He whose laughs last
THE word “holocaust,” used to comic effect, appears in the very first selection of Woody Allen’s latest festival of shtick and genius, “Mere Anarchy.” Here’s Max Endocrine, alterna-healer charlatan and professional levitator, whining eloquently about his rogue offspring: “My one son from a previous connubial holocaust gives up his lucrative law practice to become a ventriloquist.... “
“Connubial holocaust.” Perfect! “Connubial
Auschwitz” might have scraped nerves. “Connubial disaster” is weak soup. What earns the sentence the beloved, if not inimitable (more like universally imitated), Allen brand is that holocaust-ventriloquist combo, the one-two punch of the Marx Brothers and Hannah Arendt.
As fictioneer, Allen has the ear of a comedian and the erudition of a Carnegie Deli waiter with a PhD in European literature. An accusation, incidentally, no one ever laid at the feet of Henry James. Read every story in “Mere Anarchy.” Then plow through “The Insanity Defense,” which collects, in one volume, the holy trinity of “Getting Even” (1971), “Without Feathers” (1975) and “Side Effects” (1980). If you’re genetically susceptible, such total immersion can trigger the primal Hebraic fun-pain synapse: the mortifying, zombie-like urge to try to write like Woody Allen. The result is not just the awareness that he’s Woody Allen and you never will be, but also a compulsive urge to use the word “herring” in every document -- not to mention a dawning awareness of how many times Allen himself uses the same words over and over.
As devotees re-savor classics such as “The Whore of Mensa,” “The Kugelmass Episode” or “The Rejection,” they may be shocked by the legions of identical locutions and conceptions. Consider, for example, hen-fondling in “Above the Law, Below the Boxsprings”: “They fit the description of two people we want for questioning about fondling a hen.” And this, from “Match Wits With Inspector Ford”: “I have every reason to believe that your brother is dating a Cornish hen.... “
ONE of the myriad pleasures of Allen’s stories is the recurring buffet of whitefish, kipper snacks and wurst with which he plies the narrative. Chicken -- as food or love object -- appears no less than 37 times in the Allen oeuvre. Someday, no doubt, an enterprising doctoral candidate will rip the lid off the subject of Jewish American Poultry Angst -- a tradition, PhDs take note, carried on this very day, as evidenced in Michael Chabon’s fantastic new novel, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Chabon imbues the humble fowl with philosophic freight that Allen might appreciate: “Strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.”
Nothing, in Woody-world, appears just once. Like “Broadway” Danny Rose keeping his roster of old-time sub-celebrity talent employed, Allen writes as if he’d taken a pledge to keep his aged roster of gags, cerebral setups, Hadassah-esque names and nonstop Nazi, delicatessen and pants-business references in circulation. It’s a postwar world preserved in kosher amber, from which the author wrings reliable laughter and insight. (How many times has Philip Roth revisited Newark?) Taken in one gulp, the recurring routines may put off an unwary reader. Then again, no one complained about John Lee Hooker repeating riffs. As writer and performer, Woody Allen has one leg in vaudeville comedy, one in literature, one in Hasidic parable and one in Freudian analysis. That’s four legs -- two fewer than Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, two more than Rebbe Shinksa of Probishtch, who, in the early 19th century, put forth his own metaphysical fryer with the Hasidic parable, “The Hen and the Ducklings.” “It once happened that a duck’s eggs were put into a hen’s nest and she hatched them.... “
It doesn’t take philosopher Jacques Derrida to uncover the chocolaty Semitic heart of Allen’s style -- including Holocaust yuk fodder like Miss Wilpong of Mengele Realtors in “On a Bad Day, You Can See Forever.” Other stories are pitch-perfect, such as “Surprise Rocks Disney Trial,” which is told as a courtroom transcript. “Mr. Ovitz,” testifies Mickey Mouse, “was responsible for getting Goofy into the Betty Ford Center.” Not even Allen’s most ardent fans will claim this as original turf. So what? As Flaubert once remarked, “If you want to be avant-garde in your art, lead a conventional life.” And no one could accuse a man who marries his partner’s adopted daughter of leading a conventional life.
It is impossible to forget the celebrity of the writer who penned these sketches and essays -- as the jacket mysteriously refers to them. It is also weirdly satisfying to spot cross-genre spillover. The seeds of “Annie Hall,” for example, can be found in “The Lunatic’s Tale,” whose narrator laments the “maddening predicament that afflicts perhaps a good many of my contemporaries. Never to find all the requirements or needs in a single member of the opposite sex....” Story and movie both conclude with Woody, the waffling suitor, driven to an insanity that manifests as donning -- or thinking about donning -- a pinwheel hat and knapsack and roller skating down Broadway. There’s no law against self-cannibalizing. Nor should an author be denied entry into what critic Terry Southern called the “quality lit game” because his moves are ancient. Call it Borscht Belt kabuki.
MOSSIEST of all may be the private-eye parody, a form that Allen -- along with gentile jokester Garrison Keillor, in his “Guy Noir, Private Eye” public-radio episodes -- persists in marching out of the barn. The deeper mystery, however, is not why either man -- both accomplished literary cross-pollinators -- would keep this tired trope on life support, but what accounts for the vast difference in style and affect?
Perhaps it breaks down to worldviews: Cracker Barrel versus Herring Barrel. No knock on Keillor, whose folksy jokes dovetail perfectly with the NPR-"Hee-Haw” sensibility of “A Prairie Home Companion” -- but somehow you know Keillor’s DNA doesn’t pack that giggle-through-the-pogrom gene of Allen’s dicks.
Among other things, Sigmund Freud once observed that Jews are always the butt of their own jokes. Humor, in this construct, exists as a defense mechanism, designed to highlight one’s own flaws before some square-jawed Aryan named Gunter can bring them up first and use them as an excuse for persecution.
Finally -- speaking of persecution -- the business of scribbling spurs Allen to some of his most extraordinary conceptual heights. Any scribes who have ever taken some hack-meat gig for a paycheck -- then deluded themselves into thinking, “Hey, we’re making art!” -- will cringe with recognition at “His Nib for Hire,” in which an unpublished aesthete convinces himself that penning a novelization of “The Three Stooges” can launch him into Fitzgerald territory. “Believe me,” barks producer E. Coli Biggs to flatter the loser scribe into signing on the dotted line, “all the Nobel Laureates work for me. It’s how they set their table.”
Like so much in Allen’s unfailingly entertaining, mostly brilliant collections, the notion manages to be at once painful, surreal, obsessive and, lest we forget, seriously funny. Not unlike, one suspects, the life that inspired them.