|2001||Woody Allen on Comedy|
|1990||Nightclub Years 1964-1968|
No specials by this comedian.
|2002||The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America|
The most famous combination writer/director/comedian since Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen began his career contributing gags to Earl Wilson’s newspaper column. He was still a student at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School when he penned them. A typical line Wilson used: “Woody Allen says he ate at a restaurant that had OPS prices—over people’s salaries.”
He told biographer Eric Lax that his adopted name had “all the glamorous appeal of show business one imagines in Flatbush.” His father Martin told another writer that “the kids on the block named him ‘Woody’ because he was always the one to bring the stick out for the stickball game. He was always athletic.” Contrary to his image, Woody Allen was indeed a good baseball player with the local Police Athletic League. He recalled, “I was not a good student, no good in math, Spanish, history or anything. I didn’t study…I lived in the movies. I’d go seven days a week and sometimes sat through two or three shows. The movies served as my education.”
He was only 17 when he became a full-time comedy writer at NBC. Before long he was contributing gags to “Your Show of Shows” and earning $1700 a week on the staff of Garry Moore’s show. Woody gave up the writing life for stand-up comedy, influenced by Mort Sahl’s “comedy in the form of therapy” style. It was agony, but Woody learned, in front of a live audience, to capitalize on his timidity by turning every gulp for air and every stutter into a calculated comic device. By combining disciplined one-liners with the more conversational and confessional styles of Sahl and Shelley Berman, Allen became a unique hybrid.
From 1964 to 1968 he rose to the top of his profession. His wife jokes had a thinking man’s edge. From an appearance on “That Was The Week that Was” in 1965: “I had a bad marriage. My wife and I thought we were in love, but it turned out to be benign.” Many of his lines became instant classics: “I used to steal second base—and feel guilty and go back…I was thrown out of NYU. On my metaphysics final I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me…I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I am bringing a change of underwear.”
An earlier generation of “sicknik” comics had begun to call attention to their alienation. Allen was part of the next generation trying to survive despite the alienation: “Not only is God dead, but try getting a plumber on a Saturday night.” Life was less meaningless to Woody if he at least had a hot looking girlfriend, and took in a Bogart movie now and then. Many of his fans had a similar hope—and when Woody began making films, hoped to find their dream date standing alone on line at “Play It Again Sam.”
Allen always resented the tag of filmdom’s most famous “nebbish.” Though his horn-rimmed glasses, messy hair and 5’6’ 125 pound body made him seem the spindly “loser,” he sought an image closer to his film idol Bob Hope. He wanted to be the dashing coward. For all his fumbling and foolery, he made sure to “get the girl.” Allen’s unique combination of intellectuality, wit, humor and lust did indeed make him a sex symbol for some women and a role model for some men. In the late 60’s and early 70’s he was the perfect cult hero for his time, a time when sexual revolution and social liberation promised a new life for those in quiet desperation. Woody’s character was neurotic and self-doubting, but fueled by fantasies of grandeur, ready to rob banks (“Take the Money and Run”) or overthrow a country (“Bananas,” “Sleeper”) in order to be the star of his own fantasies (“Play It Again, Sam.”)
Allen phased out stand-up in the late 60’s and with each new movie made new strides toward the mastery of his art. From visualized one-liners (“Take the Money and Run”) he experimented with political satire (“Bananas”) and moved to deeper comedy with a touch of romance (“Love and Death,” a film that still had Groucho Marx-influenced comebacks and Bob Hope-styled cowardice but featured a character with more than a few dimensions). He reached his peak with the Academy Award winning “Annie Hall.” Not only were there the usual quota of hostile one-liners and sight-gags, but humor and drama drawn from the heart. The film captured the era perfectly and it marked a major change in Allen’s comic identity. In the past, including his stand-up days, he was the lustful little guy who said of one lady, “when I see a girl that beautiful, I want to write a poem…cry…jump on her!” Now he was able to write poignantly from a woman’s point of view and create a screen romance beyond the stereotyped women of his earlier films. The focus of the film was not Woody, but “Annie Hall,” and as such, it propelled Diane Keaton to instant stardom.
Allen’s next film, “Manhattan,” was a plateau just slightly below the level of “Annie Hall.” The 70’s had come to an end and with it an end to Woody Allen’s first era of film work. A generation grew up with Woody, sharing his pre-occupation with light-hearted sex and the Playboy lifestyle (“What’s New Pussycat,” “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex…”), fantasizing about ruling the world (“Casino Royale”) and over a decade coming to grips with earning a living (“The Front”) and finding an enduring relationship (“Annie Hall”).
If growing up was difficult for Allen, it was doubly so for his fans. Not surprisingly, quite a few saw nothing wrong with a continued pre-occupation with light-hearted sex and fantasies of being a hero. They went to revival houses to re-run Woody’s earlier hits. There were happy endings there. Woody’s serious drama “Interiors” had perplexed many fans and “Stardust Memories” did serious damage to his popularity. In it lovable loser Woody had the temerity to satirize his pushier, goofier and more dangerous fans and to do it with confusing allusions to the foreign film directors (Fellini and Bergman) he admired.
To quite a few fans, the heroic Woody of the 70’s; sexy, lovable, forgivably shy and neurotic, was replaced by a different Woody in the 80’s; aging, cold, and reclusive. One of the more maddening affectations that fans resented was Woody’s habit of appearing in public hiding underneath hats ludicrously pulled down over his eyes. While a star could be forgiven wanting to be left alone, or not signing autographs, here was Woody attending trendy restaurants and calling attention to himself with his extremist costuming. On “Saturday Night Live” Bill Murray often chided “the Wood-man” for such behavior. As Mort Sahl pointed out, “Woody wants his privacy. He’s hired a dozen publicity men to tell you that.”
He was seen as a villain when he won $425,000 in 1986 in a lawsuit against a company that used a look-alike in a series of ads. Sympathy was with the poor actor who not only couldn’t make money for looking like Woody, but was stuck with the face. A piece Woody Allen wrote for The New York Times, criticizing Israel, brought anger from many, including Mayor Ed Koch who said “Israel is under assault…people have to stand by it. Those who don’t…if they are Jewish, may they rot in hell…”
Woody Allen’s films in the 80’s were an uneven mix, and his new co-star, live-in companion Mia Farrow, was not considered by fans to be as cuddly, sympathetic and vulnerable as his previous leading ladies. Several of his films with her in the lead, from “Radio Days” to “Alice,” seemed more intent on presenting her in sweet and romantic, “women’s picture” fantasies—a genre disappointing to fans of the old Woody who would peruse newsstands (“Bananas”) looking for tabloids like Screw.
Allen’s dramatic films (which he wrote and directed but did not appear in) were often praised by New York critics but did poor business at the box office. This latter point did not seem to bother Woody or his film company, who recognized that prestigious and/or personal, artistic films were always a gamble. What was more disturbing was the ways fans failed to stand in line for such mild efforts as the fantasies “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” whether critics seemed to think it worth viewing (the latter) or not (the former).
Occasionally Woody Allen produced a film of genius, or at least a film with sparks of his old comic stylings. “Broadway Danny Rose” was a minor but charming valentine to the old show biz world of agents and comics that had begun to fade away in the 60’s and 70’s. The startling and affecting “Zelig” took three years to make and featured intricate cinematography in telling the tale of a human chameleon who absorbed the personalities and even faces of others because “It’s safe to be like the others. I want to be liked.” Its originality and audacity had critics comparing it to the documentary style of “Citizen Kane” and the pure cinema of silent and foreign films. “Hannah and Her Sisters” was Allen’s biggest box office hit of the decade, in fact the only one of his commercial comedies to make money. “Zelig” had broken even while “Radio Days,” for example, earned six million on a 16 million dollar budget.
Despite Allen’s problems, he still had great critical support, a core following of fans, and was still influencing the world of comedy. The zany style of early Woody Allen films influenced any number of “anything goes” films, while “Annie Hall” spawned a variety of “sensitive” screen comedies starring everyone from Albert Brooks to Billy Crystal.
Woody’s best-selling books of short humor, themselves influenced by S.J. Perelman and Robert Benchley, became the style of choice for a new generation of humorists.
His writing offered cheeky and wry aphorisms (“It is impossible to experience one’s own death objectively and still carry a tune”) as well as fey literary satire: “O’Shawn was a mystic and, like Blake, believed in unseen forces. This was confirmed for him when his brother Ben was struck by lightning while licking a postage stamp. The lightning failed to kill Ben, which O’Shawn attributed to Providence, although it took his brother seventeen years before he could get his tongue back in his mouth.”
The new generation of stand-up comics had grown up listening to Woody’s records, and leading “surrealist” and “neurotic” stars Steven Wright and Richard Lewis pointed out their indebtedness.
Still, and despite his smoothed personal life (his relationship with Mia Farrow was a lasting success, he had a child, and even lost his trademark floppy hat disguise in public), Allen had to remain on the defensive. After making another serious and unappreciated film, “September,” (and then re-making it with new cast members) Allen declared: “I have to be taken seriously…Certain ideas occur to me that are not comic and that’s the long and the short of it…I just want to feel free to create any kind of work that occurs to me.” “September” was followed with another drama, “Another Woman,” which had comedy fans seriously concerned.
As the decade drew to a close Allen returned to the Woody of old, appearing in a typical role: the mother-pecked fellow in the most praised segment of “New York Trilogy.” The film delighted many fans who were glad to see “the old Woody” back. He took a break from writing/directing to star in someone else’s comedy, “Scenes from a Mall” opposite Bette Midler, which suffered from the high expectations demanded of a film featuring him and Midler, the current box-office comedy queen.
As the 90’s began Allen drew praise for one of his best films ever, “Crimes and Misdeameanors.” The film was not only effective as drama, it had some light moments and the first quotable Woody Allen one-liner in years, his hapless admission that “the last woman I was in was The Statue of Liberty.” The film was nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Director, Best Screenplay). American Film magazine noted, “Allen in his comedies in the 60’s and early 70’s was keyed into the country’s radical mood; he set the tone for the hipest movie humor…with this film, he’s moved into…a resonance with modern urban despair…Woody Allen is facing up to his own hopelessness and he wants us to recognize it as our hopelessness too.”
The film did for Allen what the critically acclaimed “Zelig” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” had done. It returned some lustre to Woody Allen’s star and allowed him to continue to make films on his terms.