“CONVERSATION WITH WOODY ALLEN” by Alfred Bester – May 1969

What’s the name of the game, Woody?

“Basically everybody is a loser,” Woody Allen, high priest of the cult of the loser, says, “but it’s only now that people are beginning to admit it. People feel their shortcomings more than their attributes. That’s why Marilyn Monroe killed herself, and that’s why people can’t understand it.

“I’m a loser, and that’s been one of the appeals of my stage career. I’m a complainer. I’m more acutely aware of the negative side of life. That’s why I don’t like sunny weather. I like gloomy winter days. I like gloomy weather, period. I’d like to spend a winter in Copenhagen.

“Look at San Francisco. It has the highest suicide rate in the United States. It has perfect weather,around sixty-five degrees all year ’round, and the city is lovely—and everybody jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge.”

In his latest hit, Play It Again, Sam, Woody has written and stars in the role of the popular modern loser. Allan Felix is a mousey movie reviewer for an obscure magazine. He’s a mass of fears, repressions and hang-ups not yet healed by years of psychoanalysis. His wife has divorced him because he’s a dullard, and he is currently flailing around trying to make a connection with a girl—and failing at every opportunity. He is obsessed by his idolatry of Humphrey Bogart (hence the title, from a famous line in Casablanca) solely because of Bogey’s masterful manner with women, at least in the films Allan Felix has seen, and he once sat through Casablanca twelve times in succession.

In his earlier hit, Don’t Drink the Water, he wrote about another loser, an American schnook with a yenta wife on tour abroad, who involves himself in serious trouble with an Iron Curtain country because he innocently takes pictures of top-secret military installations. In his albums, Woody turns losing into a kind of comedy that evokes sympathy and wry laughter, almost precisely the reaction one has when a broken-spirited dog rolls on its back in surrender.

He’s a red-headed, skinny kid from Brooklyn (5′ 6″, 120 pounds), born December 1, 1935, the son of an obscurity who worked at such odd jobs as hack driving and in a jewelry store. Woody went to P.S. 99 and Midwood High School in Flatbush—”They were gruesome experiences”—and was thrown out of New York University and City College “for bum grades and being a non-student.” But he had already started professional comedy writing in his last term in high school. “I wrote for the Peter Lind Hayes radio show, one-liners mostly. I had a contract, twenty-five dollars a week. I was sixteen years old.”

Then he moved on to the Herb Shriner show, Two for the Money, and continued gag writing for the next eight or nine years. His first big break was a TV special he wrote in collaboration with Larry Gelbart (author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) for Sid Caesar, Art Carney and Shirley MacLaine. That was in the mid-1950’s, and the show won several awards. “We were nominated for an Emmy, but we got beaten out by Fred Astaire.”

“I wrote more specials for Sid and Art, but I had no real interest in TV writing after I got over the glamour. I wanted to be a playwright. I kept going to the theater and reading books. Then a funny thing happened; I began to come up with comedy ideas that could only be expressed in monologues. So I started to do the monologues in a place in the Village called Upstairs at the Duplex. They worked very well and I began to get a lot of bookings in clubs. It turned out to be a ride I couldn’t get off. Then came Don’t Drink the Water in 1966, which ran for a year and a half, and now Play It Again, Sam, which is a solid hit.

“Last summer I wrote, directed and starred in a movie which hasn’t been released yet, Take the Money and Run. It’s a frivolous little comedy about a pathological criminal; strictly an exercise for laughs. This year I’m spending a couple of months writing comic prose pieces. Then I’m going to write a play, a political satire, not for myself, and then I’ll prepare another film script. I’m going to do all this before October first when I leave the play.”

When he does leave Play it Again, Sam, to mount his new play and shoot his new film, he will not yet be thirty-four years old.

#

Woody isn’t a funny man in real life—very few professional comics are. He saves his one-liners for his writing. He’s quiet and serious and rarely laughs. After a prelude of shyness, he reveals a warm ability to relate to people and touching consideration. Yet for a star, which indeed he is, he displays disconcerting insecurity. The first time we had dinner together (he   he was afraid that his clothes (he usually wears a tatty sweater, wrinkled chinos and battered sneakers) might prevent us from getting into a restaurant, and a Broadway restaurant at that. There is nothing about himself that he will not reveal and discuss, openly and frankly. He keeps only one secret from the world, his real name, although he will tell you in confidence. His explanation makes sense; he has spent an entire life building up the reputation of his professional name, and he doesn’t want it endangered by any confusion. Everybody in the entertainment business understands that your one essen­al asset is your credit line.

Asked if his poise and quiet adjustment were the result of his psychoanalysis, Woody said, “No. Psychoanal­ysis is not as fulfilling as I hoped it would be. It’s like when you have your clarinet repaired. When you get it home and play it it sounds good, but not as good as you had hoped. But then, I’ve only been in analysis eleven years.

“Psychoanalysis helps my work quantitatively because I’m liberated; I can get more done. Qualitatively it’s helped because it’s broadened my point of view. It’s made my work more commercial because I no longer have a limited focus. I’m appealing to more people.”

“Do people think the Allan Felix in Play It Again, Sam is really you; a neurotic twitch?”

“Everybody unequivocally confuses he real Woody Allen with the onstage character. Sure it’s me, just like my act is me, but greatly exaggerated. It’s a question of selectivity. I select only those things in myself that make for the best comedy—my most embarrassing moments, my worst fears.”

This was in his dressing room backstage. The most prominent objects on his make-up table were a blender, a can of chocolate syrup, a jar of malted milk and a jar of honey. He’s continually making himself malteds, still trying to but on weight. He swallows honey by he spoonful to soothe his raw throat.

The truth is, Woody as an actor is a complete amateur, unequipped and untrained for projection across the footlights, and his throat suffers from the strain.

#

There were a couple of paperbacks on the make-up table: Selections From Kierkegaard and Basic Teachings of Great Philosophers, the sort of thing you’d expect to see a young intellectual reading on a bus.  We discussed books. “I don’t enjoy reading,” Woody said. “It’s strictly a secondary experience. If I can do anything else, I’ll duck it. Maybe it’s because I’m a very slow reader. But it’s necessary for a writer, so I have to do it, but I don’t really enjoy it. The thing itself is boring.

“The only thing I find interesting today is sporting events. They have everything that great theater should have; all the thunderous excitement and you don’t know the outcome. And when the outcome happens, you have to believe it because it happened. I need something crammed with excitement. I like things larger than life.”

He believes that Stendhal’s The Red and The Black is one of the great fath­ers of modern novels. He says that he hates Terry Southern and had to strug­gle through Phillip Roth’s new novel. “I felt there were many passages that could have been done better. In the masturbation scenes Roth was reaching for wild effects; in fact, I feel that Roth was pandering to the public. His attitude was: ‘All right, I’ll give you what you want.’ Salinger didn’t do that in Catcher in the Rye. His whole book was on a much higher level.”

Woody is hipped on the subject of pandering. “I feel the same way about Lennie Bruce as I do about Roth. Bruce was not particularly brilliant. He pandered. He was and is idolized by the kind of people who must invent an idol for themselves. Nichols and May didn’t do that. Mort Sahl doesn’t do that; he doesn’t pander.”

The name of another prominent comic came up. I said, “Now there’s a no-talent for you,”

“He’s very successful,” Woody said quietly.

“And that’s what amazes me; the number of no-talents who are successful.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “These days everybody’s successful, talent and no-talent.”

#

He lives in a high-ceilinged duplex apartment in a converted mansion just off Park Avenue. “Before I take you around I have to explain,” he said apologetically. “I stopped decorating when I was only half-finished. I’ve decided it’s too much rent and I want to get more for the money—he’s paying close to $900 a month—so I’m looking to buy a co-op apartment or a townhouse.”

“You can get some wonderful places on Central Park West.”

“No, I couldn’t live on the West Side. I have to be on the East Side in the mid-seventies, just about ten blocks away from the mainstream. What do you think about living in the country?”

“Forget it, Woody. You’re a city boy. Not for you.”

“Yes, but I often fantasize about a house or a farm in the country. When I visited Mt. Vernon, with its back porch on the Potomac, it made me imagine that it might be wonderful to live like that. But then I think of the bugs and the mosquitoes and how Washington must have sweltered in the summer, and I get realistic.

“Another one of my fantasies is that I can always move to rustic surround­ings, in the south of France, live like a Tolstoi and write what I like. But I guess you’re right. I’m a metropolitan boy, so I always want to go to a big city when I travel. I want is big city where you know it’s all there. You may not go for six months, but you know it’s there, twenty-four hours a day.”

There’s no doubt that the duplex is underfurnished. One example should be enough. The living room on the main floor is beautifully paneled with, I thought, rosewood, but Woody said oak. There was no way of telling because, when I flipped the light switch, the only thing that turned on was a jukebox in the far corner. “My gift to my wife,” Woody said. There was a magnificent Aubusson rug on the floor. There was an organ in the near corner. “My wife’s gift to me,” Woody said. There was an air conditioner lying in a wicker clothes hamper. There was a movie projector and a screen. Nothing more.

We had dinner in the formal dining room, sparsely furnished with a few ex­pensive pieces, the ceiling pierced with pin-spots to illuminate pictures, but there were no pictures on the walls. We were served vitamin capsules, salad, scrod, peas and a choice of cherry pie, blueberry pie, pudding or cake for dessert. “I can’t handle these decisions,” Woody said. We discussed the problem and he settled for cake. He confessed that he eats fish most of the time, but didn’t say why.

#

His present wife, his second, is Louise Lasser, a talented young comedienne, pretty and petite. “I like pretty little blond girls,” Woody said. You’ve seen Miss Lasser in half a dozen prime-time TV commercials. They were married on Groundhog Day in 1966. He married his first wife when he was nineteen and she was a sixteen-year-old high-school kid. They split up amicably enough, but Woody says the much publicized million-dollar suit she’s bringing against him for telling ex-wife jokes is not a stunt; it’s for real.

“But that’s nothing,” Woody said. “I was sued once by a woman who claimed I was her husband. She said he’d been a garage mechanic who de­serted her, but he made exactly the same kind of jokes I did, and when she saw me on television she knew I was her husband.

“We had a confrontation in my lawyer’s office and she said, ‘Yes, that’s my husband,’ even though her father-in-law was there and said he’d never seen me before. She was around ten years older than me, so if we’d been married when she said, I would have been thirteen years old. All the same she hauled me into court twice.”

We discussed his writing regimen. “I get up around 10:30, shower, have a light breakfast, and work for about six hours. Then I knock off and play the clarinet for a while.” He loves jazz, has a traditional knowledge of it, and owns a clarinet and a soprano saxophone. He says the only real satisfaction he ever had was when he was on the coast and played clarinet with an old-style band.

“After the theater,” Woody went on, “I work from midnight to 3:00 A.M. When I’m writing a play or anything to be spoken, I work at the typewriter, but I write prose in longhand in bed.” He bent over with his nose close to the table. “It’s like working with a finer tool. Your concentration is focused.

“The difference between an Arthur Miller and a comedy writer is that the latter must obey all the structural rules that Miller does and also must keep the audience laughing for two and a half hours. It’s an additional burden.

“But the frivolity attached to laughter prevents people from respecting it and taking it seriously. Laughter under­mines respect. People will laugh at Neil Simon, but they won’t respect him like Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. It’s an easy thing for people to slip into; if a thing doesn’t have obvious importance, like dope addiction or Negro problems, they won’t respect it.

“I’ve been trying to stay in both fields, literature and the stage, because what’s funny to the eye is not funny to the ear, so I’m trying to diversify, and that keeps me interested. I’m looking for the middle line between reportage and humor. Truman Capote achieved that in In Cold Blood.”

#

Walking downtown on Madison Avenue for a visit to his throat special­ist, we discussed the walks that writers have to take when they’re hung up on a story. Woody insisted that he was never stuck, and on those rare occasions when he was, a mere change of scene—moving from one room to another—was enough to get him going again. He said that when he did take walks he preferred Park Avenue because it was so completely dull that it didn’t distract him from his thoughts.

Suddenly he said, “You said once that only a writer can understand a writer.”

“I think that’s true.”

“Then what about that shameful flash of pleasure that comes to me when I hear about someone else’s failure?”

“Oh, sure,” I said. “The Germans call it Schadenfreude. We all suffer from that.”

“Schaden? Freude? What’s that?”

“The joy you feel at someone else’s misfortune.”

“At least I can control it consciously, but I only have contempt for my friends who call me up and gleefully report other people’s failures. The nightclub people aren’t like that, maybe because they’re too dumb. Nightclubs are great. All the people are very nice. Those stories about nasty houses and drunks are exaggerated; it happens maybe once a year. The nightclub people—they sit out there and root for you. If you’re sick they go on for you. And they all sing There’s No Business Like Show Business.

“I have great contempt for the theater—for the presumption of the theater. TV is idiot stuff, designed by idiots for idiots, which is why you have The Bev­erly Hillbillies. But the theater puts on such airs—the producers, the directors, the critics—that’s why it’s dying today. And it should.”

We went to the Broadhurst Theater, just across the street from Sardi’s, and Woody began warming up for the evening performance, skipping imaginary ropes and shooting imaginary baskets. He exhorted the cast: “Okay, we’re go­ing to kill ’em tonight. We killed ’em at the matinee and we’re going to kill ’em tonight.” He jogged offstage and said to me, “We should do research on how often a laugh should come. Every minute? Every half minute? I don’t know. Did you clock our laughs the other night?”

“Yes.”

“How many?”

“Sixty-nine in the first act. Sixty in the second. . . .”

“That runs five minutes shorter,” he interposed quickly.

“Twenty-six in the last act. Total: a hundred and fifty-five.”

“Not bad. Not bad at all, but you never know. My club act has forty-five minutes of unrelenting jokes. Some nights some jokes get the laughs, other nights, others. You can never tell about laughs. The phenomenon of getting and losing laughs can’t be understood. It’s a delicate chemistry.”

The stage manager called “Places, please.”

“You know, I didn’t prepare for this show,” Woody said. “Not one jot. And I haven’t tapped my club act at all, outside of failing with women and psycho­analysis and being short.”

He jogged to his position onstage in his tatty sweater, chinos and sneakers, his raggedy red hair disheveled, and sat down to watch the TV presentation of a Bogart film that opens the show. The curtain went up with a creak, and the world’s most successful loser was on.

The name of this game is Masochism For Fun and Profit. ◊

Photograph by Phillipe Halsman

2 responses

  1. Pingback: “SHARK!” by Peter Benchley – November 1967 | HOLIDAY

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