On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy
Woody Allen: A Biography
Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam
Non-Being and Somethingness: Selections from the Comic Strip Inside Woody Allen
There is a characteristic cadence in many of Woody Allen’s jokes. A broad, old-fashioned gesture meets a narrow, uncooperative bit of contemporary reality. Allen waves casually to make a point and the record he is holding slips out of its sleeve and hurtles across the room. Smiling sardonically at himself in a mirror, Allen gets ready for a night on the town. When he turns on his hair-dryer, it blows him about as if it were a hurricane. He tries to make Beef Stroganoff in a pressure cooker, and someone asks him how it tasted. “I don’t know,” Allen says. “It’s still on the wall.”
More often these mishaps are set up in language, clashes of perfectly unsympathetic contexts. “Still obsessed by thoughts of death, I brood constantly. I keep wondering if there is an afterlife, and if there is will they be able to break a twenty?” “There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?” “If only God would show me a miracle. Like a burning bush, or the parting of the Red Sea, or Uncle Sasha picking up a check.”
Similarly the whole strength of Allen’s film Love and Death (1975) comes from a constant contrast between a carefully pastiched Russia, taken from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, played out in predictable costumes and thick accents, and an unmistakable America, present in all kinds of gags and in every move and sound of Allen and his co-star Diane Keaton. “What do you mean, man is made in God’s image?” Allen asks indignantly in his own rather thin voice, American accent entirely unmodified. “You mean God looks like me? God wears glasses?” Keaton looks at him thoughtfully, tilts her head slightly. “Maybe not with those frames.”
These are very good jokes, but they are also quite traditional ones: incongruities, pratfalls, versions of the banana peel. Allen is right to insist that he is not an intellectual. “I’m a oneliner comic like Bob Hope and Henny Youngman,” he told Eric Lax. “I do the wife jokes. I make faces. I’m a comedian in the classic style.” There is a little more to Allen than that. He reads a lot, he is very intelligent, and he is not only a stand-up comic: he is also an actor, a playwright, a screenwriter, and a movie director. He used to work up gags for Garry Moore and Sid Caesar, and he has become a New Yorker humorist in the tradition of Robert Benchley. But he is after laughs rather than meaning, and we don’t need hefty theories about the Insecurity of Our Times to account for his success. Allen is very funny, his gags have familiar structures, and these are our banana peels he is stepping on. A whole modern world can be constructed out of the things Allen runs into: dentists, analysts, rent-control, rabbis, racing at Aqueduct, high culture, old movies, college, brand names (“You want a Fresca with the Darvon?”), air travel (“Keaton: I drove him to the airport and threw up in the United Airlines terminal. Allen: Yeah, it’s a good terminal; I’ve thrown up there”).
Even Allen’s most allusion-packed material belongs here. “By the fifth grade,” he says, “I would be doing references to Freud and sex, too, without knowing who he and what it really was but sensing how to use them correctly.” He is still doing this, and his frequently esoteric-looking jokes almost always depend on our sensing the sort of reference that is being made rather than our knowing anything much about the actual source. Here, for example, is Kaiser Lupowitz, a private eye on a tough case, trying to find God (“So that’s how it was. The Jews were into God for a lot. It was the old protection racket. Take care of them in return for a price”), and discovering that He is dead. The phone rings:
The voice on the other end was Sergeant Reed of Homicide.
“You still looking for God?”
“An all-powerful Being? Great Oneness; Creator of the Universe? First Cause of All Things?”
“Somebody with that description just showed up at the morgue. You better get down here right away.”1
And here is Kaiser, in another story, investigating a racket in which pretty girls will talk over intellectual matters with any man who has the right kind of money. Kaiser poses as a client and says he wants to discuss Melville (“Moby Dick or the shorter novels?” “What’s the difference?” “The price. That’s all. Symbolism’s extra”) but is distressed by the cynicism of his partner (“She was barely nineteen years old, but already she had developed the hardened facility of the pseudo-intellectual”), and decides to turn her in:
“I’m fuzz, sugar, and discussing Melville for money is an 802. You can do time.”
“Better come clean, baby. Unless you want to tell your story down at Alfred Kazin’s office….”
The madame in charge of the whole affair is called Flossie, and she turns out to be a man in a mask. A sad story:
“I devised a complicated scheme to take over The New York Review of Books [Flossie confesses], but it meant I had to pass for Lionel Trilling. I went to Mexico for an operation. There’s a doctor in Juarez who gives people Trilling’s features—for a price. Something went wrong. I came out looking like Auden, with Mary McCarthy’s voice….”2
Now I suppose none of this would be very funny if you had not heard the rumors of God’s death or didn’t know who any of these people were, or what The New York Review was. But it was a fairly safe bet to assume that readers of The New Yorker, where the second of these stories first appeared, would know such things, and the joke, in any case, requires no reading of Trilling, or Auden, or anyone else, for its comprehension. It requires only that we know the names, and “how to use them correctly.” Allen’s central perception is that culture, high, low, and middling, is very often a matter of moving tokens about, literally dropping names; that we live largely in a magical universe, clustering in often belligerent groups because of passwords spoken and banners waved. And Allen’s great gift is for muddling the tokens, for an equivalent of that terrible operation in Juarez: Nietzsche and Matthew Arnold come out sounding like Mickey Spillane, passwords become gibberish, banners droop, and with any luck we can begin to think for ourselves again. Allen is out for laughs, as I said, and he gets them. But it won’t do us any harm to reflect on our laughter. What if we are a nation of half-educated people, and have got the wrong half?
These are rather complicated bananas, and I should try quickly to give an impression of Allen’s range as a comedian. He can echo the escalating tones of Groucho Marx (“These modern analysts! They charge so much. In my day, for five marks Freud himself would treat you. For ten marks, he would treat you and press your pants. For fifteen marks, Freud would let you treat him, and that included a choice of any two vegetables”), and the treacherous seriousness of S.J. Perelman (“Scholars will recall that several years ago a shepherd, wandering in the Gulf of Aqaba, stumbled upon a cave containing several large clay jars and also two tickets to the ice show…. Two years later the jars turned up in a pawnshop in Philadelphia. One year later the shepherd turned up in a pawnshop in Philadelphia and neither was claimed”).
He also has a line in inspired nonsense of his own (“Freud’s death, according to Ernest Jones, was the event that caused the final break between Helmholtz and Freud, and the two rarely spoke afterwards”; “Should I marry W.? Not if she won’t tell me the other letters in her name”; “How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not ‘the thing with feathers.’ The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich”); and he is particularly adept at seeking out and sending up a whole variety of official voices, from those of reviewers (“this obdurate and sparkling book”) to those of college catalogues (“Students interested in these aspects of psychology are advised to take one of these Winter Term courses: Introduction to Hostility; Intermediate Hostility; Advanced Hatred; Theoretical Foundations of Loathing”) and historians (“the vibrant, cruel Darwinian force of nature, which was to blow through Europe for the next fifty years and find its deepest expression in the songs of Maurice Chevalier”).
There are also moments when a genuine helplessness seems to peep through the jokes, and this of course is the personality Allen projects as an actor: distraught, ineffective, underconfident, given to whining. It is a projection; but it clearly reflects Allen’s difficulties and preoccupations. The painful diffidence of his public character is a disguise of some sort; it is not likely to be an out-right fiction. “One can be admired from afar,” Allen writes, “but to really love someone it is essential to be in the same room with the person, crouching behind the drapes.”
Allen told Jack Kroll3 that he thought his anxieties might shorten the range of his appeal, and said W.C. Fields, for example, had “a certain neurotic quality, whereas Chaplin had a greater feeling for the human condition.” But if Fields was neurotic Allen is in hiding, and the charm and the limitation of his work are in its display of sheer incapacity. Allen has none of the grace of Chaplin and Buster Keaton, none of Fields’ seedy elegance, none of Groucho’s threatening energy. All he has are his mistakes and a wonderful air of passive, hopeless innocence.
Two versions of the same joke appear in Love and Death. “Come to my room at midnight,” a sultry-looking woman tells Allen. “Okay,” he says. “Will you be there?” Later in the film, Diane Keaton succeeds in captivating a man she thinks is Napoleon. “I shall go to your room at midnight,” he says. “Good,” she replies with the look of dotty earnestness she manages so well. “I’ll go to yours.” It is the same joke, worked by the same machinery, and it is funny both times. But with Allen it suggests an infinite incompetence, a gift for missing out on almost anything. With Keaton it suggests charming stupidity, a sort of talent for the perfect misunderstanding. One of Allen’s favorite exchanges in the film Sleeper (1973), Erie Lax says, concerns exactly the same thing. Keaton has to pass on a piece of vital information, and Allen frantically tries to make sure she’s got it right. “The Ares Project. You remember that now?” Keaton looks at him with absolute confidence, and says, “Yes. The Jupiter Project.”
Both of these roles, Allen’s and Keaton’s, are at the heart of Annie Hall, a semi-confessional film in which Allen’s life as a comic is turned into a comic life, and in which he tries a little too hard to surround the laughs with meaning. But they are roles. Behind Keaton’s stupidity is an intelligent actress, and behind Allen’s bungling is the poise of a professional who has been practicing hard to get his incompetence just right. There is really no contradiction in the fact that Allen should have started his comedian’s career as a follower of Mort Sahl and an admirer of Bob Hope. “I see this tremendous similarity between Bob Hope and Mort Sahl,” Allen says. “Think of it this way: They are two stand-up monologists who talk as themselves…. They have this great monologue style, great phrasing. When people ask me who I was influenced by, it was these two more than anyone else.”
I take the above quotation, and the earlier ones about Freud and Hope and Henny Youngman, and my whole sense of Allen as a professional comedian, from Eric Lax’s lively book On Being Funny. Lax spent two years trailing Allen and talking to him in all sorts of places, and produced a likable, consistently interesting portrait without intruding on Allen’s cherished privacy in any way. Since it was finished in 1974, Lax’s book doesn’t have much to say about Allen as an accomplished film-maker—with Sleeper, Allen really learned how to make movies, as distinct from filming gags—but it does show us how the comedian went about turning himself into a director. A real director, as Love and Death and Annie Hall make clear. Love and Death, for example, parodies not only our favorite Russian novels but also the films of Bergman and Eisenstein—there is a wonderful piece of montage in which Eisenstein’s lions, instead of waking with the revolution, slump even further into disorderly sleep. Having said that, I must admit that Allen’s first film, Take the Money and Run (1969), which is simply a string of jokes, remains for me his funniest. Allen, as Lax shows, has thought carefully about this question:
I know that I can always make crazy movies where I’m indifferent to everything but the joke, and I think that I can make them better and better. But I think that it would be a mistake to make only that kind of movie….
What I have to do is make several movies that are different, that may not be so funny, that may fail, and then look up and say, “I really am only at fifty percent effectiveness in anything except a crazy movie.” I hope that’s not true but it’s possible….
Allen thinks comedy is hard to do, while serious films are more worth doing: “there’s something less satisfying about comedy….” I think this is wrong, a form of snobbery, and that the thing to do would be to try for more profound jokes rather than something else. The alternative to humor, quite often, is not seriousness but sentimentality. But the deprecating view of comedy, along with the restlessness evident in the above quotation, makes sense for Allen. It may be true that most comedians are not likely to play Hamlet well. But it’s probably true that only very good comedians really want to, and that their wanting does their comedy a great deal of good. In any case, Allen plainly needs such challenges, and Without Feathers, his second book of comic pieces, is generally not as distinctive as his first, largely, I assume, because he has discovered how to reach a certain level of performance without trying too hard.
Lee Guthrie appears not to have talked to Allen or anyone associated with him for her biography, and she never actually says she has. However, the book is so packed with direct speech, usually not located in any particular place or publication, that the unsuspecting reader will no doubt feel (is meant to feel?) he is reading something like a lengthy interview, or set of interviews. Fairly large chunks of the material Ms. Guthrie attributes to Allen appear in the same form in Lax’s book, although no acknowledgment is made. Left to her own devices, Ms. Guthrie inclines to phrases like “We live in times that are not conducive to enduring male-female relationships” and “Diane Keaton’s childhood was as different from Woody Allen’s as a hush puppy is different from gefilte fish.” In one startling paragraph she includes among the “darker aspects” of the 1960s not only the war in Vietnam but also grants, fellowships, housing subsidies, and food stamps.
Of the other two books under review, Play It Again Sam is a selection of frames and dialogue from the film of that name, an amiable reminder of faces and phrases, but simply a static blur when any action takes place—when Allen accidentally flings the record across the room, for example, or later in the movie, feeling happy, exuberantly slaps a man on the back and knocks him off a parapet. One of the old truths: moving pictures do move, and stills are something else. Or as Allen himself says, parodying a voice something like mine, “The true nature of film is that it is not literature. It is not painting, in fact it is not even film. That’s the part that confuses most people….” The other book is a selection from a comic strip starring Allen, the best items in which are no doubt two conversations, one with the legendary Dr. Helmholtz, who “proved that death is an acquired trait,” the other with a dolphin. “Dr. Helmholtz,” the Allen figure asks, “are humans in a state of nature savages—as Hobbes thought—or innocent, loving creatures—as Rousseau thought?” “It depends,” Helmholtz says. “Weekdays, Hobbes was right. Weekends, Rousseau.” With the dolphin Allen tries to discuss Bergman’s movies. The dolphin can talk all right, but it is mainly interested in plankton, squid, algae, and seaweed, and the meeting ends in mutual disappointment.
The striking thing about Allen’s career is that in spite of more or less uninterrupted success he should need regularly to be discovered again. Now, for example, he is the director of a film that won four Academy Awards, the author of two books of comic pieces, the author of two plays, the director of five other movies, and subject of a recent Newsweek cover story. Fame. But in 1972 he was the director of three successful movies, the author of one book of comic pieces, the author of two plays, the star of one play and of the movie based on the same play, and the subject of a cover story in Time. Before that he had achieved some celebrity as an obscure night-club comedian who had written What’s New Pussycat? (1965), a film which made more money than any comedy had done to that date. Before that he was a television writer making $1700 a week who had decided to become a comedian at $75 a week. No celebrity attached to that, but it was a jump; not unlike the jump which initially took Woody Allen the schoolboy, né Allen (Alan?) Stewart Konigsberg in 1935, from Midwood High School in Brooklyn to a gag-peddling public relations firm in Manhattan. Where will it end? No doubt all this mobility will taper off, but only “posthumously,” as Allen says, “or after his death, whichever comes first.”
Getting Even (Random House, 1971).↩
Without Feathers (Random House, 1975).↩
Newsweek, April 24, 1978.↩
They’ll Take Manhattan October 11, 1979