Founding ‘Saturday Night Live’ Writer Alan Zweibel Remembers Gilda Radner’s Final TV Appearance
Legendary Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner passed away on May 20, 1989 at the age of 42. She’d been battling ovarian cancer for several years and had been very public about her condition, having graced the cover of Life magazine a year earlier. That magazine was dated March 1988 — the same month she made what would be her final TV appearance on Showtime’s It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was a fourth-wall-breaking series where Shandling spoke to the audience as the storylines lampooned sitcoms tropes. Along with Shandling, it was co-created by Alan Zweibel, an SNL founding writer and author of the 2020 memoir Laugh Lines: My Life Helping Funny People Be Funnier. In the early days of SNL, Zweibel wrote for Radner regularly and helped develop iconic characters like Rosanne Rosannadanna. Following SNL, the two remained close friends in what Zweibel characterizes as a “platonic love affair.”
In early 1988, Radner believed that she was in remission, and thus, she wanted to return to television. Still, she was fearful that, after a seven-year absence, audiences might have forgotten her. Even more daunting was that Radner had challenged Zweibel with the task of making cancer funny.
The episode, “Mr. Smith Goes to 'Nam,” saw Radner guest starring as herself, complete with her cancer diagnosis. In the story, she’s constantly trying to return tapes of all the episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show that Shandling had been sending her. The story paralleled the real-life relationship between Radner and Zweibel, as Zweibel sent her taped episodes of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show every week to help her laugh during her illness.
The most striking part of the episode was the audience’s response to seeing Radner again. They weren’t told that she would appear, and when she came on, there was thunderous applause. And when she started to joke about cancer and playfully hog the camera from Shandling, they were howling with laughter.
Unfortunately, Radner’s condition deteriorated after the episode aired, and she died a little more than a year later, coincidentally, on Zweibel’s birthday. Ever since, Zweibel has done what he can to keep her memory alive, including detailing their relationship in Laugh Lines, authoring the book Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner: A Sort of Love Story and this interview, where he shares the behind-the-scenes story of Radner’s final TV appearance.
‘When Gilda and I met, we made each other laugh’
Gilda and I met the very first day of Saturday Night Live, which was July 7, 1975. It was in Lorne Michaels’ office, and it was the first meeting between the actors and writers of SNL. By and large, none of us had worked in TV before, and the one rule Lorne stated was “Let’s make each other laugh, and if we do that, we’ll put that on television.” He knew that there was an audience out there — the Baby Boomer audience — that wasn’t being played to at the time.
When Gilda and I met, we made each other laugh. She was new to New York, but all I had to do was take a train in from Long Island from my parents’ house. We started hanging out together, started going to dinner together with her brother’s credit card because neither of us had any money.
Over the five years that Gilda and I were working on Saturday Night Live, there were dozens of sketches that we wrote together for her. The relationship was a very close friendship. I married my wife, Robin, a production assistant for the show, and Gilda married G.E. Smith and later Gene Wilder, but we remained friends past the time SNL ended for the two of us. She’s even the godmother of my three kids.
‘My comedy is the only weapon I have against this fucker’
When Garry and I created It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Gilda had already been diagnosed. Previously, when Gilda told me she had ovarian cancer, I asked her, “What do I do?” Her answer was “Make me laugh.” It’s Garry Shandling’s Show made her laugh, and when Garry and I would do an episode every week, I sent her a VHS cassette like a Hallmark card to make her laugh.
It was Garry’s idea to have Gilda on the show. He brought the idea to me, and I brought it to Gilda. When I proposed it to her, she wanted to come on the show, but there was a hesitance. She started to get a bit of cold feet because she hadn’t been on TV in about six or seven years. Also, her hair was short now, and she didn’t look the same as she had on SNL. We were walking on the beach in Santa Monica one night, and she said, “I don’t know if the audience is going to recognize me or remember me.” But just as I was about to say, “Don’t be silly,” she said, “You know something? I have to do your show. My comedy is the only weapon I have against this fucker.” That’s what she called her cancer — she personalized it like that. And she asked me, “Zweibel, can you help me make cancer funny?” That’s a sentence you don’t hear a lot, but I promised her that we would.
The accredited writer on the episode is a guy named Richard Day, who was on staff, but how it works in an episodic TV series is that a writer doesn’t start writing until every story beat is approved. So we beat out this story, then he started writing, and after two drafts, Garry and I went to rewrite it. Garry and I put in some cancer jokes and then Gilda rewrote us, just like she used to do on SNL — like a schoolmarm, she’d take a red pen and cross out stuff and she’d write her own cancer jokes.
We read the script on a Wednesday. I sat next to her at the table read. I remember wondering if I should sit across from her, so we could have eye contact, or next to her. I wanted to be supportive since she hadn’t done this in quite a while, but I opted to sit next to her because I didn’t want her to take her eyes off the script. So, I’d hit her leg every so often to say, “Good going.” During the read, she was getting laughs, and as she was getting more laughs, I was hitting her harder. Like she didn’t have enough trouble with the cancer, she had a bruised leg by the end of the table read.
We went into rehearsal Thursday, then we froze the script on Friday so they could study the script over the weekend. During that weekend, before blocking on Monday, Gilda had gone out to eat with Gene Wilder and some of their friends. When she came in on Monday, she was in a lot of pain. Something she ate — I think it was a piece of lettuce — she couldn’t digest. Her whole digestive system was fucked at this point. It was causing her agonizing stomach pains, and in between scenes during camera blocking, she was in her dressing room on the couch lying down because she was feeling really severe pain. Luckily, that passed in time for the dress rehearsal and taping on Tuesday.
‘I’ve had cancer, what’s your excuse?’
The night we did the show, there was a bit of role reversal with me and her. When we first started on SNL, she was my big sister. She was four years older than me, she said my words and she took care of me. But on the night of the Shandling show, I was the big brother — I was the producer, and she was coming onto my show. There was something symmetrical about that.
When she came onto the stage, she knocked on the door after Garry’s monologue and Garry answered the door. She said, “Hi, Garry,” and he said, “Hey, Gilda.” Then he looked at the audience and said, “Hey, everybody, it’s Gilda Radner!” The studio audience — 300 people who she didn’t think would remember her or recognize her — let out a thunderous applause. I’ve never heard an eruption of emotion like that.
After that, Garry said, “Hey Gilda, I haven’t seen you in a while. Where have you been?” She said, “I’ve had cancer, what’s your excuse?” And Garry said, “I’ve been stuck in this show, for which there is no cure.” She wrote that first part of the joke, and I think he ad-libbed the rest.
When she did that first joke, there was a millisecond where you felt the audience stiffen, then, seemingly together, they computed, “She has it, it’s okay.” Then they laughed. Maybe I was sensitive to it, but once they got used to laughing at cancer — because she was taking us through it — it liberated everybody. She also milked the audience’s applause, holding her hands over her head and taking bows. It was very funny.
A couple of days later, when I went to edit the episode, the shot that I wanted of her entering the frame was jumping a little bit. I couldn’t figure out why. But then I remembered that, when we shot the show, the cameraman was crying when she entered and that his hands were shaking. It was very emotional.
When it aired, Gilda watched it with Gene, and I got phone calls from her friends and others who were thrilled that Gilda was back. People like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, who were Gene’s friends, were rejoicing in her comeback and thanking me and Garry. She was proud of it — really proud of it.
‘I was hoping that ‘It’s Garry Shandling’s Show’ was the beginning of a comeback’
At no point during the process of having her on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show did I ever think it would be her final TV appearance. She thought she was in remission, and I was secretly hoping that this was her putting her big toe back in the water — that her appearance on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show was the beginning of a comeback.
In fact, she felt so energized from the audience’s response and from the process altogether that she wanted to do her own show. Michael Fuchs was the head of HBO at the time, and Garry and I were going to create a show for Gilda. She would play the star of her own variety show, like Carol Burnett, and we would see backstage and we would follow her home. It was sort of like what eventually became The Larry Sanders Show, except it was a variety show instead of a talk show.
We met a couple of times about it, but then the cancer just caught up with Gilda.
‘I should be crying, but I’m not’
I didn’t see that much of her toward the end. There were certain things going on with her body that she was more comfortable talking to Robin about than me. My youngest child was born March 2, 1989, and we, as Jews, were going to have a baby-naming ceremony, which is like the girl’s version of a bris except they don’t cut anything. Traditionally, it’s 30 days after the birth, but Gilda was the godmother and we had to change the date a couple of times because it interfered with her chemo schedule. That ceremony was the last time I saw her. Gene later told us that she stayed at home for three or four days to gather her strength so she could go into Beverly Hills to buy a gift for the baby.
We got the phone call shortly after midnight on my birthday, when May 19th became May 20th. Robin and I were in bed, and the phone rang. We thought it was my mother calling from Long Island, because she’d always get confused about the time zones. I picked up the phone and a woman’s voice, someone who worked for Gene and Gilda, informed us that Gilda had passed away.
I was a pallbearer at the funeral. I remember very vividly when we were carrying the casket, I thought to myself, “I should be crying, but I’m not.” I was very conscious of that. Three years later, I was in an emotional tailspin, and Robin said, “You should write something about you and Gilda.” I said, “I don’t want to capitalize on our friendship.” She said, “The hell with that, your best friend died three years ago and you haven’t cried yet.”
That’s when I started writing Bunny Bunny, which was a cathartic kind of remembrance. I wanted the words to touch each other, that’s why I wrote it the way that I did, with just lines of dialogue, beginning with us meeting at Saturday Night Live and ending with me giving a eulogy at her memorial.
As I wrote in that eulogy, “I don’t know if I’m supposed to celebrate the fact that Gilda was in my life, or feel cheated that she’s not here anymore. But even though her body grew to betray her, spirits just don’t die. And that’s what Gilda was. Even as an adult, she was still a little girl who believed in fairy tales and that if she said ‘Bunny Bunny’ on the first day of every month, it would bring her love, laughter and peace. Well, Gilda, if you’re in a place where you can’t say it, I’ll say it for you — ‘Bunny Bunny’ and I hope you’re okay. I’m gonna miss you.”