Personal problems obsessed Lenny Bruce, who railed at authority from the farthest edge of mainstream. Mort Sahl is bellicose. Both made audiences think, which was novel and threatening. In this way, Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl opened the door for Woody Allen.
Allen devised a persona that didnt disturb or menace. A typical introduction shows how edgy his act got. Were moderately proud, the emcee says, to present, actor, author, comedian and (pause) spoiler of women Woody Allen.
The overture fit the time, 1968. It fit the place, Eugenes in San Francisco. It gave off an odour of faux intellectualism. It hit home for a young, more educated audience, on the way to an upper middle class and bland life style.
As a clever and witty nerd, Allen caught the mood of the moment. Claiming lack of athletic agility, he says a car with a flat tire, which two men were pushing, ran over him. Prom night, he had to be home by 9:30 pm, so he made reservation at the Copacabana for 5:30 pm; he and his date watched them set up. After smoking weed by mistake, he broke two teeth trying to give a hickey to the Statue of Liberty. When a cop asks if hes a draft card burner, he says, no, I never registered, I dont have a draft card.
Anxious and neurotic, he talked about the daily tragedies of life. He lived on the upper east side of New York City, which was unsafe; he moved to a safe and secure luxury apartment on Park Avenue: two weeks after the move, the lobby attendant mugged him. He tried to use therapy as a business expense on his taxes, but Internal Revenue saw it as entertainment; in the end, they agreed it was a religious donation. His marriage ended, he said, because he put his wife under a pedestal. She was immature; when he took a bath, shed run into the room and sink his boats.
The milder persona took comedy to a new place. Lenny Bruce lashed at the elites for using the law to abuse him. Mort Sahl was sarcastic, and hostile. As a result, neither could find the success of Woody Allen.
On the surface, at least, the stand up work of Woody Allen was gentle and up beat, even airy. A science fiction film, where we all suddenly fall asleep and wake up to find were in the pants business, is solid comedy, if fluff. So, too, is Summing Up. He says he wants to end the set on a positive note, but cant come up with one. Will, he asks the audience, They accept two negative to end on?
His movies are darker. Characters in a Woody Allen movie strand at a crossroad. They must choose despair or hopelessness. The hollowness of life is his leitmotif.
Allen compelled the audience to make connections. After expulsion from New York University, he went to work for his father. He organized the workers to unionize. They went on strike, putting his father out of business. Moreover, if you didnt know that New York City had a lot of street crime and the link of luxury with safety, the Park Avenue apartment bit got by you. If you werent up on tax write offs that bit, too, was lost.
In some ways, the 1960s werent as urbane as today. In 2006, for example, about 1 of 5 women and men have completed college. In 1965, the figure was about 1 of 12. Education makes a difference. Among college graduates, divorce is least likely to be the first response to martial problems. Education reveals options.
The stand up work of Woody Allen created a clique or elite. To join, you had to share, be on the inside and hip. If you werent, his comments went through you as a ghost through a wall. Whats he talking about, says Casper to Brigid, his parents are old school; have basic values like gawd and carpeting?
Hip insiders shared an image of middle class New Yorkers. Loud, snobbish boors, New Yorkers got jokes about themselves. Outside New York City, they carried the brunt of the jokes.
Often, Allen would stop, pause and say He, he, he, he. His action was much like an eight-year-old who just discovered irony. The intent was to convey, You and I get this stuff, those who arent hip, dont. His tactic reinforced elite membership.
He also used long pauses to test the audience. Were they hip enough to know what was coming? Give them a minute to confirm they're hip.
Nonetheless, Allen pushed audiences to accept their plight. Limited autonomy is okay, if youre hip. Thoughts make amends. His stories hint were all in this together. Therapy is a good distraction, and may be fun.
Ideas lurked, slyly masked as jokes, and gotcha. Its okay not to be athletic. Parents can be too strict. Therapy is okay or even necessary. Openly talking about divorce, which was on the rise, eased the pain and the stigma. Drugs cause problems. The military draft and, by implication, the police action in Vietnam were losing support. Nothing, not even money, ensures youre safe and secure. Theres nothing like a little mental gymnastics and a few drinks to help the reality go down.
Allen parlayed mainstream attitudes, interests and opinions into a career. On the far margin, success remained out of reach for Lenny Bruce; he lives on in romantic ideals and no more. Allen played centre court, where he reaped the benefits.
For 40 years, bits and pieces from live recordings, made during the 1960s (Woody Allen, Woody Allen Volume 2 and The Third Woody Allen Album), were the riffs of cocktail party chatter and comedy acts. Post 9/11, Woody Allen, stand up comic, lost relevance. Brawn ousted brains when the callous elite assumed control.
All quotations and examples from Woody Allen (1979), "Stand Up Comic" released by Casablanca Record and Filmworks. The cassette version includes material from the three albums recorded in the 1960s.
Streeter Click is editor of GrubStreet.ca.
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