Woody Allen: The Art of Humor

The major portion of this interview, much of it conducted by Michiko Kakutani over dinner at Elaine's Restaurant, was completed in 1985. Since then, the editors — by correspondence and conversations with Mr. Allen over the phone — have brought it up to date.

As New Yorkers know, Woody Allen is one of its more ubiquitous citizens — at court side in Madison Square Garden watching the Knicks, at Michael’s Pub on Monday evenings playing the clarinet, on occasion at Elaine’s Restaurant at his usual table. Yet he could hardly be considered outgoing: shy on acquaintance, he once expressed an intense desire to return to the womb— “anybody’s.” In fact, his career is one of prodigious effort in a number of disciplines — literature, the theater and motion pictures. “I’m a compulsive worker,” he once said.

What I really like to do best is whatever I’m not doing at the moment.”

Allen’s career in comedy began as a teenager when he submitted jokes to an advertising firm. In 1953, after what he called a “brief abortive year in college,” he left school to become a gag-writer for Garry Moore and Sid Caesar. In the early 1960s, his stand-up routines in the comedy clubs of Greenwich Village gained him considerable recognition, and eventually several television appearances. In 1965, shortly after he produced three successful comedy records, Allen made his debut as an actor and screenwriter in What’s New, Pussycat? His 1969 film, Take the Money and Run, was the first project that he not only wrote and starred in, but directed as well. Though many of his early films (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death,) were critically acclaimed, it wasn’t until 1977 and the release of Annie Hall, which won four Academy Awards, that Allen was recognized as an extraordinary force in the American cinema. Fifteen of his motion pictures have appeared since, which works out at almost a movie a year. He has also written several Broadway plays, the most successful of them, Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam, also were made into films.

Allen has written three collections of short pieces, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker: Getting Even, Without Feathers, and Side Effects.

The major portion of this interview, much of it conducted by Michiko Kakutani over dinner at Elaine’s Restaurant, was completed in 1985. Since then, the editors — by correspondence and conversations with Mr. Allen over the phone — have brought it up to date.

— A.B.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the humorist tends to look at the world in a slightly different way?

WOODY ALLEN: Yes. I think if you have a comic perspective, almost anything that happens you tend to put through a comic filter. It’s a way of coping in the short term, but has no long term effect and requires constant, endless renewal. Hence people talk of comics who are “always on.” It’s like constantly drugging your sensibility so you can get by with less pain.

INTERVIEWER: That’s very unique, don’t you think?

ALLEN: It’s one way of dealing with life. People think it’s very hard to be funny but it’s an interesting thing. If you can do it, it’s not hard at all. It would be like if I said to somebody who can draw very well, “My God, I could take a pencil and paper all day long and never be able to draw that horse. I can’t do it, and you’ve done it so perfectly.” And the other person feels, “This is nothing. I’ve been doing this since I was four years old.” That’s how you feel about comedy: if you can do it, you know, it’s really nothing. It’s not that the end product is nothing, but the process is simple. Of course, there are just some people that are authentically funny, and some people that are not. It’s a freak of nature.

INTERVIEWER: Who were the writers who made you first want to write?

ALLEN: I remember the first person I ever laughed at while reading was Max Shulman. I was fifteen. I have a couple of old books of his. The one that I found the funniest was The Zebra Derby . . . funny in a broad sort of way, though you have to appreciate the context within which it’s written, since it’s about veterans returning here after World War II, returning to the land of promise. Then I discovered Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman, two other very funny writers who were truly great masters. I met Perelman at Elaine’s restaurant one night. I came in with Marshall Brickman, and a waiter came over and gave me a card. On the back it said something like, “Would love you to come over and join me for a celery tonic.” I figured, “Oh it’s some out-of-town tourist,” and I threw the card away. About an hour and a half later, someone said, “You know, it’s from S.J. Perelman,” so I retrieved the card from the floor. It said “S.J. Perelman,” and I raced around to where he was sitting around the corner and we joined him. I’d met him before and to me he was always warm and friendly. I’ve read he could be difficult, but I never saw that side of him.

INTERVIEWER: When did you start writing?

ALLEN: Before I could read. I’d always wanted to write. Before that —I made up tales. I was always creating stories for class. For the most part, I was never as much a fan of comic writers as serious writers. But I found myself able to write in a comic mode, at first directly imitative of Shulman or sometimes of Perelman. In my brief abortive year in college I’d hand in my papers, all of them written in a bad (or good) derivation of Shulman. I had no sense of myself at all.

INTERVIEWER: How did you discover your own voice? Did it happen gradually?

ALLEN: No, it was quite accidental. I had given up writing prose completely and gone into television writing. I wanted to write for the theater, and at the same time I was doing a cabaret act as a comedian. One day, Playboy magazine asked me to write something for them, because I was an emerging comedian, and I wrote this piece on chess. At that time, I was almost married — but not quite yet — to Louise Lasser; she read it and said, “Gee, I think this is good. You should really send this over to The New Yorker.” To me, as to everyone else of my generation, The New Yorker was hallowed ground. Anyhow, on a lark I did. I was shocked when I got this phone call back saying that if I’d make a few changes, they’d print it. So I went over there and made the few changes, and they ran it. It was a big boost to my confidence. So I figured, “Well, I think I’ll write something else for them. ” The second or third thing I sent to The New Yorker was very Perelmanesque in style. They printed it, but comments were that it was dangerously derivative, and I agreed. So both The New Yorker and I looked out for that in subsequent pieces that I sent over there. I did finally get further and further away from him. Perelman, of course, was as complex as could be —a very rich kind of humor. As I went on I tried to simplify.

INTERVIEWER: Was this a parallel development to what you were trying to do in your films?

ALLEN: I don’t think of them as parallel. My experience has been that writing for the different mediums are very separate undertakings. Writing for the stage is completely different from writing for film, and both are completely different from writing prose. The most demanding is writing prose, I think, because when you’re finished, it’s the end product. You can’t change it. In a play, it’s far from the end product. The script serves as a vehicle for the actors and director to develop characters. With films, I just scribble a couple of notes for a scene. You don’t have to do any writing at all, you just have your notes for the scene, which are written with the actors and the camera in mind. The actual script is a necessity for casting and budgeting, but the end product often doesn’t bear much resemblance to the script —at least in my case.

INTERVIEWER: So you would have much more control over something like a novel.

ALLEN: That’s one of its appeals —that you have the control over it. Another great appeal is that when you’re finished you can tear it up and throw it away. Whereas, when you make a movie, you can’t do that. You have to put it out there even if you don’t like it. I might add, the hours are better if you’re a prose writer. It’s much more fun to wake up in the morning, just drift into the next room and be alone and write than it is to wake up in the morning and have to go shoot a film. Movies are a big demand. It’s a physical job. You’ve got to be someplace, on schedule, on time. And you are dependent on people. I know Norman Mailer said that if he had started his career today he might be in film rather than a novelist. I think films are a younger man’s enterprise. For the most part it’s strenuous. Beyond a certain point, I don’t think I want that exertion; I mean I don’t want to feel that my whole life I’m going to have to wake up at six in the morning, be out of the house at seven so I can be out on some freezing street or some dull meadow shooting. That’s not all that thrilling. It’s fun to putter around the house; stay home. Tennessee Williams said the annoying thing about plays is that you have to produce them —you can’t just write them and throw them in the drawer. That’s because when you finish writing a script, you’ve transcended it and you want to move on. With a book, you can. So the impulse seems always to be a novelist. It’s a very desirable thing. One thinks about Colette sitting in her Parisian apartment, looking out the window and writing. It’s a very seductive life. Actually, I wrote a first draft of a novel in Paris when I was doing Love and Death. I have it at home, all handwritten, lying in my drawer on graph paper —I’ve had it that way for years. I’ve sort of been saving it for when I’m energyless and not able to film anymore. I don’t want to do it while I still have enough vigor to get out there early in the morning and film. It’s a good thing to look forward to a novel.

I know one day they’ll either pull the plug on me for filming and say, “We don’t want you to do this anymore,” or I’ll get tired of doing it. I hope the novel’s all right. I mean, it’s no great shakes, but it’s a novel, a story that could only be told that way. I’ve thought at times of taking the idea and making it into a play or a film, but oddly it doesn’t work that way. If it works at all, it’s a novel. It happens in the prose.

INTERVIEWER: How did this novel come about? Had you thought about doing it for a long time?

ALLEN: Not really. I started on page one. It’s an old habit from writing for the stage. I can’t conceive of writing the third act before the first, or a fragment of the second act out of order. The events that occur later—the interaction between characters, the development of the plot —are so dependent on the action that takes place in the beginning. I can’t conceive of doing it out of sequence. I love the classic narrative form in a play. I love it in the novel. I don’t enjoy novels that aren’t basically clear stories. To sit down with Balzac or Tolstoy is, in addition to all else, great entertainment. With a play, when the curtain goes up and people are in garbage cans, I know I may admire the idea cerebrally, but it won’t mean as much to me. I’ve seen Beckett, along with many lesser avant-gardists, and many contemporary plays, and I can say yes, that’s clever and deep but I don’t really care. But when I watch Chekhov or O’Neill — where it’s men and women in human, classic crises — that I like. I know that it’s very unfashionable to say at this time, but things based, for example, on “language” — the clever rhythms of speech —I really don’t care for. I want to hear people speaking plainly if at times poetically. When you see Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire you’re interested in the people and you want to see what happens next. When I had an idea for the play I wrote for Lincoln Center — The Floating Lightbulb — I was determined that I was going to write about regular people in a simple situation.

I deliberately tried to avoid anything more elaborate than that. In film, oddly enough, I don’t feel as much that way. I’m more amenable in film to distortions of time and abstractions.

INTERVIEWER: A lot of writers find it very hard to get started on the next project, to find an idea they really want to work on . . .

ALLEN: Probably they are casting aside ideas that are as good as the ideas I choose to work on. I’ll think of an idea walking down the street, and I’ll mark it down immediately. And I always want to make it into something. I’ve never had a block. I’m talking within the limits of my abilities. But in my own small way, I’ve had an embarrassment of riches. I’ll have five ideas and I’m dying to do them all. It takes weeks or months where I agonize and obsess over which to do next. I wish sometimes someone would choose for me. If someone said, “Do idea number three next,” that would be fine. But I have never had any sense of running dry. People always ask me, “Do you ever think you’ll wake up one morning and not be funny?” That thought would never occur to me —it’s an odd thought, and not realistic. Because funny and me are not separate. We’re one. The best time to me is when I’m through with a project and deciding about a new one. That’s because it’s at a period when reality has not yet set in. The idea in your mind’s eye is so wonderful, and you fantasize it in the perfect flash of a second —just beautifully conceived. But then when you have to execute it, it doesn’t come out as you’d fantasized. Production is where the problems begin, where reality starts to set in. As I was saying before, the closest I ever come to realizing the concept is in prose. Most of the things that I’ve written and published, I’ve felt that I executed my original idea pretty much to my satisfaction. But I’ve never, ever felt that, not even close, about anything I’ve written for film or the stage.

I always felt I had such a dazzling idea — where did I go wrong? You go wrong from the first day. Everything’s a compromise. For instance, you’re not going to get Marlon Brando to do your script, you’re going to get someone lesser. The room you see in your mind’s eye is not the room you’re filming in. It’s always a question of high aims, grandiose dreams, great bravado and confidence, and great courage at the typewriter; and then, when I’m in the midst of finishing a picture and everything’s gone horribly wrong and I’ve reedited it and re­shot it and tried to fix it, then it’s merely a struggle for survival. You re happy only to be alive. Gone are all the exalted goals and aims, all the uncompromising notions of a perfect work of art, and you’re just fighting so people won’t storm up the aisles with tar and feathers. With many of my films —almost all if I d been able to get on screen what I conceived, they would have been much better pictures. Fortunately, the public doesn’t know about how great the picture played in my head was, so I get away with it.

INTERVIEWER: How do you actually work? What are your tools?

ALLEN: I’ve written on legal pads, hotel stationery, anything I can get my hands on. I have no finickiness about anything like that. I write in hotel rooms, in my house, with other people around, on matchbooks. I have no problems with it —to the meager limits that I can do it. There have been stories where I’ve just sat down at the typewriter and typed straight through beginning to end. There are some New Yorker pieces I’ve written out in forty minutes time. And there are other things I’ve just struggled and agonized over for weeks and weeks. It’s very haphazard. Take two movies: one movie that was not critically successful was A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I wrote that thing in no time. It just came out in six days — everything in perfect shape. I did it, and it was not well received. Whereas Annie Hall was just endless — totally changing things. There was as much material on the cutting-room floor as there was in the picture —I went back five times to reshoot. And it was well received. On the other hand, the exact opposite has happened to me where I’ve done things that just flowed easily and were very well received. And things I agonized over were not. I’ve found no correlation at all. But, if you can do it, it’s not really very hard . . . nor is it as tremendous an achievement as one who can’t do it thinks. For instance, when I was sixteen years old I got my first job. It was as a comedy writer for an advertising agency in New York. I would come into this advertising agency every single day after school and I would write jokes for them. They would attribute these jokes to their clients and put them in the newspaper columns. I would get on the subway, the train quite crowded, and strap-­hanging, I’d take out a pencil, and by-the time I’d gotten out, I’d have written forty or fifty jokes . . . fifty jokes a day for years. People would say to me, “I don’t believe it —fifty jokes a day, and writing them on the train.” Believe me, it was no big deal. Whereas I’ll look at someone who can compose a piece of music —I don’t know how they ever begin or end or what! But because I could always write, it was nothing. I could always do it —within my limitations. So it was never hard. I think if I’d had a better education, a better upbringing, and perhaps had a different kind of personality, I might have been an important writer. It’s possible, because I think I have some talent, but never had the interest in it. I grew up without an interest in anything scholarly. I could write, but I had no interest in reading. I only played and watched sports, read comic books; I never read a real novel until I was college age. Just had no interest in it at all. Perhaps if I’d had a different upbringing, I might have gone off in a different direction. Or if the interests of my parents, my friends, and the environment in which I was raised had been more directed towards things I was later responsive to, maybe things would have been different. Maybe I would have been a serious novelist. Or maybe not. But it’s too late, and now I’m just happy I don’t have arthritis.

INTERVIEWER: Can you remember one of the jokes you wrote hanging on a subway strap?

ALLEN: This was typical of the junk I turned out: “Kid next to me in school was the son of a gambler—he’d never take his test marks back —he’d let ’em ride on the next test.” Now you see why it wasn’t hard to do fifty a day during rush hour.

INTERVIEWER: Agreed. But you mentioned this novel . . .

ALLEN: I’m not sure I have the background and understanding to write a novel. The book that I have been working on, or planning, is amusing but serious, and I’ll see what happens. I’m so uneducated really —so autodidactic. That’s a tricky thing, because there are certain areas the autodidact knows about, but there are also great gaps that are really shocking. It comes from not having a structured education. People will send me film scripts or essays or even a page of jokes, and they’ll say, “Is this anything —is this a short story? Is this a comedy sketch?” They’ll have no idea if it is or isn’t. To a degree, I feel the same way about the world of prose. When I brought something into The New Yorker, I didn’t know what I was standing there with. Their reaction could have been, “Oh, this is nothing. You’ve written a lot of words, but this isn’t really anything,” or, “Young man, this thing is really wonderful.” I was happy to accept their judgment of it. If they had said, when I first took those pieces into The New Yorker, “We’re sorry, but this isn’t really anything,” I would have accepted that. I would have said, “Oh really? Okay.” I would have thrown the stuff away and never batted an eyelash. The one or two things they’ve turned down over the years, they were always so tentative and polite about; they always said, “Look, we may publish something else a little too close to this” or something tactful like that. And I always felt, hey —just tear it up, I don’t care. In that sense, I never found writing delicate or sacred. I think that’s what would happen if I finished the novel. If the people I brought it to said, “We don’t think this is anything,” it would never occur to me to say, “You fools.” I just don’t know enough. I’m not speaking with the authority of someone like James Joyce who’d read everything and knew more than his critics did. There’s only one or two areas where I feel that kind of security, where I feel my judgment is as good and maybe even better than most people’s judgment. Comedy is one. I feel confident when I’m dealing with things that are funny, whatever the medium. And I know a lot about New Orleans jazz music even though I’m a poor musician. Poor but dedicated.

INTERVIEWER: Why did you start out writing comedy?

ALLEN: I always enjoyed comedians when I was young. But when I started to read more seriously, I enjoyed more serious writers. I became less interested in comedy then, although I found I could write it. These days I’m not terribly interested in comedy. If I were to list my fifteen favorite films, there would probably be no comedies in there. True, there are some comic films that I think are wonderful. I certainly think that City Lights is great, a number of the Buster Keatons, several Marx Brothers movies. But those are a different kind of comedy — the comedy of comedians in film stands more as a record of the comedians’ work. The films may be weak or silly but the comics were geniuses. I like Keaton’s films better than Keaton and enjoy Chaplin and The Marx Brothers usually more than the films. But I’m an easy audience. I laugh easily.

INTERVIEWER: How about Bringing Up Baby?

ALLEN: No, I never liked that. I never found that funny.


ALLEN: No, I liked Born Yesterday, even though it’s a play made into a film. Both The Shop Around the Corner and Trouble in Paradise are terrific. A wonderful talking comedy is The White Sheik by Fellini.

INTERVIEWER: What is it that keeps a lighthearted or comic film from being on your list of ten?

ALLEN: Nothing other than personal taste. Someone else might list ten comedies. It’s simply that I enjoy more serious films. When I have the option to see films, I’ll go and see Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief, The Grand Illusion, The Seventh Seal and those kind of pictures.

INTERVIEWER: When you go to see the great classics over again, do you go to see how they’re made, or do you go for the impact that they have on you emotionally?

ALLEN: Usually, I go for enjoyment. Other people who work on my films see all the technical things happening, and I can’t see them. I still can’t notice the microphone shadow, or the cut that wasn’t good or something. I’m too engrossed in the film itself.

INTERVIEWER: Who have had the greatest influence on your film work?

ALLEN: The biggest influences on me, I guess, have been Bergman and the Marx Brothers. I also have no compunction stealing from Strindberg, Chekhov, Perelman, Moss Hart, Jimmy Can­non, Fellini and Bob Hope’s writers.

INTERVIEWER: Were you funny as a kid?

ALLEN: Yes, I was an amusing youngster. Incidentally, people always relate that to being raised Jewish. It’s a myth. Many great funnymen were not Jewish: W.C. Fields, Jonathan Winters, Bob Hope, Buster Keaton … I never saw any connection between ethnicity or religion or race and humor.

INTERVIEWER: Were you asked to perform at school functions?

ALLEN: I didn’t perform a lot, but I was amusing in class, among friends and teachers.

INTERVIEWER: So it wasn’t the sort of humor that would upset the authorities?

ALLEN: Sometimes it was, yes. My mother was called to school frequently because I was yelling out things in class, quips in class, and because I would hand in compositions that they thought were in poor taste, or too sexual. Many, many times she was called to school.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you think you started writing as a kid?

ALLEN: I think it was just the sheer pleasure of it. It’s like playing with my band now. It’s fun to make music, and it’s fun to write. It’s fun to make stuff up. I would say that if I’d lived in the era before motion pictures, I would have been a writer. I saw Alfred Kazin on television. He was extolling the novel at the expense of film. But I didn’t agree. One is not comparable with the other. He had too much respect for the printed word. Good films are better than bad books, and when they’re both great, they’re great and worthwhile in different ways.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think the pleasures of writing are related to the sense of control art provides?

ALLEN: It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing—really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?

INTERVIEWER: If you like that solitary aspect of writing, would you miss the collaborative aspect of film, if you were to give it up?

ALLEN: One deceptive appeal of being out there with other people is that it gets you away from the job of writing. It’s less lonely. But I like to stay home and write. I’ve always felt that if they told me tomorrow I couldn’t make any more films, that they wouldn’t give me any more money, I would be happy writing for the theater; and if they wouldn’t produce my plays, I’d be happy just writing prose; and if they wouldn’t publish me, I’d still be happy writing and leaving it for future generations. Because if there’s anything of value there, it will live; and if there’s not, better it shouldn’t. That’s one of the nice things about writing, or any art; if the thing’s real, it just lives. All the attendant hoopla about it, the success over it or the critical rejection —none of that really matters. In the end, the thing will survive or not on its own merits. Not that immortality via art is any big deal. Truffaut died, and we all felt awful about it, and there were the appropriate eulogies, and his wonderful films live on. But it’s not much help to Truffaut. So you think to yourself, “My work will live on.” As I’ve said many times, rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I would rather live on in my apartment.

INTERVIEWER: Still, some artists put such an emphasis on their work, on creating something that will last, that they put it before everything else. That line by Faulkner —“The ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”

ALLEN: I hate when art becomes a religion. I feel the opposite. When you start putting a higher value on works of art than people, you’re forfeiting your humanity. There’s a tendency to feel the artist has special privileges, and that anything’s okay if it’s in the service of art. I tried to get into that in Interiors. I always feel the artist is much too revered: it’s not fair and it’s cruel. It’s a nice but fortuitous gift —like a nice voice or being left-handed. That you can create is a kind of nice accident. It happens to have high value in society, but it’s not as noble an attribute as courage. I find funny and silly the pompous kind of self-important talk about the artist who takes risks. Artistic risks are like show-business risks —laughable. Like casting against type, wow, what danger! Risks are where your life is on the line. The people who took risks against the Nazis or some of the Russian poets who stood up against the state —those people are courageous and brave, and that’s really an achievement. To be an artist is also an achievement, but you have to keep it in perspective. I’m not trying to under­sell art. I think it’s valuable, but I think it’s overly revered. It is a valuable thing, but no more valuable than being a good schoolteacher, or being a good doctor. The problem is that being creative has glamour. People in the business end of film always say, “I want to be a producer, but a creative producer.”

Or a woman I went to school with, who said, “Oh yes, I married this guy. He’s a plumber but he’s very creative.” It’s very important for people to have that credential. Like if he wasn’t creative, he was less.

INTERVIEWER: When you’re writing, do you think about your audience? Updike, for instance, once said that he liked to think of a young kid in a small midwestern town finding one of his books on a shelf at a public library.

ALLEN: I’ve always felt that I try to aim as high as I can at the time, not to reach everybody, because I know that I can’t do that, but always to try to stretch myself. I’d like to feel, when I’ve finished a film, that intelligent adults, whether they’re scientists or philosophers, could go in and see it and not come out and feel that it was a total waste of time. That they wouldn’t say, “Jesus, what did you get me into?” If I went in to see Rambo, I’d say, “Oh, God,” and then after a few minutes I’d leave. Size of audience is irrelevant to me. The more the better, but not if I have to change my ideas to seduce them.

INTERVIEWER: Film’s not the easiest art form in which to do that; it involves a lot of people, requires a lot of money.

ALLEN: There are certain places like Sweden, where you’re partially state subsidized. But in the United States, everything’s so damned expensive. It’s not like painting or writing. With a film I have to get millions of dollars —to make even a cheap film. So attached to that is a sense that you can’t get along without a big audience. Therefore it’s a bit of a struggle, but I’ve been lucky: I’ve always had freedom. I’ve been blessed. I’ve had a dream life in film —from my first picture on. It’s been absolute, total freedom down the line. Don’t ask me why. If I decided tomorrow to do a black-and-white film on sixteenth-century religion, I could do it. Of course, if I went in and said, “I’m going to do a film about monads,” they’d say, “Well, we’ll give you this much money to work with.” Whereas if I say, “I’m going to do a big, broad comedy,” they’ll give me more money.

INTERVIEWER: What sort of development do you see in your own work over the years?

ALLEN: I hope for growth, of course. If you look at my first films, they were very broad and sometimes funny. I’ve gotten more human with the stories and sacrificed a tremendous amount of humor, of laughter, for other values that I personally feel are worth making that sacrifice for. So, a film like The Purple Rose of Cairo or Manhattan will not have as many laughs. But I think they’re more enjoyable. At least to me they are. I would love to continue that —and still try to make some serious things.

INTERVIEWER: Was it Interiors that if anybody laughed during its making you took that part out? Is that so?

ALLEN: Oh no, no, not true. Good story but totally untrue. No, there are never any colorful stories connected with my pictures. I mean, we go in there and work in a kind of grim, business-like atmosphere and do the films, whether they’re comedies or dramas. Some people criticized Interiors, saying that it had no humor at all. I felt that this was a completely irrelevant criticism. Whatever was wrong with it, the problem is not that it lacks humor. There’s not much humor in Othello or Persona. If I could write a couple of plays or films that had a serious tone, I would much prefer to do that than have the comedy hit of the year. Because that would give me personal pleasure —in the same sense that I prefer to play New Orleans jazz than to play Mozart. I adore Mozart, but I prefer to play New Orleans jazz. Just my preference.

INTERVIEWER: But, when you’re writing a script and humor surfaces you grasp it with pleasure, no?

ALLEN: Yes, it’s always a pleasure. Usually what happens is that there are a number of surprises in films, and usually the surprises are the negative ones. You think you have something funny in a joke or a scene, and it turns out not to be funny, and you’re surprised.

INTERVIEWER: And you’re stuck with it.

ALLEN: Or you throw it away. On the other hand, once in a great while you get a pleasant surprise, and something that you never thought was going to be amusing, the audience laughs at or howls at, and it’s a wonderful thing.

INTERVIEWER: Can you give an example of that?

ALLEN: When I first made Bananas years ago, I was going over to the dictator’s house —I was invited for dinner there in this Latin American country. I brought with me some cake, in a box, a string cake from one of the bakery shops. I didn’t think much of it at all, but it consistently always got the biggest howls from the audience. What they were laughing over was the fact that my character was foolish enough to bring some pastries to a state dinner. To me it was incidental on the way to the real funny stuff—to the audience it was the funniest thing.

INTERVIEWER: It seems as though when an artist becomes established, other people — critics, their followers — expect them to keep on doing the same thing, instead of evolving in their own way.

ALLEN: That’s why you must never take what’s written about you seriously. I’ve never written anything in my life or done any project that wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time. You really have to forget about what they call “career moves.” You just do what you want to do for your own sense of your creative life. If no one else wants to see it, that’s fine. Otherwise, you’re in the business to please other people. When we did Stardust Memories, all of us knew there would be a lot of flack. But it wouldn’t for a second stop me. I never thought, I better not do this because people will be upset. It’d be sheer death not to go through with a project you feel like going through with at the time. Look at someone like Strindberg —another person I’ve always loved — and you see the reaction he got on certain things . . . just brutalized. When I made Annie Hall, there were a lot of suggestions that I make Annie Hall II. It would never occur to me in a million years to do that. I was planning to do Interiors after that, and that’s what I did. I don’t think you can survive any other way. To me, the trick is never to try to appeal to a large number of people, but to do the finest possible work I can conceive of, and I hope if the work is indeed good, people will come to see it. The artists I’ve loved, most did not have large publics. The important thing is the doing of it. And what happens afterward — you just hope you get lucky. Even in a popular art form like film, in the U.S. most people haven’t seen The Bicycle Thief or The Grand Illusion or Persona. Most people go through their whole lives without seeing any of them. Most of the younger generation supporting the films that are around now in such abundance don’t care about Buñuel or Bergman. They’re not aware of the highest achievements of the art form. Once in a great while something comes together by pure accident of time and place and chance. Charlie Chaplin came along at the right time. If he’d come along today, he’d have had major problems.

INTERVIEWER: Don’t you think that as serious writers mature they simply continue to develop and expand the themes already established?

ALLEN: Each person has his own obsessions. In Bergman films you find the same things over and over, but they’re usually presented with great freshness.

INTERVIEWER: What about your own work?

ALLEN: The same things come up time after time. They’re the things that are on my mind, and one is always feeling for new ways to express them. It’s hard to think of going out and saying, “Gee, I have to find something new to express.” What sort of things recur? For me, certainly the seductiveness of fantasy and the cruelty of reality. As a creative person, I’ve never been interested in politics or any of the solvable things. What interested me were always the unsolvable problems: the fi­niteness of life, and the sense of meaninglessness and despair, and the inability to communicate. The difficulty in falling in love and maintaining it. Those things are much more interesting to me than … I don’t know, the Voting Rights Act. In life, I do follow politics a certain amount — I do find it interesting as a citizen, but I’d never think of writing about it.

A word about this interview. It was hard for me because I don’t like to aggrandize my work by discussing its influences or my themes or that kind of thing. That kind of talk is more applicable to works of greater stature. I say this with no false modesty —that I feel I have done no really significant work, whatsoever, in any medium. I feel that unequivocally. I feel that what I have done so far in my life is sort of the ballast that is waiting to be uplifted by two or three really fine works that may hopefully come. We’ve been sitting and talking about Faulkner, say, and Updike and Bergman —I mean, I obviously can’t talk about myself in the same way at all. I feel that what I’ve done so far is the . . . the bed of lettuce the hamburger must rest on. I feel that if f could do, in the rest of my life, two or three really fine works — perhaps make a terrific film or write a fine play or something — then everything prior to that point would be interesting as developmental works. I feel that’s the status of my works: they’re a setting waiting for a jewel. But there’s no jewel there at the moment. So I’m starting to feel my interview is pompous. I need some heavy gems in there somewhere. But I hope I’ve come to a point in my life where within the next ten or fifteen years I can do two or three things that lend credence to all the stuff I’ve done already. . . . Let’s hope.

— Michiko Kakutani

Source: Paris Review, Issue 136, Fall 1995


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