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.

In retrospect I find it difficult to believe that Allen’s humour became widely appreciated in England at that time simply because of the Oscar award. Rather, the English were becoming more self-consciously urbanised and decadent in the mid-Seventies. Traditional Little England anti-intellectualism was on a partial wane. In a word, the English were becoming more Jewish. So it was that they began to find Allen funny.

Interestingly this acceptance of Allen in England coincided with what critics have identified as the ‘epistemological break’ in his work. John Lahr, in his 1984 essay on Allen, wasn’t the first to take the view that the comic’s early films, thin narrative skeletons on to which Allen could graft his anarchic one-liners, were somehow more honest. After the break, according to Lahr and many others, Allen committed the comic’s worst crime – wanting to be taken seriously. He made the stilted, boring, Bergmanesque Interiors, and his execrably self-obsessed version of Fellini’s 8½ Stardust Memories, in which he tried to deflect such criticisms, by placing them in the mouth of a grotesque, importuning fan: ‘I prefer the early funny films.’ But Lahr’s essay, in which he accuses Allen of ‘teasing and flattering a middle-class audience with its hard-won sophistication’, and defines his humour as deriving from ‘emotional paralysis’, was written before Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanours, films which arguably brought together in a more acceptable form Allen’s ‘cosmic kvetching’ and his nice appreciation of the tragic ironies of ordinary lives.

There has now been an even more profound ‘epistemological break’, the kind that only an unusual artistry could survive: Allen’s life has begun to overshadow his work. Hardly anyone on the planet has been able to watch Husbands and Wives without picking apart the seeming artifice to peer at the emotional realities which we now know lie beneath it. At some screenings – although not the one I attended – sophisticated audiences have tittered knowingly as the Allen character, a creative writing professor called Gabe Roth (shadows of Portnoy?) discourses to the camera on his attraction to younger women, his belief in fidelity (tee-hee) and so forth.

Husbands and Wives was a depressing experience for me. No one likes to see his idols brought so low. When the news first broke about Allen’s alleged child abuse I was appalled. Surely, I mused, this cannot in any way be true? The whole point about Allen’s metaphysical schmuck persona was that it represented a fundamental honesty; a willingness to admit to sexual inadequacy, lust, emotional missed connections. How could such a man turn out to be a comprehensive suborner of trust? To compound the uncase there was the film’s cinematography. Allen’s increasing artistic pretension has been mirrored by his use of sophisticated camerawork. But in Husbands and Wives, it looks as if Allen forced Carlo Di Palma to undergo a two-week speed-and-brandy binge before shooting the picture on the comedown. Obviously the hand-held judder and frenzied jump-cut were intended as visual counterpoints to the narrative’s muddled emotional compromise and painful honesty. But what came across was a kind of dodginess, an evasiveness which of course one knew was there, as Allen denied the reality of his off-screen misdemeanours face-on to the wavering lens.

On returning to the 50 short pieces contained in the Complete Prose, a different order of criticism occurred to me Naturally, post-Soo-yi, every reference to nubility leaps off the page. In ‘The Lunatic’s Tale’, Allen’s enduring obsession with Jehovah’s failure to put the mind of a ‘charming and witty culture vulture’ into the body of an ‘erotic archetype’ is given full rein, as he enacts a dry run of the fantasy scene in Stardust Memories, by performing the Frankensteinian psycho-sexual transplant surgery himself. It is now very difficult to view his plainting on this theme (no less than five of the 50 pieces are concerned specifically with the impossibility of finding a sexy woman who is his intellectual equal) as anything other than retrogressive and callous. If it is true that Allen cannot locate a woman who he finds both intelligent and sexy, it is surely – we now feel – a function of his own shortcomings, rather than the cosmic joke he would have us believe.

It is in his use of pastiche and parody that these pieces represent the seedbed of Allen’s humorous vision. And, as such, all too often I found myself agreeing with Lahr: in Allen’s work – unlike that of, say, Groucho Marx or Thurber – parody represents ‘an imagination submerged more in art than life’, although I would be inclined to say more in culture than in art. ‘Look,’ Allen seems to be saying, ‘I may have been expelled from university’ (an event which provided him with the memorable gag: ‘I cheated on the metaphysics paper by looking into the soul of the Student seated next to me’), ‘but I’m still just as clever, well-read and philosophically literate as the people I would like to be.’

The author’s note for Getting even was one of the Allen lines that I found funniest as a child. He stared out from the jacket, a misshapen little man with glasses, holding a stick or a twig, with a mien of utter hopelessness. Underneath he declared: ‘My only regret in life is that I’m not someone else.’ But contrary to the impression which his films give, Allen doesn’t want to be Bergman. Renoir, Fellini or Lang. In the Complete Prose, it is clear that he wants to be Sontag, Benjamin, Adorno or Arendt. His comic one-liners are a painful involution of the Existential aphorism, which traces its lineage back through the Frankfurt School to Nietzsche (‘Death is an acquired trait’). His parodic cultural disquisitions – a critique of a Nietzschean character’s laundry lists; an elision of Dostoevsky and eating disorders; a pseudo-memoir of a contemporary-of Freud’s – are in effect his attempts at the exegetical essay form, which has come to represent the summit of contemporary intellectual achievement. When Allen quips, ‘Epistemology: Is knowing knowable? If not, how do we know this?’ he is not simply flattering his audience, he is flattering himself as well, showing us that he, too, has a vast matching set of Samsonite intellectual baggage. Possibly my discomfort on rereading these pieces was as much a function of recognising this pretension within myself as of seeing it in Allen.

The influence which Allen exercises on my own comedy, and on that of many others, is based less on the subject-matter of his pieces than on the particular form of the Allen gag. It is important to remember that Allen cut his teeth writing jokes for Johnny Carson, churning out, it’s claimed, as many as five hundred a week. The Allen one-liner has three basic forms: the ‘bathetic let-down’, the ‘surreal elision’ and the ‘silly word’. Here, in the same order, are examples: ‘So little time left, he thought, and so much to accomplish. For one thing, he wanted to learn to drive a car.’ ‘I did not know that Hitler was a Nazi, for years I thought he worked for the phone company.’ ‘Once, on holiday in Jena, he could not say anything but the word “eggplant” for four straight days.’

Most of the pieces in this collection were first published in the New Yorker, and it is to the classic comic vignettes of the Thirties that they in turn clearly owe their primary inspiration. The Complete Prose is an ideal bedside companion, to be dipped into for quick hits of enjoyment. Treated in this way, and severed from the Allen persona and its tendency to topple over into his own work, the pieces remain examples of unalloyed comic genius. In ‘If Impressionists had been dentists’, Allen produces a hilarious pastiche of the American bio-pics of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin. Seurat is a hygienist who cleans his patients’ teeth one at a time, in order to build up ‘a full fresh mouth’. Toulouse-Lautrec is too proud to work on a stool and so, fumbling away, manages to ‘cap Mrs Needleman’s chin’. Eventually vincent, unrecognised, reduced to ‘working almost exclusively with dental floss’, and unhappy in love, confesses to Theo that ‘the ear on sale at Fleishman Brothers Novelty Shop is mine.’

In ‘The Kuglemass Episode’, Allen conceives of a magician, ‘the Great Persky’, who is able to project his clients into any work of fiction. So it is that Kuglemass, a Jewish academic at Colombia, trapped in a loveless marriage, is able to enjoy an affair with Emma Bovary: ‘“My God, I’m doing it with Madame Bovary!” Kuglemass whispered to himself “Me, who failed freshman English.”’ More surreal still is the fact that Kuglemass actually crops up in the text as it is being read: ‘at this very moment students in various classrooms across the country were saying to their teachers: “Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?”’ This kind of conceit goes much further than the simple schemas of Allen one-liners, creating a reductio ad absurdum of fantasy/reality, realily/fantasy, that is the hallmark of true satire.

In ‘The Discovery and Use of the Fake Ink Blot’, he seems to be cutting the ground from under himself, with a mock-serious commentary on the very unfunny nature of the pratfall. However, Allen has never been shy of slap-stick, either in print or on film, and these pieces abound with casual instances of the cruellest and most pointless violence, visited on those who expect and deserve it least: ‘The old man had slipped on a chicken-salad sandwich and fallen off the Chrysler Building.’ The Mafia ‘are actually groups of rather serious men, whose main joy in life comes from seeing how long certain people can stay under the East River before they start gurgling.’ In ‘Viva Vargas!’, the first-person protagonist cascades off the front patio, ‘luckily breaking the fall with my teeth, which skidded around the ground like loose Chiclets’.

Allen’s sado-masochism is another slant on his self-hatred. This in turn is inescapably linked to his Jewishness, and the idea of Jewish humour as a pre-emptive strike: we’ll run ourselves down so far that the Gentiles won’t be able to say anything worse. The quintessence of the Jewish joke is not simply its self-deprecatory character – the Jew as mensch gaining strength through oppression – but also the fact that it is told by a Jew. If a Gentile tells a Jewish joke he is an anti-semite if Woody Allen tells an anti-semitic joke he is being funny. And here is the crux of my anxiety. The revelation of the nebbisch-as-possible-child-molester may be enough to destabilise the careful balance of pressures that have made Allen’s comedy such a good vehicle for promoting tolerance and understanding between Jew and Gentile. With Allen being paraded as the caricature Jewish child molester, defiler of Christian (Oh, all right, Korean-American) virtue, the other elements of his comic persona fall into alignment with the traditional slurs on Jewishness, and specifically on Jewish men: androgynity, thanatos, sexual obsession, febrile genius. With Neo-Nazis is burning down refugee hostels in Germany, the Nineties may not be such a great decade to be Jewish in. With Woody Allen committing crimes of pretentiousness and breach of trust, it may not be such a great decade for Jewish humorists either.