Allen’s Alley

On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy

by Eric Lax
Charterhouse, 243 pp., $8.95

Woody Allen: A Biography

by Lee Guthrie
Drake, 183 pp., $9.95

Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam

edited by Richard J. Anobile
Grosset & Dunlap, 192 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Non-Being and Somethingness: Selections from the Comic Strip Inside Woody Allen

drawn by Stuart Hample
Random House, 96 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Woody Allen
Woody Allen; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.