Separating The Art From the Artist With Woody Allen: The Stand-Up Years

Comedy Features Woody Allen

In the liner notes for Woody Allen: The Stand-Up Years 1964-1968, longtime director and producer Robert B. Weide (Curb Your Enthusiasm) waxes nostalgic about the halcyon days of 1960s stand-up, a time when George Carlin, Joan Rivers and Bill Cosby all converged on the New York comedy scene. Weide himself had learned more about Allen’s stand-up career when he produced and directed the 2012 PBS special Woody Allen: A Documentary.

“Between sets,” Weide writes, “Woody and Bill Cosby would often stroll the neighborhood together until it was time for each of them to return to their respective venues for their next performance. Imagine that.”

As I listened to the three stand-up albums included in this collection, I did imagine that. I couldn’t help but imagine it given the recent volley of sexual abuse allegations lodged against Cosby and the ongoing conversation around Allen’s alleged abuse of his then-partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter Dylan. And as I pictured Cosby and Allen peacefully traipsing through Greenwich Village—Cosby allegedly already assaulting women at the time, Allen still decades away from his own abuse allegations, not to mention his controversial marriage to Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon Yi-Previn—I wondered why Weide would choose this image to introduce Woody Allen’s illustrious stand-up career.

Then I remembered Weide’s all-too-vigorous defense of Allen’s gentlemanly honor last January and everything became clear. This collection is intended for a world where art can be separated from the artist and where craft trumps all else.

For those familiar with Allen’s craft, the excerpts from his stand-up career collected on The Stand-Up Years depict the incubation of his film persona. He starts his routine by saying that he wants to talk about his “private life” but his performances are anything but straightforwardly confessional. Instead, his act is equal parts carefully rehearsed neurotic anecdotes—he jokes that he “used to steal second base, and feel guilty and go back” when he was “captain of the latent paranoid softball team”—and laconic two-liners: “I was involved in an extremely good example of oral contraception two weeks ago. I asked a girl to go to bed with me, and she said ‘No.’” His middle-class Jewish background is also a recurring theme, as found in a rapidly escalating yarn about mistaking Klansmen for Halloween partygoers or in a quip about being hired as the “Show Jew” at a Madison Avenue advertising agency before being fired “because I took off too many Jewish holidays.” Woody Allen may have left stand-up behind but he took this nebbish persona with him.

His delivery, too, is classic Woody Allen. As he embarks on each new anecdote, he gulps with trepidation, as if oxygen is a liquid that must be swallowed down before he can venture to speak. Once he gets started, however, he delivers his stories as if they are poems, picking up the pace with the liberal use of enjambment: “I did not marry the first girl I fell in love with because there was a tremendous religious conflict / At the time. She was an atheist and I was an agnostic. We didn’t know which religion not to bring the children up in.” After listening to two hours of Allen’s stand-up, I can report that the throughlines between his classic routines and, say, his character Alvy Singer’s opening monologue in Annie Hall are remarkably clear.

But as generative as this character type would become for Allen, its earlier incarnation could be something of a bully in a way that resonates alarmingly with the barely disguised contempt he displayed for Mia Farrow in his New York Times op-ed last year. During his stand-up career, Allen joked so vociferously about his first ex-wife Harlene Rosen—whom he married when he was 19 and she was 16—that she once sued him for defamation of character. Yes, his joke about spending money on a divorce rather than a vacation because “the vacation in Bermuda’s over in two weeks but a divorce is something that you’d always have” produces one of the collection’s biggest laughs. But apart from that, Allen digs into Rosen with such relish that he quickly crosses the line from classic divorce schtick into genuine cruelty, as typified by this particularly egregious sexual assault joke:

“[My ex-wife] lives on the upper west side of Manhattan, and she was coming home late at night, and she was violated. That’s how they put it in the New York papers: ‘She was violated.’ And they asked me to comment on it, and I said ‘Knowing my ex-wife, it probably was not a moving violation.’”

When Allen performed this joke on The Dick Cavett Show, Cavett laughed enthusiastically and the audience erupted in unwavering applause. The joke is already uncomfortable in audio form but on television, the whole scene drips with the same sort of smug 1960s chauvinism that still lurks underneath the put-upon facades of many Allen protagonists.

And Allen’s frequent digs at the woman he terms “the dread Mrs. Allen” only compound the jarring effect of his fabricated stories about, for example, taking a moose to a costume party. These are classic zany 60s-style bits that, to ears like mine, which were raised on Silverman and Seinfeld, sound more like a friend narrating a Saturday Night Live skit than a performer on a stage. As Weide observes in the liner notes, they are “extremely visual stories” that put “a movie in your head.” In contrast to Allen’s flights of fancy, the heart of contemporary stand-up is its honesty or, at least, the pretension to it. We expect today’s comics to tell us stories that sound grounded, even if most or all of the details are embellished. For me, adjusting to the absurdism of Allen’s era would be less of an ask if I could still sense an underlying integrity. Weide calls Allen’s stories “roller coaster[s]” but roller coasters require a certain degree of trust in the ride operator. And after all that has happened in Allen’s life, it’s hard to return to that place of trust.

Fifty years ago as they rambled around Manhattan, Allen and Cosby were at the start of promising careers in comedy. Both men have since led tumultuous personal lives, one more privately than the other, but their respective careers are ending on different notes. Netflix recently cancelled Bill Cosby’s special while Amazon has just announced a new Woody Allen series. The details of what happened between Allen and Dylan Farrow are still inconclusive and they seem as difficult to ascertain today as they did in the 90s. But, to me, Allen’s questionable reputation is more than just a footnote to a retroactive consideration of his stand-up career. His relentless bullying of his once-teenage bride hardly encourages me to do otherwise.

In 2015, it’s hard to stomach outrageous tall tales from a man who may have been telling them for most of his adult life. Here’s a sentence that was just as true during his stand-up career as it is today: When Woody Allen wants to talk to you about his “private life,” it’s impossible to know whether or not he is telling the truth.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast as well as a Daily Beast contributor. Follow her on Twitter.

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