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Here Today: Alan Zweibel on His Collaborative Friendship with Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal’s “Here Today” charts the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The film is the result of another.

Crystal co-wrote the screenplay with Alan Zweibel, with whom he last collaborated on Crystal’s Tony-winning one-man show, 700 Sundays. But their friendship dates back almost 50 years to when the two twenty-somethings were aspiring stand-up comedians, carpooling from Long Island into Manhattan for gigs.

Funny and emotional, “Here Today” is based on Zweibel’s short story, The Prize, which tells the funny-‘cause-it’s-true story of Zweibel’s fraught dinner with a woman who won him in an auction and had an allergic reaction to her seafood entrée that sent her to the hospital. Crystal stars as Charlie Berns, an acclaimed comedy writer of movies and plays, and is currently the most senior member of an “SNL”-type sketch series. Tiffany Haddish costars as Emma, an aspiring singer 30 years his junior, who has no idea who he is, but followed through on the dinner to spite the actual bidder, her ex-boyfriend.

Zweibel, the Emmy, Tony, and Thurber Prize-winning writer, whose 2020 memoir, Laugh Lines ranks with Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up as an exhilarating account of a life spent in comedy, spoke with about working with Crystal lo these many years, using comedy to grapple with life’s more serious issues, and how he finally received closure with Roger Ebert a decade after the infamously devastating review of “North.”

“700 Sundays” was about Billy’s life and family, but “Here Today” has its genesis in something that happened to you.

I was a prize at a silent auction. I wrote about it for the now-defunct California Sunday section of the L.A. Times. I told the story anecdotally on "Late Night with David Letterman." Billy was watching and he texted me about taking that story and making a movie about a May-December relationship. We had no idea what road we were going to travel. But that incident became the jumping off point when these two characters meet.

The film defies expectations by making this more of a friend-com and the loving relationship that develops between Charlie and Emma once she learns that is experiencing the onset of dementia.

We had seen all these movies with the older men and younger women, and we didn’t want to do that. Around that time, my father started getting dementia, and Billy had a relative in his family, same thing. So what was personal for Billy and me was addressing things that were affecting people we really cared for, and the movie became a story about a writer who needs to finish his book, which is an elegy to his deceased wife, before he runs out of words.

And yet the film is funny. It reminded me of seeing Robert Klein several years ago when he had turned 50, and he had included in his act a song about colonoscopies. Have you reached a point where you are compelled to use humor to address life’s sneak previews?

That’s a good way to put it, but the fact of the matter is, we don’t make any jokes at all about dementia. We treat it with respect and seriousness. The relationship between Charlie and Emma is one of support and love.

One of my favorite lines in the film seems to illustrate the fine line you and Billy must have had to work balancing the drama of the situation with comedy, which you also had to do with "700 Sundays." It’s when Charlie’s doctor said it is no time to make jokes and Charlie responds, “It’s the perfect time for jokes.”

In that scene, Charlie is told he shouldn’t be alone anymore. It’s a moment filled with fear and anger. He rages about the irony of living your whole life and then you forget it. That line underscored the drama of the scene, as opposed to making jokes about, ‘Where’s my keys?’ You never want to lose the character for the sake of a joke. The tone is similar to Bunny, Bunny (Zweibel’s memoir about his friendship with the late Gilda Radner). It’s my favorite kind of writing.  We knew the gravity of the subject matter and we wrote within that. If we had done it any other way, it would have been irresponsible.

I enjoyed the subplot in the film involving Billy’s character’s mentoring a struggling young writer on staff. Did this come from your experience as a member of “Saturday Night Live”'s original writing staff?

Herb Sergeant was a legendary TV producer and writer. He was a mentor to me at "SNL." He was very joke oriented, as was I as a former writer for Catskills comedians. We wrote for "Weekend Update" together and developed a deep friendship. When I later worked on "It's Garry Shandling's Show," I spent a fortune FedExing him Betamax cassettes because his neighborhood didn’t get Showtime. I wanted him to be proud. When Billy got to "SNL," Herb was still there, and Billy had the same affection and respect for him. We decided to make Charlie a Herb Sergeant-type, who was older and a consigliere to the producer.

At what point in the writing did Tiffany Haddish come to the project?

Billy called me up one night and suggested Tiffany. She had hosted “SNL” the night before. I DVR all the shows, so I watched and a light went on. I said, ‘Oh, wow. Yes.’ When she attached herself to the film, we tailored Emma more to Tiffany’s voice. We followed her lead on a lot of this. There were a number of times that she ad-libbed a joke that was better than we had written for her and Billy went along with it, or she put things in a vernacular for her character that was better than what we had. She and Billy played off each other very well.

“Here Today” is notably not premiering on a streaming platform. Thanks for doing your part to getting people back into theaters.

I give kudos to Fred Bernstein, who produced the movie. In early 2020, before COVID, we had a screening in Pasadena for some 300 people. We had the benefit of seeing an audience react to it. To actually see people experiencing this movie together, the laughter and all the other emotions that go with it, was a real rush. It could have gone to streaming, but the vaccine was around the corner, so it was Fred who said, ‘Let’s wait, maybe we’ll catch a break.’

Timing is everything, as they say, and the themes of this film would seem to resonate in this pandemic era.

What COVID has done is it has caused everyone to reprioritize what’s important and what’s not, as well as who’s important.

So, this is for and you and Roger have a history. In Laugh Lines you talk about how devastating his review of “North” was. It is probably his most quoted review (“I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.”). Bad as it was, you were not the public face of the film as were director Rob Reiner or the cast. Didn’t you think you had dodged a bullet there?

I understand the question, but the film was based on my book. I think it was that Roger was also a writer, so I thought that a fellow wordsmith came after this writer. He was the guy, and I was embarrassed. I gave him that power.

You have a wonderful story about running into him years later and finally gaining some closure.

Roger was the most influential and important critic of his time, and he used the word ‘hate’ in the review about 1,000 times. That doesn’t mean "North" didn’t get panned elsewhere. Trust me, it got killed. But it was Roger Ebert, and it so vicious and so rough. I always wondered what it would be like if I ran into him. When I did, it was a decade after "North," so I was over it. I had gotten off the couch and moved forward. I was in Chicago on a book tour for my novel, The Other Shulman. I’m having lunch in this restaurant and I look over and, lo and behold, there he is.

He was wearing this oversized sweater that had all the autumn colors, but the worst ones: burnt orange, puke green, and baby diarrhea yellow. He got up to go to the men’s room, and I excused myself and followed him. It was like an out of body experience, like, ‘Gee, I wonder what Al’s going to do when he catches up to Roger Ebert?’ I had no idea. I went to the men’s room. We were at the sinks. He looked up and I said, ‘Roger, Alan Zweibel,’ and the blood drains from his face. I took a beat, and I said, ‘Roger, I just have to tell you that I hate hate hate that sweater you’re wearing.’ I smiled, he smiled and we both started laughing, and we shook hands. And that was it.

In Billy’s forward to your memoir, Laugh Lines, he writes about how exhilarating it was to work on this script with you. He writes, ‘Here we are, 45 years later, and once again we’re on our way home after work, and the only difference is, now you’re driving!’

This is such a wonderful story. We look at each other and almost get giddy about how fortunate this turned out. We were two kids. He picked me up at my parents’ house, we’d go into New York, do our respective sets, and on the way back we’d listen to the cassettes and give each other notes. Every so often we’ll mention that. He’s got brothers and I’ve got a brother, but he and I are brothers. The key to it is we’ve allowed each other to grow, and there is a certain amount of wonderment that we’ve grown the same. There wasn’t a divergence where one of us became a bank robber.

Like in "Angels with Dirty Faces."

Exactly right, where one of the childhood friends goes to the chair. My guess is I’d go to the chair.

"Here Today" is now playing in theaters. 

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based film critic, entertainment writer and DVD reviewer. He has been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Printer's Row Journal, Los Angeles Times, Movieline and Entertainment Weekly.

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