Not a great decade to be Jewish

Will Self

  • Complete Prose by Woody Allen
    Picador, 473 pp, £14.99, November 1992, ISBN 0 330 32820 4

Like a Member of Parliament about to enter a debate, I feel that at the outset I should declare an interest – the influence of Woody Allen’s comic style on my own. Two out of the three collections of humorous pieces included in this bumper volume were my primers, my textbooks, the canonical forms to which I have returned time and again when considering what it is to be funny in print.

I must have been given the American edition of Getting Even in about 1974, when I was 13. A year or so later, I actually staged a version of the short play ‘Death knocks’, in which Nat Ackerman, a balding Jewish schmutter manufacturer, plays gin rummy with Death. At that age I was, of course, unaware that the play-let is an exquisite parody of Bergman’s Seventh Seal. I may have been a pretentious and culturally omnivorous adolescent, but it was exclusively the strength of Allen’s one-liners, and the precision of his comic timing, that fuelled my admiration. There can have been nothing more absurd to the audience of North London middle-class parents and schoolboys than my production.

My mother was a Jewish New Yorker, and one was as likely to come across Mort Sahl, S.J. Perelman and James Thurber dotted around the family home as H.B. Morton or Wodehouse. Despite this, Allen’s Yiddish vocabulary (his kvetching and kaddish, his schlep, kasha and noodge) was as alien to me as to any other English boy; and so was his fictional topography, which effectively mirrors that classic cartoon ‘A New Yorker’s View of the World’. And yet I read, and reread and even memorised, whole passages of Getting even and Without Feathers. Almost twenty years later I still find myself cribbing and restructuring some of Allen’s gags in conversation. It wasn’t until I came to rereading these pieces that I recognised the origin of the joke, ‘K. would not think to pass from room to room in a conventional dwelling without first stripping completely and then buttering himself’ – which I had freely adapted over the years to become: ‘he/she has to strip naked and grease themselves to get through a door.’ Ditto for exploded metaphors such as: ‘She had a set of parabolas that could have caused cardiac arrest in a yak.’ Or: ‘the zenith of mongoloid reasoning’.

Any canonical work is more than a point of origin, an inchoate text from which others derive: it also acts as a refracting lens. As I grew older I began to appreciate the way Allen’s humour both anticipates the evolution of late 20th-century comedy – the crystallisation of the absurdity of urban alienation – and simultaneously reaches back to incorporate the styles and modes of Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Perelman and Groucho Marx.

For my young self, the crucial juncture occurred when, thanks to Annie Hall, Allen became famous in England. Up until 1976 he was an oddity, a little-known Jewish funny man, a minority-interest comedian. With Annie Hall all this changed, and at least for the art-house-inclined, his film became a primary point of cultural reference. I was appalled in the way that only someone can be who feels he has discovered something in advance of the masses. Allen was ‘my’ comic inspiration, and what’s more, although I was profoundly deracinated, he had also become the touchstone of whatever semitism I accorded myself. The idea that the goyim should even be allowed to laugh at this self-lacerating, mordantly Jewish comedy was more than I could stand.

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