Woody Allen was an incredible Stand-up. To some, that’s a no-brainer of a statement. I could have written; ‘Most cars run on gas.’ Yet to a larger group, maybe younger people, or people that only know his movies, or those that have lost their memory, or with learning disabilities, they may have little, or even zero knowledge of Woody Allen’s Stand-up years. There is another group, that knows all this, but I hope will enjoy the re-cap and the clips. For both of those groups, I’ll go into his Stand-up years here, and also explain how much influence Woody Allen had on me growing up, and tell a few stories about my interaction with Woody.
If this sounds like fun and exciting reading, keep going. If not, move on, and in fact, here’s a link to a book my Uncle Melvin’s written about how to shave your own back.
Woody Allen affected me profoundly as a kid. My father would tell the story that as a boy I watched The Ed Sullivan Show with him one Sunday night and as Woody Allen came on and did his Stand-up and I turned back to him the second it was over and said. “That’s what I want to do. Right there. Be a comedian.” I was nine or ten or so, had bright red hair, and was a funny, smart ass little Jewish kid. It kind of made sense that he hit my sweet spot.
I somehow got his first album ‘Woody Allen.’ (He was always so great with the tough titles.) His next was ‘The Nightclub Years.’
I must have listened to those two albums, no kidding, five thousand times. His Stand-up was and is a delicacy. Forever unique. Bold yet well-mannered. Imaginative, intelligent, illuminative, and provocative. Each ‘bit’ or joke was written, performed and enveloped in a surprise or a revelation. His style was never to stop constantly changing elements, always going for a laugh. One-liners, short stories, anecdotal confessions, then back to one-liners.
Here’s a quick example to listen to. A teaser that was put together for my Instagram, promoting this column.
Here’s a great bit from his second album. ‘The Nightclub Years.’
It’s worth pointing out that although a reluctant Stand-up to start, Woody had to be coerced by his manager, Jack Rollins, he very quickly became something of a mass-market cultural comedy icon long before he was really known as a filmmaker.
Woody’s long-time manager, Jack Rollins.
SIDEBAR; Jack Rollins was a bigger-than-life figure, the Col. Tom Parker of comedy. In 1951 he started his own talent agency in New York City. He handled Harry Belafonte, who his first big success. After becoming partners with Charlie Joffe, they took on several comedians. Woody, Dick Cavett, Nichols and May, and my other favorite comic, Robert Klein.
SIDEBAR TO THE SIDEBAR;
When I first got into the business, the LA office of ‘Rollins and Joffee’, had become ‘Rollins, Joffee, Morra, and Brezner and Steinberg’. They were the premier boutique management firm. They worked with the best of the best. Not only Woody, but Billy Crystal, David Letterman, and Robin Williams. The first film I wrote that was produced, was called ‘Coupe De Ville’ and Larry Brezner, one of the partners of the firm, who would go on to become my mentor, confidant, and one of my best friends and biggest influences, produced the movie, guiding me through the process.
The late-great, Larry Brezner, myself, and his long-time business partner, another legendary manager, David Steinberg.
The movie came and went by and large, but it got my career going in my mid-twenties, and it wasn’t lost on me that I was making movies with my idol Woody’s, ‘people.’
*Larry Brezner, David Steinberg Jack Rollins, Rollins and Joffee, and the making of ‘Coupedeville’ are all going to be the subjects of future substacks, so, enough with this ‘Sidebar.’
Going back to my childhood, I became obsessed with Woody. With Allan Stewart Konigsberg, which I found out early was his real name. I was so precociously preoccupied with Woody Allen that one time when I was maybe ten or eleven I phoned directory assistance. (*Some here won’t know what that was, but it was basically Siri, without the attitude.)
I was in Detroit, and I called Manhattan directory assistance and asked for the residential number of Allan Konisberg. This was maybe 1968 or so. They gave me the number, I called, and a man answered. (Sounded to me like a man in his early thirties. A red-headed man.)
ME; ‘Are you Allan Konisberg?’
HIM; Yes. This is Allan Konisberg.’
ME; ‘Are you Woody Allen?’
There was an exasperated bit of a beat here, Jewish in tone.
HIM; Who’s calling?
ME; Quickly hangs up the phone. Scared.
That may or may not have been my first interaction with Woody. May have been another Allan Konisberg. I just know it sure sounded like Woody Allen to me.
Everything about Woody was something I wanted to emulate, and all of the things we had in common, I would use to promulgate my self-image as someone that could live in that rarified world he was in. If I never had seen Woody Allen I wouldn’t have known true north as crisply as I did at a young age. It’s one of the things I’m most grateful of, the blessing to have known what I want to do right out of the gate without question or hesitation. It hasn’t always been an easy road for me, this business, but I’ll take the ups and downs, the bruises and the heartbreaks over a lackadaisical wandering through life, never really having a spot on the horizon to be striving for.
BTW, here’s just a grab from me doing Stand-up something like nine or ten years later on the Mike Douglas show. All I remember back then is how much I was ‘doing’ Woody Allen.
Woody didn’t really know he wanted to be a comic until he was a comic. He learned early on he could write jokes. Gags. Great jokes. He was making a living in his late teens and early twenties writing one-liners for the gossip columnists in newspapers of the day. He then went on to score big writing for television on classic comedies like; Sid Ceasers Show of Shows.’
Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Mel Tolkin, Sid Caesar.
Jack Rollins truly had to force Woody to get up on stage and tell his own jokes. He quickly too to it though. He was eventually successful largely on the strength of his great writing, but even more on the character he had developed, partially based loosely on himself and even more as a way to cover his shyness and uncomfortableness on the stage.
Here’s a short clip I like from a Brian Linehan interview in a documentary off of his website, ‘Reeling in the Years.
He eventually built a following in New York, playing clubs like The Duplex and The Bitter End, following in the shadows of Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. All just a few years ahead of him in the Stand-up scene.
Here’s a great clip from a talk show called The Gary Moore show. It’s all good, but at 6:57 seconds he goes into the classic ‘I shot a Moose once..’ routine. It’s one of his best and if you don’t know it, you should watch it. It’s his generation’s ‘Who’s on First’. That’s truly how beloved this routine is.
End of Part one; (thanks for reading. Part two coming next week.)