I was recently reminded that, when I published an interview with Mel Brooks that I did for my Toronto newspaper column in the late sixties, I promised to subsequently publish the interview I did with Woody Allen during the same period.
First, a little background.
In 1969, I decided to move to New York to become a comedian. During that five-week mistake, which I ought to write about sometime, I performed only twice – once, on the first night I arrived, where I was totally terrified – I actually opened by saying to the audience, “Don’t scare me, okay?” – and once on the night before I went home, where I’d consumed on beer, I knew I was leaving, and was sensational. A guy after said he wanted to manage me. But I went home instead. It was probably a wise decision.
Though I was living in New York, I continued my weekly column-writing assignment for the Toronto Telegram. It was all very high tech. I wrote the column, and then I mailed it to them.
Since it very quickly gets tiresome, and embarrassing, to keep writing about why, though I went to New York to become a comedian, I’d been avoiding going onstage – the place where you learn to become a comedian – I eagerly searched of alternate sources of material. And self-respect.
At the time, my brother was partners with Lorne Michaels, and together, they would sporadically fly to New York to present Woody with material he had contracted them to write for his standup act. I don’t believe Woody ultimately used any of it, but it provided an “in.” An “in” to receive complimentary tickets to his show, “Play It Again, Sam” (after which, we were shuttled back to our hotel in Woody’s limo, with Woody actually in in), and an “in” to arrange a subsequent interview.
I will deliver the interview in two installments. The first installment immediately follows.
An Interview With Woody Allen: Circa 1969.
In the way he approaches a problem, Woody Allen reminds me very much of Tom Jefferson, a kid from my High School math class who always got a hundred on the exams. When I asked Tom how he did it, he’d shrug matter-of-factly and say, “Well, you know, I sorta looked at the questions, and kinda figured out the answers.”
What an irritating explanation! I mean, everybody looks at the questions and tries to figure out the answers. The difference was he got the answers! What exactly did he do different? Was he holding out on me? Or did he really not know himself?
That’s exactly how I felt about Woody as I talked with him in his maroon-carpeted dressing room at the Broadhurst Theater where he was starring in the hit comedy Play It Again, Sam, which he also wrote.
This is Woody’s second Broadway hit in two tries, the other being Don’t Drink The Water, which starred Lou Jacobi and ran a highly respectable 75 weeks – and Woody admits this one came a little easier: “It took a little while for me to learn to write for the medium. It’s an easy part for me to play because I wrote it with myself in mind, even though I didn’t want to play it. I didn’t want to tie myself down to Broadway for a year.”
But [other candidates for the role] Dustin Hoffman was doing Jimmy Shine on Broadway and Dick Benjamin was doing a film, so Woody took on the lead role himself.
“Once this play opened on Broadway,” he admitted, “you know, I couldn’t care less if I ever saw it again. You know, I like it and it was fun to do, but I wouldn’t want to do it in London, or do it in the movie particularly, or write the screenplay.”
To him, it was a learning exercise and now it was over. As an actor, his contract runs out in October 1, and he is searching for some name star to take over for him.
Tommy Smothers and Bob Newhart were two names mentioned.
As a professional comedy writer, Woody started at the age of 17, two years before he left school. He wrote TV and radio for the disparate likes of Herb Shriner, Sid Caesar and Peter Lind Hayes. Was it hard to produce material for comics who varied so greatly in style and quality?
“It’s not all that hard,” shrugged Woody. “People that you write for, you know, they have a very definite style of their own. You try and write it to their style. You can learn to do it. It’s really not all that difficult.”
Then Jack Rollins, a highly successful spotter and developer of comedy talent (Nichols and May, Woody, Dick Cavett, Joan Rivers, Milt Kamen, etc) talked him into trying to make it as a performer. “The idea had occurred to me vaguely, but I hadn’t tried it before.” He had the feeling, from conversations and from his overall personality, that it would work on stage.
“Nobody ever tried to build a character. I mean, I just did what I did, and a year later, looked up and in the newspapers, a character had emerged.”
For nearly two years, going on stage was a frightening experience for him, but the constant support and encouragement of Rollins, and his partner, Charlie Joffe, helped carry him over those necessarily trying and difficult times as a developing performer.
Even on his wedding night, Joffe came down with his new bride to a dingy Village coffee house to keep up his client’s morale and observe his gradual development. Did Woody ever adjust his material or style to make it easier for the audience to accept him?
“I just never thought about it. I just wrote the jokes and told them and as I gained a little strength as a comedian, as I got a little practice getting up there and sort of projecting, keeping the energy up and enjoying it, it began to work for me. It’s hard enough writing good jokes, much less tailoring them to the audience. But if a joke doesn’t get a laugh, I take it out right away. “
“I just knew I could write jokes,” he said, trying to help me to understand, “and the question was, could I develop the things that could be learned, how to structure a play, how to direct a movie, you know, all this stuff can be learned.”
Tomorrow: Woody Allen Interview: Installment Number Two.