Friday, 15 June 2012

Woody Allen: The Art of Humor



Woody Allen’s career in comedy began in 1953 when he left college to write jokes for Garry Moore and Sid Caesar. In the early 1960s his stand-up routines in the comedy clubs of Greenwich Village brought him widespread recognition leading to several successful television appearances. In 1965 Allen wrote and made his acting debut in What’s New, Pussycat? Allen directed his first feature film Take the Money and Run in 1969 which he also wrote and starred in. The films which followed (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death) were commercially successful and critically acclaimed. In 1977 Allen wrote, directed and starred in Annie Hall alongside Diane Keaton. The film went on to win four Academy Awards, establishing Allen’s breakthrough style and themes which he went on to develop in Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours. The following extract is from an interview with Woody Allen conducted by Michiko Kakutani in 1995 in which Allen discusses his writing career.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing?

ALLEN

Before I could read. I’d always wanted to write. Before that – I made up tales. I was always creating stories for class. For the most part, I was never as much a fan of comic writers as serious writers. But I found myself able to write in a comic mode, at first directly imitative of [Max] Shulman or sometimes of [S.J.] Perelman. In my brief abortive year in college I’d hand in my papers, all of them written in a bad (or good) derivation of Shulman. I had no sense of myself at all.

INTERVIEWER

How did you discover your own voice? Did it happen gradually?

ALLEN

No, it was quite accidental. I had given up writing prose completely and gone into television writing. I wanted to write for the theater and at the same time I was doing a cabaret act as a comedian. One day Playboy magazine asked me to write something for them, because I was an emerging comedian and I wrote this piece on chess. At that time I was almost married – but not quite yet – to Louise Lasser; she read it and said, Gee, I think this is good. You should really send this over to The New Yorker. To me, as to everyone else of my generation, The New Yorker was hallowed ground. Anyhow, on a lark I did. I was shocked when I got this phone call back saying that if I’d make a few changes, they’d print it. So I went over there and made the few changes, and they ran it. It was a big boost to my confidence. So I figured, Well, I think I’ll write something else for them. The second or third thing I sent to The New Yorker was very Perelmanesque in style. They printed it but comments were that it was dangerously derivative and I agreed. So both The New Yorker and I looked out for that in subsequent pieces that I sent over there. I did finally get further and further away from him. Perelman, of course, was as complex as could be – a very rich kind of humor. As I went on I tried to simplify.

Love and Death (Directed by Woody Allen)
INTERVIEWER

Was this a parallel development to what you were trying to do in your films?

ALLEN

I don’t think of them as parallel. My experience has been that writing for the different mediums are very separate undertakings. Writing for the stage is completely different from writing for film and both are completely different from writing prose. The most demanding is writing prose, I think, because when you’re finished, it’s the end product. You can’t change it. In a play, it’s far from the end product. The script serves as a vehicle for the actors and director to develop characters. With films, I just scribble a couple of notes for a scene. You don’t have to do any writing at all, you just have your notes for the scene, which are written with the actors and the camera in mind. The actual script is a necessity for casting and budgeting, but the end product often doesn’t bear much resemblance to the script – at least in my case.

INTERVIEWER

So you would have much more control over something like a novel.

ALLEN

That’s one of its appeals – that you have the control over it. Another great appeal is that when you’re finished you can tear it up and throw it away. Whereas, when you make a movie, you can’t do that. You have to put it out there even if you don’t like it. I might add, the hours are better if you’re a prose writer. It’s much more fun to wake up in the morning, just drift into the next room and be alone and write, than it is to wake up in the morning and have to go shoot a film. Movies are a big demand. It’s a physical job. You’ve got to be someplace, on schedule, on time. And you are dependent on people. I know Norman Mailer said that if he had started his career today he might be in film rather than a novelist. I think films are a younger man’s enterprise. For the most part it’s strenuous. Beyond a certain point, I don’t think I want that exertion; I mean I don’t want to feel that my whole life I’m going to have to wake up at six in the morning, be out of the house at seven so I can be out on some freezing street or some dull meadow shooting. That’s not all that thrilling. It’s fun to putter around the house, stay home. Tennessee Williams said the annoying thing about plays is that you have to produce them – you can’t just write them and throw them in the drawer. That’s because when you finish writing a script, you’ve transcended it and you want to move on. With a book, you can. So the impulse seems always to be a novelist. It’s a very desirable thing. One thinks about Colette sitting in her Parisian apartment, looking out the window and writing. It’s a very seductive life...

Manhattan (Directed by Woody Allen)
INTERVIEWER

A lot of writers find it very hard to get started on the next project, to find an idea they really want to work on...

ALLEN

Probably they are casting aside ideas that are as good as the ideas I choose to work on. I’ll think of an idea walking down the street, and I’ll mark it down immediately. And I always want to make it into something. I’ve never had a block. I’m talking within the limits of my abilities. But in my own small way, I’ve had an embarrassment of riches. I’ll have five ideas and I’m dying to do them all. It takes weeks or months where I agonize and obsess over which to do next. I wish sometimes someone would choose for me. If someone said, Do idea number three next, that would be fine. But I have never had any sense of running dry. People always ask me, Do you ever think you’ll wake up one morning and not be funny? That thought would never occur to me – it’s an odd thought and not realistic. Because funny and me are not separate. We’re one. The best time to me is when I’m through with a project and deciding about a new one. That’s because it’s at a period when reality has not yet set in. The idea in your mind’s eye is so wonderful, and you fantasize it in the perfect flash of a second – just beautifully conceived. But then when you have to execute it, it doesn’t come out as you’d fantasized. Production is where the problems begin, where reality starts to set in. As I was saying before, the closest I ever come to realizing the concept is in prose. Most of the things that I’ve written and published, I’ve felt that I executed my original idea pretty much to my satisfaction. But I’ve never, ever felt that, not even close, about anything I’ve written for film or the stage. I always felt I had such a dazzling idea – where did I go wrong? You go wrong from the first day. Everything’s a compromise. For instance, you’re not going to get Marlon Brando to do your script, you’re going to get someone lesser. The room you see in your mind’s eye is not the room you’re filming in. It’s always a question of high aims, grandiose dreams, great bravado and confidence, and great courage at the typewriter; and then, when I’m in the midst of finishing a picture and everything’s gone horribly wrong and I’ve reedited it and reshot it and tried to fix it, then it’s merely a struggle for survival. You’re happy only to be alive. Gone are all the exalted goals and aims, all the uncompromising notions of a perfect work of art, and you’re just fighting so people won’t storm up the aisles with tar and feathers. With many of my films – almost all – if I’d been able to get on screen what I conceived, they would have been much better pictures. Fortunately, the public doesn’t know about how great the picture played in my head was, so I get away with it.

INTERVIEWER

How do you actually work? What are your tools?

ALLEN

I’ve written on legal pads, hotel stationery, anything I can get my hands on. I have no finickiness about anything like that. I write in hotel rooms, in my house, with other people around, on matchbooks. I have no problems with it – to the meager limits that I can do it. There have been stories where I’ve just sat down at the typewriter and typed straight through beginning to end. There are some New Yorker pieces I’ve written out in forty minutes time. And there are other things I’ve just struggled and agonized over for weeks and weeks. It’s very haphazard. Take two movies – one movie that was not critically successful was A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I wrote that thing in no time. It just came out in six days – everything in perfect shape. I did it, and it was not well received. Whereas Annie Hall was just endless – totally changing things. There was as much material on the cutting-room floor as there was in the picture – I went back five times to reshoot. And it was well received. On the other hand, the exact opposite has happened to me where I’ve done things that just flowed easily and were very well received. And things I agonized over were not. I’ve found no correlation at all...

Crimes and Misdemeanours (Directed by Woody Allen)
INTERVIEWER

Why did you start out writing comedy?

ALLEN

I always enjoyed comedians when I was young. But when I started to read more seriously, I enjoyed more serious writers. I became less interested in comedy then, although I found I could write it. These days I’m not terribly interested in comedy. If I were to list my fifteen favorite films, there would probably be no comedies in there. True, there are some comic films that I think are wonderful. I certainly think that City Lights is great, a number of the Buster Keatons, several Marx Brothers movies. But those are a different kind of comedy – the comedy of comedians in film stands more as a record of the comedians’ work. The films may be weak or silly but the comics were geniuses. I like Keaton’s films better than Keaton and enjoy Chaplin and The Marx Brothers usually more than the films. But I’m an easy audience. I laugh easily.

INTERVIEWER

How about Bringing Up Baby?

ALLEN

No, I never liked that. I never found that funny.

INTERVIEWER

Really?

ALLEN

No, I liked Born Yesterday, even though it’s a play made into a film. Both The Shop Around the Corner and Trouble in Paradise are terrific. A wonderful talking comedy is The White Sheik by Fellini.

Stardust Memories (Directed by Woody Allen)
INTERVIEWER

What is it that keeps a lighthearted or comic film from being on your list of ten?

ALLEN

Nothing other than personal taste. Someone else might list ten comedies. It’s simply that I enjoy more serious films. When I have the option to see films, I’ll go and see Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, The Grand Illusion, The Seventh Seal, and those kind of pictures.

INTERVIEWER

When you go to see the great classics over again, do you go to see how they’re made, or do you go for the impact that they have on you emotionally?

ALLEN

Usually, I go for enjoyment. Other people who work on my films see all the technical things happening, and I can’t see them. I still can’t notice the microphone shadow, or the cut that wasn’t good or something. I’m too engrossed in the film itself.

INTERVIEWER

Who have had the greatest influence on your film work?

ALLEN

The biggest influences on me, I guess, have been Bergman and the Marx Brothers. I also have no compunction stealing from Strindberg, Chekhov, Perelman, Moss Hart, Jimmy Cannon, Fellini, and Bob Hope’s writers.

Annie Hall (Directed by Woody Allen)
INTERVIEWER

Why do you think you started writing as a kid?

ALLEN

I think it was just the sheer pleasure of it. It’s like playing with my band now. It’s fun to make music, and it’s fun to write. It’s fun to make stuff up. I would say that if I’d lived in the era before motion pictures, I would have been a writer. I saw Alfred Kazin on television. He was extolling the novel at the expense of film. But I didn’t agree. One is not comparable with the other. He had too much respect for the printed word. Good films are better than bad books, and when they’re both great, they’re great and worthwhile in different ways.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the pleasures of writing are related to the sense of control art provides?

ALLEN

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive, and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing – really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?

INTERVIEWER

When you’re writing, do you think about your audience? Updike, for instance, once said that he liked to think of a young kid in a small Midwestern town finding one of his books on a shelf at a public library.

ALLEN

I’ve always felt that I try to aim as high as I can at the time, not to reach everybody, because I know that I can’t do that, but always to try to stretch myself. I’d like to feel, when I’ve finished a film, that intelligent adults, whether they’re scientists or philosophers, could go in and see it and not come out and feel that it was a total waste of time. That they wouldn’t say, Jesus, what did you get me into? If I went in to see Rambo, I’d say, Oh, God, and then after a few minutes I’d leave. Size of audience is irrelevant to me. The more the better, but not if I have to change my ideas to seduce them.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of development do you see in your own work over the years?

ALLEN

I hope for growth, of course. If you look at my first films, they were very broad and sometimes funny. I’ve gotten more human with the stories and sacrificed a tremendous amount of humor, of laughter, for other values that I personally feel are worth making that sacrifice for. So, a film like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Manhattan will not have as many laughs. But I think they’re more enjoyable. At least to me they are. I would love to continue that – and still try to make some serious things.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (Directed by Woody Allen)
INTERVIEWER

It seems as though when an artist becomes established, other people – critics, their followers – expect them to keep on doing the same thing, instead of evolving in their own way.

ALLEN

That’s why you must never take what’s written about you seriously. I’ve never written anything in my life or done any project that wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. You really have to forget about what they call ‘career moves.’ You just do what you want to do for your own sense of your creative life. If no one else wants to see it, that’s fine. Otherwise, you’re in the business to please other people. When we did Stardust Memories, all of us knew there would be a lot of flack. But it wouldn’t for a second stop me. I never thought, I better not do this because people will be upset. It’d be sheer death not to go through with a project you feel like going through with at the time...

INTERVIEWER

Don’t you think that as serious writers mature they simply continue to develop and expand the themes already established?

ALLEN

Each person has his own obsessions. In Bergman films you find the same things over and over, but they’re usually presented with great freshness.

– Extract from ‘Woody Allen, The Art of Humor No. 1. Interviewed by Michiko Kakutani. The Paris Review. Fall 1995, No. 136.’


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