The balance in your 401(k) is shrinking. The value of your home
is drifting downward like the falling autumn leaves. Need a good
laugh? Who doesn’t these days? Thanks to CLOTHING OPTIONAL,
Alan Zweibel’s collection of short stories, personal essays,
sketches and occasional pieces (along with a Vonnegut-like drawing
or two), your prayers may have been answered.
Zweibel was one of the original writers on “Saturday Night
Live” and perhaps is best known for BUNNY BUNNY, the touching
memoir of his close friendship with Gilda Radner. Crediting his
show business career to the 23 law schools that refused to admit
him, Zweibel shares a Jewish comic sensibility with contemporaries
from Long Island like his close friend, Billy Crystal. “Woody
Allen’s my idol,” Zweibel writes, and there’s
also an Allenesque aura that hovers unmistakably over these pages.
CLOTHING OPTIONAL is something of a grab bag of material, culled
from Zweibel’s writings for publications as diverse as the
AARP Bulletin and Atlantic Monthly. Like a solid
standup routine, if one piece doesn't suit your taste, just wait a
minute, because the next one is likely to score.
The targets of Zweibel’s observational wit are
wide-ranging, but he has a striking fondness for biblically-themed
material. He confesses that as an 11-year-old his first love was
Sarah, Abraham’s wife. While he admires the fact that she was
“wise and understanding,” one principal attraction was
a very practical one: “Plus, at this point in time,
Sarah’s husband had been dead for more than three thousand
years --- so really, who would I be hurting?” He also offers
the tale of God’s dialogue with Joshua and a hapless caterer
named Mendel that provides a take on the story of Jericho’s
fall unlike anything you learned in Sunday school.
The book’s title piece describes Zweibel’s magazine
assignment to write about a nudist club in Palm Springs. From his
arrival at a “naked tea” wearing “gym shorts and
a Yankees nightshirt that extended just below the knee,”
let’s just say he undergoes a stunningly abrupt
transformation in his attitude toward nudity. “I realized I
liked these naked people,” he writes. “They were
without pretense in addition to being without clothing.” By
the time his departure day arrives, he’s calculating exactly
how long he can linger and still cover the 114 miles he needs to
travel to reach his daughter’s softball game on time, his
estimates becoming ever more fanciful along the way.
Alongside the numerous examples of Zweibel’s wit, often of
the most self-deprecating variety, appears a touching tribute to
one of his mentors, Herb Sargent, another “SNL” writer.
Zweibel was drawn to Sargent because “Herb was New York. But
an older, more romantic New York that took place in black and
white, like the kind of TV I grew up on and wanted to be a part of
someday. Comedy with a conscience. And mindful of its power to
influence.” The conclusion of this remembrance is powerful
enough to make you reach for the phone or send an email to an old
friend who has slipped from your life.
In a similar spirit is the piece entitled “Comic
Dialogue,” a series of conversations between Zweibel, in the
early days of his career as a comedy writer, and a Catskills comic
who introduces the young Alan to the taxonomy of stardom:
“unknowns, semi-names, names, stars, big stars and
superstars.” When Alan writes a movie script he thinks will
help lift the comic out of “semi-name” status, the
comedian’s rebuff is poignant and rich with irony.
Not every piece here hits the mark. The concluding sketch,
“Between Cars,” about the courtship of toll collectors
at a deserted parkway exit, probably goes on a bit too long, while
a couple of the shorter ones feel undercooked. But these weaker
efforts are balanced by ones like “Barbarians at the
Plate,” Zweibel’s account of the emotionally draining
season he served as commissioner of his son’s Little League.
Or "Happy," the wistful encounter between a retired baseball player
living in obscurity in Florida and one of his fans.
Nothing you read in CLOTHING OPTIONAL is likely to radically
transform your worldview, unless you adopt Zweibel as some sort of
existentialist Long Island philosopher. But like any good comic,
his best writing will make you pause and ponder life’s
absurdities, if only for a valuable moment. And in hard times
laughter can be a tonic, a prescription this book more than
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 27, 2010
Clothing Optional: And Other Ways to Read These Stories