“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.” Neurotic, Jewish, intelligent, nervy, neurotic (don’t forget the neurotic), Woody Allen is a one man one-liner machine. Raging about everything from death to taxes, his 40 year career is teeming with pithy, prickly parlance. Stand-up acts, plays, books, movies. The sheer quantity of knowing observations, witty rapports and laugh-out-loud hooters boggles.
He started early. A fiercely intelligent teenager, the young, bespectacled New Yorker had no time for regimented education. Ignoring a school bag stuffed with C grades, Allen’s flighty imagination and sly sense of humour collided to gainful effect when he began submitting jokes to comic columnists for $25 a week. What they lacked in consistent quality, Allen made up for with quantity. “Every day after school I would take the subway to Manhattan and knock out 30 to 40 gags for famous people to say,” he recalls. “I was thrilled. I thought I was in the heart of show business.”
But here’s the thing… Woody Allen shouldn’t be funny. Cynics will tell you that his entire career is derived from a single self-obsessed character (himself), and that he’s made over 40 films, all with the same storyline. Still, we just can’t get past those witty one-liners. Slicing like cheese wire right to the hilarious heart of our absurd little world, they’re arch, dry as the Mojave, beautifully simplistic yet threaded through with a severe intelligence. “I can’t listen to that much Wagner,” he moans. “I start getting the urge to conquer Poland.”
And his gags never feel anything less than (almost inappropriately) personal. Even if the Allen character is a mere caricature, a hyper-hung-up version of himself, it never feels artificial or forced. Frequently denying that his films are autobiographical does no good; Allen’s scripts scream otherwise. “I was thrown out of NYU my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final, you know,” he says in Annie Hall. “I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.” Allen himself was suspended from NYU, just one example of his film life imitating reality.
Stand-up sowed the seeds for the funnyman’s winning formula. A wobbly start in 1961 (“the worst year of my life,” says Allen) reduced the naturally shy comic to a gibbering mess. But as his specs adjusted to the spotlight, Allen perfected his neurotic Jew shtick, refining his personal insecurities and eccentricities into a compelling composite of lived experiences and quirky anecdotes. “I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with, I don’t,” the comedian once said. “Would you take two negative messages? My mother used to say to me, ‘If a strange man comes up to you and offers you candy, and wants you to get into the back of his car with him… go’.”
Ah, women. If Allen’s razor wit is known for anything, it’s his unique philosophy on relationships. Proving that he is more than just a puddle-deep joke engine, Allen’s material often hinges on his hopeless romanticism. His love for New York is dwarfed only by his love for women. Having spent most of his life on a psychoanalyst’s couch, Allen’s film scripts act as arenas for his personal discoveries to play out. It’s no coincidence that his real-life pairing with Diane Keaton met a similar fate to their filmic counterparts in Annie Hall and Manhattan. “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics,” he opines in the latter. It would be another 20 years before he found his pigeon.
Self-indulgent or merely self-expressive, Allen’s quotability has made him the dream subject of mug-makers and t-shirt printers, but also a pioneer of fast-and-hard humour. Like his films, he knocks wisecracks out of the park two at a time. Like: “From the time I get up till the time I get to sleep, I think constantly about sex and death.” Oh, did we mention he’s also quite neurotic?
BUT TF DOESN’T LOVE…
… Seagal Speak
“I have no fear of death. More important, I don’t fear life.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? Steven Seagal’s quips, confined to film-turds like Belly of the Beast and Half Past Dead, are as dim and daft as his overblown actioners.
Via Total Film