiner film North, based on Zweibel's novel. While writing Bunny, Bunny, "I never wanted it to end," he says, in the Brentwood home he shares with wife Robin (an ex-SNL production assistant) and their three children. For the almost 10 months it took him to write the book, he says, "as long as I was hearing her voice in my head, Gilda was alive."

Written entirely in dialogue, the book covers 14 years of conversations between the two friends (he called her Gilbert; to her he was always Zweibel), beginning in 1975 when Gilda found the bashful rookie writer behind a potted plant at an SNL brainstorming session. "Can you help me be a parakeet?" she asked, referring to a pending sketch. He could, and they clicked, personally and professionally. Writing in restaurants, revising right up to showtime, they bickered constantly—then always made up at the weekly cast party.

They also teetered on the brink of romance. Here's Gilda in 1975 at a small Manhattan theater showing Godfather II: "Zweibel...I love you." Zweibel: "Excuse me?"

Gilda: "You heard me. I love you. But it scares me, and I don't want to talk about it, so can you please shut up and watch the f—king movie?"

Frustrated, Zweibel called their lack of physical involvement unnatural. "I agree," Gilda said. "And that's why I think you and I should slow things down a little bit more."

Sexually, they never did get up to speed together, but they did shepherd each other through ascending careers, Zweibel's marriage in 1979 and Radner's two major relationships—a brief failed marriage that ended in 1982 to SNL's bad-hair bandleader G.E. Smith; and a happy one, in 1984, with actor Gene Wilder (who says meeting Zweibel "was almost like meeting her dad, like getting permission"). When Radner matter-of-factly broke the news of her cancer—which had at first been misdiagnosed as the Epstein-Barr virus—Zweibel was devastated. "Remember when you were daydreaming in school, and the teacher suddenly called on you, and the pit of your stomach would drop?" he asks. "I knew from her tone that there was no joke. I asked, 'What do you need from me?' And she said, 'Make me laugh.' It was as if we were going into this unknown forest, like kids saying, 'You go this way, and I'll go that way' Gilda was going to be sick for a while, and I was going to be funny. I wasn't allowed to be sympathetic."

At times the humor ran to blue, as when he donated a bottle of blood for a transfusion with this note: "I knew I'd get some fluid of mine into you one way or the other." Gilda, meanwhile, was a trouper, writing a graphic book about her experience and joking about her illness in an Emmy-nominated episode of Shandling's.

When Gilda died, Zweibel was numb. "I never cried. I never really grieved," he says with wonder. Instead, he wrote down as many of their conversations, jokes, fights and confessions as he could—then stuck them in a drawer. It was his wife, Robin, 42, who persuaded him to make them into a book. "Gilda felt very much like a sister to me," she says. "I never felt an ounce of jealousy." Neither did her counterpart. Before reading Bunny, Wilder thought that if anyone could capture Gilda's "frail, nervous spirit," Zweibel could. "And he did," says Wilder.

Zweibel grew up on Long Island, running errands for his father, a Manhattan jewelry manufacturer. "I always went by way of Rockefeller Center," he remembers, "because I knew Johnny Carson was upstairs." After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Buffalo in 1972, he thought about attending law school, but his performance in the LSATs was dismal, and he ended up working in a Queens deli. "You name it, I sliced it," says Zweibel, who spent his spare time scribbling one-liners on paper bags. Before long he was selling jokes to Carson and Dick Cavett.

In 1973, Zweibel began a bumpy stand-up career in New York comedy clubs, driving to and from the city in a Volkswagen chauffeured by another aspiring Long Island comic—one Billy Crystal. One night when "I was having trouble making these six people from Iowa laugh," Zweibel remembers, a stranger approached. "You are the worst comedian I ever saw," said SATL producer Lorne Michaels. "But your material's good." Within days the producer hired him for the show, and Zweibel met a beguiling parakeet.

Near the end, "Gilbert" and Zweibel went to a Santa Monica party where Radner was in rare comic form. "I remember sitting across the room, and I just couldn't take my eyes off her. She had that expression on her face when she would play Emily Litella and say, 'Never mind,' " he recalls. "And I was just so enchanted." Later, walking on the beach, they had their last real conversation. "Zweibel," Gilda asked. "How come we never got married?" "I think," he replied, "we just forgot to."

RICHARD JEROME
ROBERT MASELLO in Los Angeles

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