Woody Allen: The Stand-Up Years 1964-1968 (Part 10)

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Woody Allen Stand Up Comic 1964 1968 12 European Trip

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A Conversation with Woody Allen Expert Robert Weide

Mike Ragogna: So what is this fascination you’ve got with comedians?

Robert Weide: I remember being a kid and seeing the last couple of years of The Ed Sullivan Show, the Johnny Carson era of The Tonight Show, I just love both standup comedy and film comedy. I have certain tastes, it’s not that I love everything, but in the case of Albert Brooks and Woody and Mort Sahl and Kurt Vonnegut, you get to meet these people and hang with them and it’s very cool.

MR: Breakfast Of Champions was an essential when I was a teenager.

RW: You know what’s important to me? Lost In America.

MR: What a great movie, though I think the problem may be now that America might have taken a cue from that movie.

RW: Yeah, talk about prescient.

MR: Robert, what’s your opinion of Woody Allen being a pioneer in comedy?

RW: That’s an interesting question. I’m not the best one at essay questions like that although it’s very legitimate. Personally, I just dote on originality. He was a unique voice, an original voice when he emerged. I think maybe what he did that hadn’t quite been done before the way he did it was the neurotic New York Jew. They didn’t really have a voice in standup. The contemporary urban Jew. He gave voice to that. My criteria is just what makes me laugh. Like I said, when I was in junior high and high school watching Albert Brooks on The Tonight Show he really made me laugh. Steve Martin made me laugh, Woody Allen just made me laugh. I was nine years old whenTake The Money And Run came out, which was his first feature as a writer/director. There’s nothing about that film that a nine year-old can’t appreciate, so I saw it and I loved it and then the next year he did Bananas, which was a great movie for a kid and then Sleeper and Love & Death, so I grew up with his films. Annie Hall changed my life.

Once my interest in him accelerated to that next level, then I wanted to go back and learn about this guy and read about him and know other things that he did. This was before the internet, so back in those days, I would go to the library and they had The Readers’ Guide To Periodical Literature. But I didn’t just look him up. I looked up The Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce, I was the kid in the library reading about all of these things. Around about that time I discovered that his standup albums were reissued, so I bought what were then the current issues of his standup material and I thought it was some of the funniest standup comedy that I’d ever heard. It really made me laugh. Now everything is digital, our music is very portable, but back then when you had vinyl I would invite my friends over and we would just put on a comedy album. That was a thing you did back then. All my friends loved the stuff, too. It was hysterical.

Once I really started to look at Woody’s full body of work, it was easy to see the connections between his standup bits and the bits that appear in his films and even his prose pieces from New Yorker and other magazines. There’s certainly jokes and situations that repeat themselves and I found it interesting to play connect the dots with all of those. I just thought his standup was great. What’s interesting about Woody is that he is very, very hard on himself in both his films and his standup–when he made Manhattan, he thought he’d botched it so badly that he offered to the studio to make another movie for them pro bono if they would not put out Manhattan. Who doesn’t consider Manhattan a classic? But that’s how he feels. He’s very hard on himself.

MR: You mentioned connect the dots. For Woody’s brand of comedy, where do the dots begin?

RW: The guy who changed it all was Mort Sahl, the subject of another of another one of my documentaries for American Masters. Mort just changed everyone who came after him. You could say that Will Rogers did political humor back in the thirties, but it didn’t quite have the fangs that Mort Had. When Mort came along it was really jokes about your mother-in-law or your wife’s cooking and woman drivers and the nightclub comedians all wore tuxedos and they were very polished and very brash. Mort just changed all that. Suddenly, he was doing not just political humor but all sorts of satire and looking at our daily lives and talking about things that really mattered. Mort created that wave, and on that wave came Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May and Second City. Then the next generation out of that was Woody and Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers and The Smothers Brothers, then the next wave was Robert Klein and David Steinberg.

There’s a line through all of that, but it really starts with Mort Sahl. It was sort of a double edge sword because on the one hand, Mort inspired Woody to do standup because he was so brilliant. It’s like what people say when they first hear Bob Dylan, “I didn’t know music could sound like that.” When Woody heard Mort it was like, “Oh, I had no idea that standup comedy could be this.” It inspired him but at the same time it intimidated him because he said, “I’ll never be as good as that guy.” I think in an odd way that’s still what holds Woody back from acknowledging how good his stuff is in the same way that with his movies he compares himself to the great world directors like Bergman and Fellini and others he admires so much.

MR: So like musicians, comedians, in general, are inspired by established comedians in a similar way?

RW: Yes. Mort was considered a political comedian and Woody did not do politics, but if you look at the early reviews of Woody when he first started to emerge in the early sixties, many of these reviews cite the Sahl influence in terms of delivery and pacing and phrasing and that kind of thing. I think Louise Lasser told me that at one point Woody’s manager Jack Rollins said, “Back off of the Mort thing a little bit, you’re starting to sound a little derivative.” We’re all an amalgamation of our various influences. When Woody was writing his early short pieces for the New Yorker he was very influenced by Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman. If you’re going to be influenced by somebody, why not the best? I seem to recall he got a couple of very early pieces rejected by editors who said, “Can you make this a little less like Perelman?” But he certainly found his own voice eventually, to the point where other comics came along who started to sound like Woody. Every generation begets the next.

MR: It was almost like they took what he had but left his character. When you assembled this collection, did you come to any new revelations about Woody Allen?

RW: After such a great question I wish I had a great answer. I don’t know that I do. I guess the big revelation for me is simply how well the stuff holds up. I know this isn’t quite what you were getting at, but being a connoisseur of this thing I’m acutely aware that some comedy ages well and some doesn’t. Look at Seinfeld, you can watch that now and it’s as funny as it was, but if you watch other shows from the same era that were hugely popular then, Alf or something and you say, “Wow, people were really watching this not that long ago?”

A lot of standup and movie comedy dates very poorly. Again I say this just as somebody who takes the long overview of standup in general, I think Woody’s standup just holds up very well. I make the comparison in the liner notes. Woody would actually hate this because he’s no fan of sixties music at all, but I do make the comparison with The Beatles. Woody started his standup career in 1960, which is basically the same year that The Beatles started performing as a group with Pete Best and then Woody’s first standup record came out in ’64, which is when the Beatles came to America. Woody pretty much called it quits with standup around 1970, which is pretty much when The Beatles called it quits.

But the other comparison I make is that the work holds up. If you liked The Beatles music back in the sixties, chances are you’ll like it now. If you thought that Woody Allen’s work in the sixties was funny, chances are you’ll find it still holds up. That was the big revelation, how sharp stuff is. It’s both of its time and timeless. The things that he talks about are the sixties’ thinking about dating and your parents and growing up and yet it doesn’t feel dated at the same time. I should clarify, though: This wasn’t my project. I didn’t produce the record.

MR: No, but you had to focus on it for the assembly of the liner notes. Did you notice a growth across his three albums?

RW: I think basically you should jumble up the tracks from all three albums and pull them out at random and not really know what came from which album. I’d say he’s pretty consistent. This isn’t a long time, ’64 to ’68 is only four years, so it’s not like his movies where you can compare Bananas to Match Point and see over decades how he’s changed and evolved. I think if you really start to get into it you can hear in those later years that he’s just a little more relaxed. Woody has told me–and he’s said this elsewhere–he did not enjoy performing. He did not enjoy doing standup, he was pushed into it by his managers. He just wanted to be a writer but his managers thought he had a very funny stage presence and he would be great as a standup doing his own material instead of writing for others.

So they talked him into doing it but Woody was very, very hesitant. He finally got to the point where he was performing every night, but he said he would wake up in the morning and realize that he would have to go up on stage that night and it would just kill his whole day. He would have no appetite, he would be nauseated, he was not a born performer. He did say that once he got out on stage and the audience started laughing, then he was fine, but he still had all of this anxiety beforehand, pacing and even throwing up backstage.

As his movies became more successful he did less and less standup, but in around 1972 he had some contractual obligation to play Caeser’s Palace. Eric Lax, who has written a number of biographies on Woody Allen, was backstage with him before he went on and said Woody was as calm as he could be, playing solitaire or something and not fretting about his act at all. I asked Woody about this and he said that by that time, it was nothing. Also I think the fact that he wasn’t making his living as a standup anymore, the fact that he was making movies now sort of took the pressure off him.

MR: You’ve been looking at comedians doing standup and movies for years, where is comedy heading? Where is Woody heading?

RW: Professionally, he’s in a very, very rare situation. In fact, I can’t name you one other person who’s in this situation, at least in the United States, where he gets to do a movie a year, he’s got people lined up to finance the movies, he doesn’t have to answer to anybody creatively, the people who finance his movies don’t even see a finished script, which is outrageous. He doesn’t spend a lot on his movies, they’re all in the eighteen million dollar range which is peanuts by most standards, but it gives him creative freedom and year after year he knocks out a movie. If you saw the documentary you see he’s got a whole drawer full of ideas, he’ll never run out during his lifetime. Some movies come out great, some not so great, but he’s just relying on the law of averages. If you get to do a movie year after year eventually one will come out that’s pretty good. People made a big deal over this Amazon thing, I spoke to him subsequent to it, he said he doesn’t have any idea what he’s going to do, it’s just that Amazon pursued him and pursued him.

He doesn’t understand the whole concept of a miniseries. He watches very little, he really just watches movies and sports and news on TV, not serials. He didn’t even really understand quite what Amazon was, but they kept pursuing him and they said, “Look, you can do whatever you want, there’s no approval process, I think they threw a lot of money at him and typical of him he resisted. I think the people around him said, “Come on, what’s the harm? Do this.” He’s not an internet person, he’s never gone online or searched the web or anything, so all of this is quite confusing to him, but what’s funny is he finally agreed and there was all this press that said, “Woody Allen is signed to do something with Amazon” and he told me the really funny thing was that people were actually congratulating him. “Hey, congratulations on your series!” and he shrugs and says, “Thank you, but I don’t know what I’m doing.” I talked to him on set one time about his creative freedom and I said, “Even Martin Scorsese has to defend himself creatively,” and he said, “That’s because Marty does pictures that cost seventy or eighty million dollars. I do mine for fifteen to twenty, that’s why I don’t have to argue with anybody.” It puts him in an interesting situation, he’s a brand name now. It’s like if Chaplin was still alive and young enough to make movies. People wanted to be in the Chaplin business, people want to be in the Woody business. I just read yesterday that apparently Woody’s coming back to LA to direct another opera.

MR: I saw his last one, is it revival?

RW: I don’t know if he’s doing the same one again or something new, it’s just something that flew by me on the internet. But that’s what he does. He can’t sit still like a normal person and finish a movie and go on vacation or something. Once he finishes a movie, he’ll take a few days or maybe a week off to just putt around, but after that he gets eager to get working again. If he’s between movies, he’ll tour Europe or write a screenplay or whatever. He’s a guy who can’t not be working.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists, in this case, comedians.

RW: I guess the nice thing about doing standup is it’s like being a writer in that you can practice your craft without needing any money or other people. If you want to be an actor somebody’s got to hire you for your gig and do the audition process and all that, but for a writer all you need is some quiet. That doesn’t mean that anyone’s going to buy what you like, but you can practice your craft. I’ve been out of the scene for a long time, I used to live at the improv during the eighties, all of my friends were comedians and I would sit at the round table with them and it was my hangout. It’s been years and years since I’ve done that but I assume the process is still basically the same in places like The Comedy Store or The Improv or Gotham, you go up during an open mic night and get to practice your craft that way. You may only get five minutes but if you do well and you’re there consistently enough they might have you come back. I guess that’s still the route, but of course people get discovered on the internet now, too.

Back in the day when I first started making my films and documentaries, everything was film and it was expensive to buy the equipment and get film processed and edited and all that. Now you can spend a couple hundred dollars on a camera and edit something on your laptop, that’s the other way people can go. The problem is that it’s easier and easier to create something and put your work out there and it doesn’t cost a lot to do so the problem is everyone else is doing it too. When you tell people you’re going to make a video and put it on the internet, how do you make it pop out against the tens of thousands of other people doing the same thing? It’s not something I know much about because I’m an elder statesman now and I don’t have to worry about breaking in. I don’t know enough about the scene now to pretend to give anyone advice, but the old tenets still hold, stick with it and don’t let people shake your confidence or talk you out of it.

MR: If a Woody Allen had been born in the nineties, how would he or she stand out? Does anyone like that come to mind for you?

RW: Well, I do think the people who really make their mark, like a Woody or an Albert Brooks or a Bob Hope or a Mort Sahl, I think those people have something very, very special. I don’t think it’s just being able to write decent jokes and perform them decently, I think there is an element of something that you’re born with. I think that applies to writers and artists. A friend of mine made the analogy that it’s pretty much like tennis. Anybody can play tennis really, but only a few people can play tennis really well. I think that’s true of comedy or any sort of creative endeavor. Anybody can do it, but there are a few people with a so-called, God-given talent who are just born with the gift. I think it’s what Woody’s managers acknowledged about him when he came to see them to talk about hiring him as a writer. They said, “This guy is just inherently funny. He should be on stage performing this.” What you get with his standup is the early iteration of the screen persona which would eventually be so recognizable. That’s one thing that’s exciting about the standup, you see it forming, the earliest version of Woody Allen that we see in those first films, at least up throughAnnie Hall or even Manhattan.

MR: It seems like he’s hit another stride that includes Midnight In Paris and other recent films. If he’s not going on the internet, where does he get this inspiration to focus on subjects so currently relevant?

RW: I don’t know, he’s very old school. Everybody knows his wife is a few years younger than him, I think she keeps him plugged in a little bit. I know when he did Whatever Works, Soon-Yi suggested Evan Rachel Wood for that role. Woody’s got his casting director Juliet Taylor who keeps him tuned in to young performers. There are few actors working today worth their salt who wouldn’t love that call from Woody’s casting director. He gets the best and brightest, he’s now worked with Emma Stone twice, Joaquin Phoenix is in his new picture, I think he’s surrounded by people who keep him more plugged in to contemporary culture than he would on his own. I don’t think Woody knows anything about music post 1960 other than Sinatra. His music is jazz and classical, he’s never cared about contemporary pop music, he doesn’t stay on top of TV, I think he tries to see new movies every now and then, Diane Keaton is still very much a taste maker for Woody, she’ll say, “You’ve got to see this movie.” In his last collection of short stories, Mere Anarchy, there was a short story called, “This Nib For Hire.” I read it in a Starbucks and it had me laughing so hard that I became very self conscious of being the laughing guy in the room. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing and then my eyes were tearing up. I told my wife, “You’ve got to read this piece of Woody’s, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever read.”

That night, I was in my office working and I heard her in the bedroom, I thought she was crying or screaming or something. I go in there and she was reading the piece and screaming with laughter. The point I want to make in this is there’s actually a joke about the internet and it surprised me that Woody knew enough about the internet to even make the joke he did. I think of him as being sort of a luddite. He still types on that manual typewriter he bought when hew as sixteen years old, he’s never used a computer or word processor. On the one hand, he’s very, very old school, but on the other hand, I think he has enough people who can keep him plugged in to the current culture so that he doesn’t come off as one of those guys who are totally out of touch.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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Woody Allen Stand Up Comic 1964 1968 25 Summing Up

I have spent alot of time talking about Woody Allen films on this blog and looking at his worldview. He has a hopelessmeaningless, nihilistic worldview that believes we are going to turn to dust and there is no afterlife. Even though he has this view he has taken the opportunity to look at the weaknesses of his own secular view. I salute him for doing that. That is why I have returned to his work over and over and presented my own Christian worldview as an alternative.

My interest in Woody Allen is so great that I have a “Woody Wednesday” on my blog www.thedailyhatch.org every week. Also I have done over 30 posts on the historical characters mentioned in his film “Midnight in Paris.” (Salvador DaliErnest Hemingway,T.S.Elliot,  Cole Porter,Paul Gauguin,  Luis Bunuel, and Pablo Picassowere just a few of the characters.)

Woody Allen – “The New Comic” from The Stand-Up Years

Published on Dec 4, 2014

Woody Allen – “The Stand-Up Years” Available January 13, 2015. Pre-order on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Stand-Up-Ye…

-INCLUDES ALL THREE LIVE STAND-UP ALBUMS RECORDED BETWEEN 1964-1968
-REMASTERED AND AVAILABLE ON CD AND DIGITALLY
-BONUS MATERIAL INCLUDES: AUDIENCE Q&A AND OVER 20 MINUTES OF AUDIO EXCERPTS FROM WOODY ALLEN: A DOCUMENTARY

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