Woody Allen’s Slow Journey Away From Comedy

Chances are good that you’re not going to go see Woody Allen’s latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. Let’s be honest: it doesn’t exactly look like a return to form for the once universally acclaimed writer, director and actor.

Allen has made his share of mediocre films as well as outstanding ones, but before he turned to film, he was a comedian. Today, you can catch a joke here and there, but even the trailers for his films struggle to force a smile. Allen, still well known for his self-deprecating neurotic style of humor, has cut himself off from the contemporary world of comedy.

Once a fixture of New York comedy clubs, Allen began writing jokes at the age of 15. In a 1974 profile in the New Yorker, Allen described his earliest material as somewhere between “below average and way below average.” His first printed joke can hardly be classified as a joke. Appearing in a gossip column, the gag read: “Woody Allen says he ate at a restaurant that had O.P.S. prices—over people’s salaries.” I don’t get it. Ed Sullivan, however, saw talent in his writing and placed Allen’s jokes in his weekly column. At 17 years old, Allen wrote 30-40 jokes a day that were used by other comedians like Herb Shriner and Sid Caesar.

Allen was crippled by his modesty; his managers had to beg him to go on stage and perform his own material. In 1961, Allen made his first appearance as a performer in a New York comedy club. He started slowly. Quoted in an article from Time Magazine, one of his managers harped on Allen’s early failures: “Woody was just awful. Of course he had good lines. But he was so scared and embarrassed and—rabbity. If you gave him an excuse not to go on, he’d take it. Woody quit five or six times.”

Eventually his act gained traction. Allen found a following with jokes like:

“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.”

A dysfunctional family and bizarre childhood provided Allen with plenty of comedic material. His act often felt autobiographical with a dose of the absurd. To the consternation of his parents, Allen inserted fragments of his personal life into his act.

“I don’t think my parents liked me. They put a live teddy bear in my crib.”

After marrying at the age of 19 and divorcing at 24, Allen incorporated his failed relationship into his routine.

“Well, my wife was an immature woman. See if this is not immature to you: I would be home in the bathroom, taking a bath, and my wife would walk right in, whenever she felt like, and sink my boats”

In one of his most famous jokes, Allen tells a story about shooting a moose in upstate New York. Like most of his jokes, Allen begins with a plausible premise. He went hunting and shot a moose—that’s believable enough. As the story progresses, the joke takes a turn towards the surreal. Take a look for yourself.

The moose and other jokes like it landed Allen a movie deal. At the start of Allen’s filmmaking career, he viewed himself as a comedian, not an artiste. The first seven movies Allen wrote and directed existed for one purpose: making people laugh. It’s unfair to say that his movies didn’t probe any emotions beyond laughter, but his early work packed more jokes in than anything else. Starting with the Oscar winning Annie Hall and the serious drama Interiors, Allen started to make the transition from comedian to not-so-funny filmmaker. Intereriors was Allen’s first movie that left audiences straight faced, and consequentially disappointed.

After a certain point, outright comedy became too easy for Allen. He lost interest in going after easy laughs with cheap jokes. Speaking about his comedy in a New Yorker profile, Allen said, “Great humor is intellectual without trying to be.” As his film career progressed, his intellectual style of humor steadily became more intellectual than humorous. To say that Allen completely abandoned humor altogether would be overstating my case; films such as Deconstructing Harry and Crimes and Misdemeanors still garnered some laughs.

But as you track Allen’s career, the level of funny dwindles with each successive film. In his later films, he hoped to leave his audience thinking rather than laughing. Match Point, for instance, examined luck, but not in the way a neurotic Jewish comedian would dwell on the subject. He started to view serious issues from a not-so-funny perspective. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger explores the issue of faith, for which Allen drearily describes in an interview with the New York Times as “delusions to keep us going.” His focus has shifted from the funny to the bleak, and his image in the comedy world has suffered because of it. Film may have gotten something great in Woody Allen, but comedy lost a pretty good source of laughter.

Daniel Hurwitz is a 22 year old writer living in New York. When he isn’t writing, he enjoys eating non-local, watching Lost reruns, and not writing.

Woody Allen’s Slow Journey Away From Comedy