As a little kid, I remember flipping through the channels and seeing these half-hour “Best of Saturday Night Live” highlight shows featuring the original cast. And what a cast – from 1975 to 1980, the original cast defined the series’ anything-goes style of sketch comedy. In that original cast, three of the actors were women – Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner. Curtin was the straight woman, Newman was the prolific character actor who disappeared into various personas, and Radner was the lovable but funny comic performer.
Radner was one of SNL‘s most beloved stars, so beloved that the show that turned her into a comic legend honored her when she died of ovarian cancer in 1989. To make the emotion more palpable, the host on the night she died – Saturday, May 20 – was Steve Martin, who was one of the series’ best-loved hosts of that golden period. When standing on stage, Martin struggled to get through his introduction to one of his and Gilda’s best pieces, a wordless dance set to the song “Dancing in the Dark.” This moment was inspired by the 1953 Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse film The Band Wagon.
Radner’s impact remains notable after her death. Her then husband Gene Wilder helped found Gilda’s Club, an organization devoted to helping those affected by cancer. A recent documentary, Love, Gilda (recently presented at Rochester’s Jewish Film Festival), gave newer generations a peek into her life and career. Many SNL stars who followed in her footsteps paid homage and respect; one such star, Amy Poehler, said in the film she and a fellow writer would read sketches featuring Gilda and then write “weak 2.0 versions” of her characters. That’s influence.
One person who was deeply affected by Radner’s passing was Alan Zweibel, one of SNL‘s original writers. He and Radner worked together on the series, notably in the creation of one of Radner’s most beloved characters, the crass, gross and hilarious Roseanne Roseannadanna. They also created one of Radner’s first stand-out characters, the hard-of-hearing Emily Litella, who mistakes one word in her commentaries on “Weekend Update.”
Radner and Zweibel were close friends throughout the show’s run and maintained their friendship after leaving SNL in 1980. They worked together again on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, in what turned out to be her last on-screen appearance. Zweibel would write a book about their friendship, Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner – A Sort of Love Story. It became an off-Broadway play later on.
In 2008, just over a year after moving to Rochester, I had the opportunity to meet Alan Zweibel, who was in town. He read from the latest book he was presenting, along with sharing memories of SNL. I bought the original Bunny Bunny book, which had been out of print for several years, and Alan later signed it.
The book and the play each tell a wonderful love story of sorts – the love story of a friendship. The audience follows Radner and Zweibel’s time together, from their first meeting to Zweibel’s eulogy at Radner’s memorial service. Save for an actor playing multiple characters, only Gilda and Alan are on stage throughout.
Bunny Bunny is a funny and heartbreaking play about platonic love, told with honesty, humor and deep pathos. It is also a writer’s love letter to a comic legend, whose impact remains powerful over 30 years after her death.