The Character-Content Divide
“Let me start at the very beginning. I did a vodka ad, that’s the first important thing. A big vodka company wanted to do a prestige ad, and they wanted to get Noël Coward originally for it. He was not available, he had acquired the rights to My Fair Lady, and he was removing the music and lyrics…making it back into Pygmalion. They tried to get Laurence Olivier, and Haleloke. They finally got me to do it. I’ll tell you how they got my name—it was on a list in Eichmann’s pocket when they picked him up.”
It’s been sitting on iTunes for years: Standup Comic, the Woody Allen album compiled from his nightclub days in the ’60s. I’d listened to a track or two here and there, but never the full album at once. For someone who loves comedy, that’s a little like admitting I’ve never watched Seinfeld, or poking my head into the middle of a conversation and asking, “what’s Arrested Development?” Allen, after all, is one of the greatest comedians and filmmakers America has ever produced. Sure, some of his more recent films have been, by my reckoning, and by his own high standards, disappointing, but the man is almost 80. A late decline in quality can’t mask the fact that he’s a national treasure—an artist, a genius, and, most difficult of all, laugh-out-loud hilarious.
With a long car ride to New York facing me, it felt like the perfect time to erase this particular gap in my resume. Standup Comic was released in 1999 by Rhino Records and contains parts of three different stand-up albums from the ’60s: a 1968 performance at Eugene’s in San Francisco, 1965 at Shadows in D.C. and 1964 at Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. It’s edited to fit on an 80-minute disc (people who know the old albums have their complaints about lost material) and the sound quality fluctuates due to the conversion process. But for those us who aren’t strict audiophiles or purists who revere the old material, it’s a gold mine of neurotic, absurdist comedy. The latter adjective is the most surprising; we think we know what we’re getting with Allen, which is a slight, nervous intellectual burdened by extreme existential anxiety. But what elevates this material above the endless imitators Allen has spawned in the past 50 years is the piercing sense of the absurd.
The quote above is from the album’s first track, recorded at the 1968 show. Allen’s emphasis, somewhat revolutionary at the time, was on comedic monologues (stories that were obviously fake, but that he insisted were true to the last detail) rather than more traditional jokes. It was a leap for both the stand-up genre and Allen himself. He began writing for television as a teenager, and by 1954, when he was 19, he was writing scripts for the Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. He excelled at one-liners, but it left him artistically unsatisfied. He left TV to embark on a stand-up career in 1961, and by the mid-’60s, he was considered one of the best performing comics in the country. What the vodka ad bit shows is how he was able to cram his monologues with anecdotal twists and turns that both distract from and contribute to the central narrative.
The overarching story of the vodka ad is that Allen didn’t want to take the commercial for ethical reasons, but went to his rabbi for advice because the money was a strong lure. The rabbi advised him to stick to his principles, and Allen complied. A few weeks later, as he was flipping through a magazine on an airplane, he found that the rabbi had taken the ad. The set-up and punch line are comical on its own—plenty comical, in fact—but the zigs and zags Allen employs flesh it out into something monumentally absurd. And it all stems from questions he must have asked himself. Why was the vodka company after him? Because Noel Coward turned it down. Why? Because he has another project. What project? He’s turning My Fair Lady back into Pygmalion. How did the vodka company get Allen’s name? It was on a hit list carried in the pocket for former Nazi Adolf Eichmann when he was apprehended in Argentina in 1960.
For me, the effect of these diversions is two-fold; first, I’m laughing at the aside, and second, I’m even more interested in where the story is going. Of course, the conclusion of the tale isn’t the point. The asides are the thing, propagating a satirical worldview that goes against common sense but adheres to its own loose logic. It’s practically schizophrenic, but there’s enough connection to make the insanity feel totally true. It’s why Allen is a very divisive comedian; if you’re not willing to follow the sharp turns, the comedy can feel confusing and even hostile. Allen himself referred to this dichotomy in the two lobster scenes from Annie Hall (worth finding on YouTube), when a girlfriend is left confounded after Allen says he hasn’t been himself since he quit smoking 16 years ago. She doesn’t get it.
Here’s another example of how Allen’s red herrings become the core of the story, from a track called “Second Marriage”:
“Let me tell you how I met my second wife, which is really…romantic. I read an article in Life magazine saying there was a sexual revolution going on on college campuses all over the country, and I re-registered at New York University to check it out, ’cause I used to go there years ago. I was a history of hygiene major at NYU, and I was thrown out of college, and when I was thrown out I got a job. My father had a grocery store in Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and he hired me to work for him. I was a delivery boy for my father, that was my first job, and I unionized the workers and we struck and drove him out of business. He’s always been touchy about it.”
Again, the bit about his father’s business has nothing to do with how he met his second wife, and it has nothing to do with the neurotic image Allen cultivated on stage. It resembles the digressive style of authors like Voltaire in Candide, or Joseph Heller in Catch-22, more than anything you might have found in the world of New York comedy.
In fact, it was interesting to find out that Allen and his managers invented the persona for his stand-up act. There must be some personal truth in the character that reflects Allen’s own insecurities, but there’s also truth in the fact that Allen was a popular boy in school who excelled at baseball and track, found success at a very early age, and who continues to insist that his stage and film qualities bear no resemblance to his real personality.
In other words, the scrawny, stammering intellectual is a vehicle for the comedy, but only a vehicle. Imitators, who copy only the whine and the angst, are missing the point entirely. And that’s why the stand-up material is so fantastic; elsewhere in Allen’s oeuvre, the character tends to take center stage. He used it to his advantage in the classic films Annie Hall and Manhattan, and even more so in earlier comedies like Bananas and Sleeper. And while it touches everything in his stand-up routine, this is the best place to see how Allen’s comedic brain really works. It’s a rare look into the naked inner workings that we find in disguise in the comic and serious movies that come later. (And it really makes me wish we had audio of Larry David’s stand-up performances, which were supposed to be bizarre and brilliant.) The best tracks are “The Great Renaldo,” “The Moose,” and “Mechanical Objects,” but there are gems sprinkled throughout.
One of my favorite bits comes from a track called “Down South.” In one of his many adventures, Allen dresses up as a ghost for a Halloween party in the American South, but gets mistaken as a klansman by several other Southern men wearing sheets. They take him in their car, and soon find out that he’s a Jewish New Yorker. They decide to hang him, and Allen begins to panic:
“And suddenly my whole life passed before my eyes. I saw myself as a kid again, in Kansas, going to school, swimming at the swimming hole, and fishing, frying up a mess-o-catfish, going down to the general store, getting a piece of gingham for Emmy-Lou. And I realize it’s not my life. They’re gonna hang me in two minutes, and the wrong life is passing before my eyes. And I spoke to them, and I was really eloquent. I said, “Fellas, this country can’t survive, unless we love one another regardless of race, creed or color.” And they were so moved by my words, not only did they cut me down and let me go, but that night, I sold them two thousand dollars worth of Israel Bonds.”
It’s all there; the weakness, the helplessness in the face of death, and the strength discovered through the absurd, genius maneuverings of a wonderful mind. It’s a story told in the voice of a neurotic little man, but delivered with the soul of a comic giant.