Woody Allen: The Last Comedian


In this small essay, I will explore Woody Allen as the last comedian. By this I mean, Woody Allen as the last of the lineage of great comedians from Keystone Cops to Jerry Lewis? In this essay I will analyze Woddy Allen’s comedy, and explore the history of comedy briefly.

History Of Comedy:

After the decline of burlesque in the 1950s, which was due to various reasons, exhaustion of its capabilities, the end of a certain era of entertainment, the audience may have experienced it all. The stand-up comedian begins to enter the scene, an actor, director, comedian like Steve Martin fits perfectly this new world of comedy.
Already in 1963 Roberto Rossellini (Oliver Lyttelton (2012) claimed that Cinema was dead, did the world stopped producing great auteur comedians, or it is due to the decline of cinema itself? Most of the comedians we see today on film or television are stand-up comedians, like Woody Allen himself. When a stand-up comedian does well with his Stand Up special, he or she is then instantly put to use on a Tv Show (and Late night shows) like Louis CK in Louie, Amy Schumer in Inside Amy Schumer. 
Every year a multitude of comedy films are produced, in close inspection their lack of image to use Deleuze term is clear. The comedy aspect of these films is unclear, Tropic Thunder (2008), Borat (2006), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), what form of comedy is this?

Most of the well-known comedians of Cinema came either from Vaudeville or from Burlesque. They had their start doing a comedy sketch or gags in front of a live audience. In the beginning, Cinema had not yet developed it is vocabulary, how to use the camera to make audiences laugh. In these early films, which seem Childlike to us today, pie-throwing, slipping on a banana, jealous husband suspect his wife cheating on him. Early Keystone Cops films seem to be extremely naive to us today. It takes Fields, Chaplin, and Keaton a couple of years to perfect the art of slapstick comedy. If Chaplin was against the modern machine, then Keaton created, used the machine as a tool for his gags. Keaton was able to develop and enlarge the gag, which previously was only used in a small form.
” Permit him (Keaton) to be perhaps the only constantly beautiful and continuously hilarious man ever seen, as though the ugliness in laughter should be redeemed. They permit Fields to mutter and suffer and curse obsessively, but heard and seen only by us; because his attributes are those of the gentleman (confident swagger and elegant manners, gloves, cane, outer heartiness), he can manifest continuously, with the remorselessness of nature, the psychic brutalities of bourgeois civilization.” (Stanley Cavell (1979): 37) Cavell gives the example of Groucho Marx, in one of his film ” Groucho gets it when he looks into the audience and asks something like, How did I ever wind up in this lousy picture?” (Stanley Cavell (1979): 125).
This self-reference was brilliantly used in Woody’s Annie Hall (1977), after the breakup with Annie Hall, Woody looks into the camera and starts asking questions as to why his relationship failed, then starts to stop people in the street to get relationship advice from them.
In his political film Bananas (1971), the protagonist Fielding, Woody Allen’s character is demonstrating the modern way of exercising in the office, it’s easy to see where the inspiration of this scene comes from (Chaplin’s Modern Time (1936) the machine that automatically feeds the inmates). But the implication of using a phone or a deck as exercising tools is very different, the modern office has become an unhealthy prison.

In his essay on Laughter, Henri Bergson tries to define what we find funny, he explains: ” But the art of the storyteller or the playwright does not merely consist in concocting jokes. The difficulty lies in giving to a joke its power of suggestion, in making it acceptable.” (Henri Bergson (1914): 64)
The Diane Keaton character, Sonja in Love and Death (1975) says:
” To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.” There is no punch line to the joke, there is only a line of arguments, Bergson defines this comic form as a resemblance, it makes us laugh by reasoning that can go on indefinitely. It is in Woody’s joke: ‘I’m very proud of my gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch’ (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982).

In Take The Money And Run (1969), Woody Allen’s first film, the first image we see is Woody trying to sit on a chair and play cello while marching with a band on the street, this is, of course, is impossible since he has to constantly sit down and move in order to follow the group.
Before this comical scene, Woddy establishes himself as a small, weak, neurotic man. Woody has no relation to burlesque, he started as a stand-up comedian, the phenomena of the 1960s, in the first instance it seems he has little or no relation to all the filmmakers we have mentioned so far.
In-Play It Again, Sam (1972), his ex-wife Nancy tells him:
” You’re a dreamer. You’re awkward. You’re clumsy. They can see how desperate you are. You know this. You said it yourself. Oh, face it, Allan. You may be very sweet but you’re not sexy.”
The whole film is about fixing, the neurotic character Woody Allen has, of course, this is impossible since what we find most attractive in Woody Allen character is precisely is all of these things that his wife find repulsive in him. In the interview with Stig Bjorkman, Woody says about his character:
” Well, it seemed to me like a very standard film persona for a comedian. Someone who is physical coward, who lusts after woman, who is good-hearted but ineffectual and clumsy and nervous. All the standard things that you’ve seen in different various disguises. In Charlie Chaplin or W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx there’s the same things but in different forms.”
 (Stig Bjorkman (1993): 26)
The crucial aspect of Woody Allen’s identification in Play It Again, Sam (1972) with Humphrey Bogart’s character from Casablanca, is whenever Felix (Woody Allen) is in trouble or in need of strength to seduce women, he imagines himself as Bogart. This double image, is a crucial aspect of the comedy, when his friends (Tony Roberts as Dick Christie) introduce him, to his blind date in his clumsiness, his lack of self-control, he starts to bring destruction to his apartment, in his uncool character, which the Bogart character is the opposite of. The film’s final answer is if a short, ugly, guy like Bogart can make it, why also not a short, ugly Woody Allen?
There is a common thread between all the characters.
 Allen’s character is thrown into revolution, the future, into problems which he is utterly incapable of handling or solving. His comedy is this incapacity, his inability to handle even the smallest task or any task that is handed to him by others. In Sleeper (1973) after being defrosted, he disguises himself as a robot, he is then sent to the kitchen to prepare food, of course, he not capable of anything short of a catastrophe.


Lyttelton, Oliver: ”Sound The Death Knell (Again): A Brief History Of The Death Of Cinema.” Indiewire. (2012) https://www.indiewire.com/2012/10/sound-the-death-knell-again-a-brief-history-of-the-death-of-cinema-105354/
Tropic Thunder: Stiller, Ben. DreamWorks Pictures (2008)
Borat: Charles, Larry. 20th Century Fox (2006)
The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Apatow, Judd. Universal Pictures (2005)
Cavell, Stanley: ”The World Viewed Reflections On The Ontology Of Film, Enlarged Edition” Cambridge Massachusetts and London England: Harvard University Press (1979)
Annie Hall; Allen, Woody. United Artists (1977)
Take The Money And Run: Allen, Woody, Cinerama Releasing Corporation (1969, original) MGM (2004, DVD) (1969)
Bananas: Allen, Woody, United Artists (1971)
Modern Time: Chaplin, Charles, United Artists (1936)
Play It Again, Sam: Allen, Woody, Paramount Pictures (1972)
A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy: Allen, Woody, Warner Bros. Pictures (1982)
Bergson, Henri: ”Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic” NewYork: The Macmillan Company (1914)
Love and Death: Allen, Woody, United Artists (1975)
Bjorkman, Stig: ”Woody Allen On Woody Allen” London: Faber And Faber Limited (1993)
Sleeper: Allen, Woody, United Artists (1973)