5:22 pm Feb. 22, 20121
The balding, the Yankee baseball–capped, the bespectacled, the young and the old—but mostly the old—all came to sit at the feet of their nebbishy guru, Woody Allen. And they got a good dose of him, if they didn't exactly get an evening of stunning and incisive film criticism.
Seeing Allen at the 92nd St. Y is the closest thing Manhattan has to seeing the Pope give a blessing in St. Peter's Square. And his followers come out in droves for the pilgrimage. The event had been sold out for weeks, but there were still a large share of people standing outside hoping to score spare tickets.
Of course, as can be the case at the 92nd St. Y, the actuality didn’t quite live up to the billing, and what transpired was a pleasant, if not quite razor-sharp discussion on the topic of nostalgia.
Even with a fellow legend like TV host and writer Dick Cavett sitting inches away, or with the brilliant film scholar Annette Insdorf (the director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia and the author of, among other books, Indelible Shadows: Film and Holocaust and Francois Truffaut) moderating, all eyes were on Allen as the three spoke.
To the apparent disappointment of the guy next to me, who seemed hell-bent on asking the director about his Oscar chances with last year's hit Midnight in Paris, the focus of discussion wasn't on any of Allen's biggest movies or most recent forays into heavy drama. Instead the evening was squarely focused on nostalgia, in particular the nostalgia at the heart of Radio Days, which takes as its subject Allen's coming of age in Brooklyn, his family life, his young friends, and the adventures that extended outward from what he was listening to on his home radio.
Here’s a fact: Any time Woody Allen is speaking, you can bet on hearing some Jewish jokes, plenty of sugary nostalgia, a whole lot of self-deprecation, and at least one reference to his idol, the director Ingmar Bergman. It's as though Allen never left his stand-up comedy routines, he just made his main subject his own life and career through the years. On this particular evening, Allen namedropped the Swedish director near the 45-minute mark; and apart from some good, well-worn jokes and a heaping dose of nostalgic anecdotes, not a lot of heavy lifting went on between the three panelists. It was definitely—pleasurably, of course—panel shtick.
Insdorf’s presence as moderator, and her command of film history and technique, functioned to free Cavett, one of the great interviewers in television history, from having to stick to the topic himself. So he and Allen roamed they wished (with Insdorf breaking in occasionally to steer them back to talking about film), waxing poetic on topics like listening to the Jack Benny Show, attending baseball games in Brooklyn, and listening to Duke Ellington songs on their family radios when they were growing up.
Allen, dressed in a loose-fitting, slightly mussed cream-colored sweater and brown slacks, started warming up about ten minutes into the program, cracking some jokes everyone had heard a million times, but still can't seem to get enough of. There was one about his mom taking him to the local doctors, then taking him to the pharmacists for medical advice because the doctors were sick of him.
Then Cavett recounted a story of winning an award for young magicians at fifteen.
“We suffer, they win the trophies,” Allen responded, taking the opportunity to refer to Cavett as one of the "goyim"—a term he thereafter deployed often, always to laughs.
Allen and Cavett traded childhood stories about their mutual love of radio, with Allen pointing out that while he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Cavett had been listening to some of the same radio shows at the same time, across the country in Omaha, Neb.
“Lincoln,” Cavett corrected.
“Goyim!” Allen shot back with timing so perfect it seemed like the gag had been authored beforehand by, well, Woody Allen.
The closest things to a fresh take on Woody Allen jokes, ironically, were his quips about his age. For an artist who has spent most of his career playing the part of the death-obsessed neurotic (which surely he truly is), his jokes on his old age were not only funny, but also sweet—and of course, self-deprecating.
When asked the name of a particular radio personality, Allen admitted, “I forget his name now because I’m elderly,” to a hearty round of laughs and applause. And then there was the Groucho Marxesque, “I’m old but forgetful, and glad to be,” which also received a round of cheers.
Though the evening was touted as “Woody Allen & Dick Cavett in conversation with Annette Insdorf with a screening of Radio Days” (the screening part written in much smaller font on the program), it wasn’t really a night of celebration of or discussion about the film itself. Rather, it felt like an opportunity for Allen and Cavett to talk about radio days in general, joke around, give the 92nd St. Y audience a little dose of Woody, some laughs, and call it a night. Why exactly they chose Cavett, who played no role in the film, and not any of the number of locals who did—Wallace Shawn or Dianne Wiest could have worked—wasn’t totally clear. But if you’re going to sit for an hour and listen to two people meander, it may as well be Woody Allen and Dick Cavett. Meanwhile, Insdorf's function as moderator for the event seemed mostly to help make sure that the other two esteemed guests only rambled on a moderate amount.
The thing about Woody Allen, his shtick, and seeing it up close and personal in a place like the 92nd Street Y, is that he’s talking to a room full of people in the city where he's the archetypal citizen. He could have been sitting alone up there, talking about anything at all; there were the hypochondriac jokes and the sharp pronunciations of any word that ends with the letter T that you've heard over and over. But then there are the nuggets like Allen discussing how much Diane Keaton changed the way he wrote.
“When I started, I could only write for me. Now I think I write better women than men.” Then there was the story about how he just had to get Jackson Beck, the man who was the radio voice of Superman, to do the voiceover in 1969's Take the Money and Run (he also did voice work for Radio Days).
In a lot of ways, seeing Woody Allen talk live is like seeing one his films. For the most part, you know what you're going to get, and the jokes are usually the same. But this is Woody Allen we're talking about, and his shtick doesn't seem to be wearing off anytime soon—at least not for folks on the Upper East Side, and possibly a handful of Oscar voters.
More by this author:
- At a Park Slope Synagogue, Auster, DeLillo, Foer, and a brief cultural respite
- The first theatrical adaptation of Jonathan Franzen plays on a dire sense of uncertainty