Comedy writer seeks the naked truth in Clothing Optional

Ask Alan Zweibel about possessing the mind of the comedy writer and he compares it to a two-headed monster.

“One goes to the ATM, gets stuck in traffic,” he says. “Then there’s a second head that without announcement or provocation just emerges, hovers and comments on the life. It’s probably the most apt description I’ve ever heard.”

The screenwriter and award-winning Jewish humorist readily credits playwright Neil Simon for the monster metaphor, but Zweibel, 58, is pretty good at coming up with his own.

His new book, “Clothing Optional,” is a collection of essays, short stories and one-act plays that spans the comedic landscape. Most are autobiographical, but Zweibel frequently brandishes artistic license to sling his tales in unexpected directions.

Zweibel will speak and sign copies of his book at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center on Thursday, Jan. 22. It kicks off the JCC’s 2009 Comedy Series, which runs through April.

The book’s title comes from a story about his experience visiting a nudist colony (he opted to go naked).

Zweibel leavens his humor with plenty of Jewish culture. He writes of a childhood crush on Sarah — yes, that Sarah — studying Torah at Hebrew school. One of his plays features a colloquy between God, Joshua and a caterer named Mendel. And his story about writing jokes for Borscht Belt comics boasts enough shtick to fill a Catskills resort.

“My writing and my sensibility undeniably has a Jewish bent to it,” says the New York resident, “especially this book. There is a natural connection between the words there and the Jewish community.”

His credits include “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and the novel “The Other Shulman,” which won a Thurber Prize for humor writing.

Zweibel first gained fame as a “Saturday Night Live” writer during the show’s early years. He was there when the world discovered John Belushi and Gilda Radner.

“I was 24, an apprentice writer,” he says. “We were just thrilled to be working on TV. [Producer Lorne Michaels] said, ‘Let’s just make each other laugh and if we do, we’ll put it on the air.’ Was there a feeling the culture was going to be impacted? I don’t think we thought in those terms.”

Though he’s enjoyed much success, he’s had his share of disappointments, including one doozy. Zweibel wrote “North,” a 1994 movie remembered today mostly for the wrathful response from critics. Roger Ebert famously said of it, “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie.”

Not even the thick-skinned New Yorker could shrug that off, comparing the insults to being “treated like a war criminal.” Zweibel writes of the incident in his book, mostly in terms of his then-teenage daughter, Lindsay, who ended up comforting him.

Zweibel’s happy family life runs counter to the typical Hollywood train wreck story. He and wife Robin (whom he met at SNL) have been married for years, and have three grown children.

He recently became a grandfather for the first time. “Nothing has made me feel younger than having a grandchild,” he says. “You feel like you’re a young dad again. I can play with him and then say to my wife, ‘What time is the movie? Let’s go.’ “

Appearing at JCCs is not out of the ordinary for Zweibel, who enjoys Jewish audiences. “It’s like being with friends, where you have a commonality, a shorthand,” he says.

More than once, fans have come up to him after an appearance and invited him to their homes for coffee. He always takes them up.

“I’m thrilled,” he says, “because I don’t have to go to back to the Holiday Inn for an hour or two.”

Alan Zweibel appears in conversation with comic Ed Crasnick at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22, at the Osher Marin JCC, 200 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael. $15-$20. Information: (415) 444-8000 or

“Clothing Optional” by Alan Zweibel ($22, Villard Books, 248 pages)

More laughs to come at Marin JCC

Alan Zweibel won’t be the only jokemeister visiting the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center over the next few months. The JCC’s Kanbar Center for the Performing Arts will present a comedy series through April, starting with Zweibel on Thursday, Jan. 22.

Also slated to appear: Eddie Carrol as Jack Benny, recounting the comedy legend’s life and best routines, at 8 p.m. Jan. 31, and actor Evan Handler in conversation with newspaper columnist Leah Garchik at 7 p.m. March 12. The series wraps up with an appearance from actor, comedian and impressionist Kevin Pollak on April 18.

For more information on the series, call (415) 444-8000.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.