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Saturday, August 27, 2005

You Would Have Adored Me

Last week I had the strangest craving to hear the recordings of Woody Allen's standup routines. I've been aware of their existence for a couple years, but it wasn't until last week that I actually wanted to hear them. You see, I've been sort of a lukewarm fan of "Master Heywood Allen": his personality, at least as presented in his films, is something that I find more compelling than entertaining. My first few times through Manhattan and Annie Hall I might not have been having a great time, but something kept calling me back. Nowadays, the more and more I see of his work the more I appreciate it, and apparently (lo and behold!) my fandom is now full-blown enough for me to want to hear his standup from the early 60s.

Luckily, a local record store had the Rhino compilation Standup Comic for a mere $8.99. This particular compilation combines the recordings of three separate shows, from 1964, 1965 and 1968. I couldn't tell you if there are other extant recordings, but I'm pretty sure these bits are representative of his work as a nightclub comic, which is to say they fit right in with the persona he has crafted over the years. The secret to his success, I think, is that despite the extreme quirkiness of his character, he's incredibly easy to relate to. As he unfolds each bit in loving detail, it's almost too easy to visualize all of it actually happening to our hero. The listener accepts these preposterous anecdotes as real, exactly as Woody explains it in the "The Great Renaldo" bit:

I should just add, parenthetically, these stories are true, these things actually happen to me. I don't make them up. My life is a series of, um, these crises.
Some of the recordings are slightly marred by overeager audience laughter: these are the fanatics who, even at this early stage in his career, are just lapping it up. Just listen to the guy on "Private Life" or the one who does his best to ruin "A Love Story". Also, things occasionally seem a little too formulaic and predictable, which I think weakens the legendary "The Moose" bit and "The Lost Generation", with its punch-line (literally). I also don't like that the disc is sequenced in reverse chronology, opening with the 1968 recordings. Other than those minor quips, the recordings feature the same brainy, self-deprecating yet insightful humor Mr. Allen has parlayed into a career as an iconic film director. In other words, like his films, this is not bust-your-guts material. His rhythm and phrasing are outstanding. The one thing that surprised me though, perhaps because I haven't seen Stardust Memories, is how surreal some of the bits are, like the horse from "Second Marriage" that shows up at a sit-in in Georgia after eating a cube of sugar, or his mother knitting a chicken in "N.Y.U.". I mean, some of his stuff is practically Dylanesque in its imagery.

Woody Allen - "Bullet In My Breast Pocket"

This was recorded in Chicago at Mr. Kelly's in March, 1964. I love the way he's just playing with the sound of words on his tongue. It's a short and sweet, simple joke, the sort he tends to fare better with. It reminds me of the way Dylan switches cigarette and eyelids in "Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again".

Woody Allen - "Down South"

This bit, also from Mr. Kelly's, is probably my favorite on Standup Comic. It's only been a week and I've already stolen the "I realized it wasn't my life" punch-line for my own purposes, but I doubt there's any way I'll ever be able to lead into it like he does here. I love the way he delivers the lines about grits too.

Woody Allen - "Eggs Benedict"

Pains in the chestal area, heartburn, Nazi recipes, a guy named Eggs Benedict, beating the medic out of $25, more heartburn, Eggs' mother, a twist ending...need I say more? This is taken from an April, 1965 performance in Washington D.C. at The Shadows.

Woody Allen - "The Vodka Ad"

This is the bit that opens the disc and it happens to be a highlight, if for no other reason than the line about being "breastfed from falsies". Typical Allen humor too, used on celluloid as recently as 2003's Anything Else: if you don't take advantage of an opportunity, someone close to you will. This was recorded in August 0f 1968 at Eugene's in San Francisco.

I just discovered, while researching for this post, that you can read along to the material at this website. Elsewhere, believe it or not, Woody Allen actually has his own website. Hey, everyone else does, why shouldn't he? Peruse at your own risk though; the comments on each film are hilarious, but you're liable to learn frightful things like the fact that he trained as a boxer for several months until his parents asked him to stop. Just imagine, poor little Woody in the ring...the stuff of nightmares!

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