Woody Allen and Larry David
Photo: Nigel Parry/CPI for New York Magazine

In the current issue of New York Magazine, Mark Harris puts Woody Allen’s latest film Whatever Works (June 18) into the context of the shifting landscape of so-called Jewish humor. He traces a line from Allen through Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David to current incarnations such as John Stewart and Judd Apatow, two funny men who are not specifically defined by their Jewishness. So, what happened to the humor of which Allen was once king?

To understand why [Allen’s] particular flavor of urban Jewish comedy seemed to vanish so quickly after Annie Hall and Manhattan, even as New Yorkers young and old held it dear, it helps to remember that Allen walked away from it first. In the eighties, he did his Fellini movie (Stardust Memories), his cheery Bergman homage (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy), his claustrophobic dramas (September and Another Woman), his trifles (Alice). Jewish humor-the gags, the one-liners, the cheerful vulgarity, the tsuris-seemed to become old hat to him; tellingly, when he wanted to give it some play, most of the time he did so in period (Radio Days). When he returned to contemporary New York, most successfully in Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, he kept to the margins, deploying himself as minor comic relief. The schnook was no longer the center of Allen’s writing or his thinking-or his movies.

In the current environment, Allen’s film about an abrasive neurotic who falls for a younger woman (surprise!) seems like a throwback…and it is. It turns out the looming actor’s strike forced Allen to work quickly and in New York instead of abroad so he dusted off an old screenplay he’d once written for Zero Mostel, updated it a bit and recruited Larry David to play the Allen role.

Check out the New York Magazine article to find out why the seemingly obvious Larry David didn’t think he was the right guy for the part and other interesting nuggets of goodness.

It’s a good read.

3 Responses to “Woody Allen and Larry David: The Schnook and the Bellower”

  1. I’ve been vocal about my doubt of recent Allen, but the trailer to “Whatever Works” actually gave me some hope. It looks like a trifle in the “Small Time Crooks” sense (I mean that as a compliment).

  2. It IS an uncommonly good read.

    But there is a question in my mind that I’ve been pondering. I know these two gentlemen are Jewish.

    (Duh…)

    But I never even think of that when I’m watching WOODY act or viewing one of his films. I do associate him very closely with the NEW YORK phenomenon, But, aside from that, I think he’s an enormously talented man.

    Not a Jewish genius. Just a genius.

    Does seem a little retro in 2009 for NEW YORK magazine to be doing a piece on Jewish American humour. Doesn’t it…?

    But other than that, there are lots of fascinating observations.

    I have a graphics background (I’ve actually done tons of different things – mostly arts related) so it was cool to know that the font for the beginning and end titles of WOODY’S films – it’s apparently never changed – is WINDSOR LIGHT CONDENSED.

    Hmmm. You learn something new every day.

    I liked the explanation that WOODY gave at the end for not providing commentary or any other extras on his DVDS.

    “WOODY: And I can’t work my DVD player. Only my wife can do it.
    LARRY: I can’t do it either. I think maybe that contributed to my divorce.”

    Hysterical…

    Plus the author’s observation that “we always fall in love with the one that makes us laugh…”

    Ain’t that the truth.

    Thanks for this, Craig. You are a ripe peach amongst the rotting fruit, honey bear…

  3. I’m not as hard core about Mr. Allen as you two are, but like Chuck my initial skepticism about Whatever Works is draining away. I said before, if it’s funny all else is forgiven and this feels increasingly like it will be.

    Miranda, as the interview/article points out, the ethnic divisions of comedy have been sort of assimilated into the comic culture so perhaps being of a certain younger age (and outside of New York) we don’t key in on the ethnicity of Woody’s shtick (a yiddish word!) as much as the generation before us.

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