Sunday, March 11, 2007

Stand Up And Laugh...With Woody

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

I'm mending. Slowly. Norah Jones really does help. But other than still looking after other ailing family members, I've been taking it pretty easy. I admit the posts have been rather lackluster of late. Don't hold it against me. It's all about the ebb and flow. Ebb and flow.

But one of the things I did while taking it easy was rummage through the boxes of cd's in the basement again. And while looking for some of Wilco's earlier releases I came across one of my comedy classics: Woody Allen: The Nightclub Years 1964-68.

"My wife and I pondered for a while whether to take a vacation or get a divorce. We decided that a trip to Bermuda is over in two weeks, but a divorce is something you always have."

That's a Woody Allen joke. Today, Woody Allen himself is often thought of as a joke, what with his recent string of mediocre movies and embarrassing personal scandals. But there was a time when Allen was synonymous with brilliantly funny comedy during the second phase of his career when he was a standup comic. The first had seen him as a behind-the-scenes writer of jokes for Sid Caesar and Pat Boone's American TV shows. The third, of course - his writing of, direction of and starring roles in a string of wonderful movies.

"I have a gub. What's a gub?"

But in the sixties, against all odds, Woody Allen hit the clubs and made himself into a successful standup. Allen's performances on this album alone (film and literary career notwithstanding) secure his place in the pantheon of American comedy.

"I'm very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch."
The Nightclub Years is a compilation of three albums: Woody Allen, recorded at Mr. Kelley's in Chicago 1964; Woody Allen Vol. 2, at the Shadows in Washington D.C. in 1964; and The Third Woody Allen Album, recorded at Eugene's in San Francisco 1968. In his trademark style, both bizarre and surreal, Allen takes you on a comedic roller coaster with stunning confidence. These recordings catch Allen at his wry, self-deprecating best, exploring themes of his unhappy childhood and his swingin’ ’60s bachelor lifestyle.

"Sex without love is an empty experience. But as empty experiences go, it's one of the best."
For standup comedy, his routines have dated incredibly well, because Allen's comedy is anything but routine. It is written and performed in the first person, in a self-deprecatory, highly surreal style, dealing with everything from the politics of the period to disastrous marriages/failed relationships to all-out insane stories. Any prospective standup comedian should study this material, get to know why it works, and what helps it stand up some forty years later.

“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”
Listeners familiar with Allen's work will recognize a good deal of the live material found its way into films like "Bananas," "Sleeper," "Love and Death," the Oscar-winning "Annie Hall," and others. Some is also partly reworked throughout the published comic essays that comprise his brilliantly hilarious books like Without Feathers.

Several of the bits have been animated in interesting and unusual we hear Allen performing the 'story joke', executed to perfection in 'Eggs Benedict':

"The car hit him and that was it."

Other animations of some of the bits from these albums are here and here, as well as Neanderthal Man:

"They're mollified by shiny objects...he ate it."

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. I first purchased this set as a double album in the late 70's. And I can't tell you how much I listened to it. Along with Stan Frieberg's 'The United States of America' and Bill Cosby's 'The Best Of' and 'To Russell, My Brother, With Whom I Slept With' - these comedy lp's shaped and influenced me. Some of my friends 'got it', but a lot didn't. To like Woody Allen wasn't very cool. But like any devoted hardcore fanatic I would push this material on anyone I could get to listen. One convert made it all worthwhile.

(It should be noted that the release most easily available these days is an edited down version entitled 'Woody Allen: Standup Comic'. Although the recording is very crisp, Allen's monologues are dramatically cut, from the 95 minutes of the 2-LP set to 76 minutes. This CD is especially frustrating because instead of simply omitting complete routines, smaller internal cuts are made--from several lines to several minutes--*within* routines, ruining the rhythm of the comedy, and often destroying jokes altogether by omitting the original punch-lines! Sacrilege! Why do they do this? Like when they butchered the original Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner Looney Tune cartoons in the 1980's! Made me mental. Try to find The Nightclub Years or the original LPs if you can.)

You can find transcripts of the routines here - (or try this link instead for a partial transcript) though it doesn't do them justice only to read them (his timing and delivery is impeccable) but nevertheless provides a great sampling of his early genius. And speaking of which, we can't go any further without acknowledging his classic 'Moose Story':

I shot a moose, once. I was hunting up-state New York, and I shot a moose, and I strap him on to the fender of my car, and I'm driving home along the west side highway, but what I didn't realize was, that the bullet did not penetrate the moose. It just creased the scalp, knocking him unconscious. And I'm driving through the Holland tunnel - the moose woke up. So I'm driving with a live moose on my fender. The moose is signaling for a turn, y'know. There's a law in New York state against driving with a conscious moose on your fender, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. And I'm very panicky, and then it hits me: some friends of mine is having a costume party. I'll go, I'll take the moose, I'll ditch him at the party. It wouldn't be my responsibility.

So I drive up to the party and I knock on the door. The moose is next to me. My host comes to the door. I say "Hello. You know the Solomons". We enter. The moose mingles. Did very well. Scored. Two guys were trying to sell him insurance for an hour and a half. Twelve o'clock comes - they give out prizes for the best costume of the night. First prize goes to the Berkowitz's, a married couple dressed as a moose. The moose comes in second. The moose is furious. He and the Berkowitz's lock antlers in the living room. They knock each other unconscious. Now, I figured, is my chance. I grab the moose, strap him onto my fender, and shoot back to the roads, but - I got the Berkowitz's. So I'm driving along with two Jewish people on my fender, and there's a law in New York State ... Tuesdays, Thursdays and especially Saturday.

The following morning the Berkowitz's wake up in the woods, in a moose suit. Mr. Berkowitz is shot, stuffed and mounted - at the New York Athletic Club, and the joke is on them, because it's restricted.

Killer. I didn't get half the references when I was young (especially the Jewish references), but there was an absurdest quality to it all that both tickled and inspired.

Allen's life as a standup seemed to culminate with 'Annie Hall', a film that was in many ways a happy accident in that Allen and his editor managed create a funny moving romantic comedy from essentially a sequence of filmed 'bits' (and after excising an entire murder mystery subplot). Allen begins the film speaking into camera, almost as if on stage...

...and closes the film with an amusing yet touching voice over. And then he moved onto his phase of still comedic yet more thoughtful/dramatic film making.

"My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

I'm not really sure what the point of this post is other than to smile and reminisce a little...and hopefully inform the kids. I guess when I see Dane Cook perform and can't find anything remotely intelligent or funny in what he's saying...and yet hear how the kids these days love him --- I fear for our children and shed a little tear.

The Nightclub Years cd concludes with this fitting finish...

"In summing up, I wish I had some kind of affirmative message to leave you with.
I don't. Would you take two negative messages?
My mother used to say to me when I was younger, 'If a strange man comes up to you, and offers you candy, and wants you to get into the back of his car with him...GO!'

Good night."


p.s. It also should be mentioned that Allen has written three terrific and very funny books (one during this early period), all of which are compiled in 'The Complete Prose of Woody Allen'. At a time when so much of what passes for literary humor is nothing more than fart jokes or transcribed standup routines, this collection of Woody Allen essays and stories is a reminder of just how much fun the written word can be, and how much skill it takes to transfer laughter from pen to page to reader.

p.p.s.. I didn't know until now DMc was designating this week 'Comedy Week' in the Canuck blogosphere, so perhaps that's the reason for this play with Denis' roll.

p.p.p.s. The link to the transcripts of Allen's stand up routines worked last night, but now appears to be down. up again - yay!


Lee said...

I bought The Nightclub Years from iTunes a couple of years ago. Just went back to look for the link, and it's gone! Weird, it's not like they need the shelf space.

And yes, the prose is brilliant, hilarious and ocassionally thought provoking stuff.

Mef said...

Didn't know you had this going on here. great that you remind people of his act

so in brief because it's a taping day:

-From Matchpoint the joke about the glass being half full, of poison was a classic Woody Allen line.

-The moose story is still great. One of my all-time favourites

The press conference in Stardust Memories has so many great lines...

(democracy is the best type of govenrment in the world; but what we have here in the States is pretty good too)

-my favourite story from the woody allen books is the one of a correspondance game of chess where the civility between the two players absurdly deteriorates..

Hopefully I'll have time for a more thoughtful comment, but I didn't want you to feel left out when a tangent from dead sticks went to the woody allen place.


wcdixon said...

Thx Mark...all better now.

Political.Asylum said...

Makes me think of that time back in the day when stuff happened and I went on to remember it later. Good times!

Jaime J. Weinman said...

My favourite Woody routine has always been the one where he's about to be lynched:

And suddenly my whole life passed before my eyes. I saw myself as a kid again, in Kansas, going to school, swimming at the swimming hole, and fishing, frying up a mess-o-catfish, going down to the general store, getting a piece of gingham for Emmy-Lou. And I realize it's not my life. They're gonna hang me in two minutes, the wrong life is passing before my eyes.

I remember seeing the Broadway version of The Producers and hearing Nathan Lane do almost this exact joke, and wondering if Mel Brooks was going to pay Woody Allen royalties.

wcdixon said...

I'm with you there, much as I appreaciated the absurdity of the Moose Story, it was that line "...the wrong life is passing before my eyes." that has stuck with me forever.

Mef said...

I have to stand by the moose.

I also remember these lines in slightly different order than you cited:

The moose came in second. to the berkowitzes. who were dressed, as a moose.

wcdixon said...

...this from the guy who has the 'edited' verison...meh.

No you're probably right...I just don't feel like popping it in the player right now and checking it out - but I will!

Jennifer Smith said...

The Moose. Hands down.

I still have my double LP set in the basement of my parents' house. You've just inspired me to dig it up again next time I'm there. Thank you.

And Mef, I'm quite sure the order in which those lines were originally quoted is correct. I had the bloody thing memorized by the time I was fifteen, so I'd be willing to take bets on this.

BTW, my all time favourite Woody Allen movie wasn't a Woody Allen movie at all. It was 'The Front'.

Any takers?