The character we know as “Woody Allen,” the persona we see in his films, the stammering neurotic weighed down by existential angst and a desperate horniness laced with intellectuality, was created not in his movies, but in his stand-up, recordings of which have been in and out of circulation since 1964. (They're now available here.)
The director is reportedly even more embarrassed of these recordings than his films--and anyone who has seen his sit-down with critic Mark Cousins can attest, he can’t even stand to watch his films--but maybe that's about the performance itself, and not the material.
I say that because in the clip above, a routine that Allen loved enough that he often used it to end his sets in the 60s, we can see the nascent idea for his Oscar-winning 2011 film Midnight in Paris.
Riffing on The Lost Generation, he imagines himself back in time, carousing with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and famed Spanish bullfighter Manolete. It’s a one-two-three-and punchline joke we won’t ruin, but it’s interesting that consciously or subconsciously, this idea returned some five decades later to be fleshed out into one of Allen’s best late-period films. Was he always thinking of this routine as a someday film? In interviews from the time of the film’s release, he never mentions the stand-up bit.
Creating art is often like composting, and one never knows what might float to the top after years of influences and absorption. Listening to his stand-up, one can find the joke that he recycled for Annie Hall (“I was thrown out of NYU my freshman year, I cheated on my metaphysics final in college, I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”).
There's also this routine about a scary subway ride:
The scene was later recreated in Bananas with a young Sylvester Stallone.
Allen’s pre-film career, when he was writing for television and his own stand-up, when his goals were to “write for Bob Hope and host the Oscars” makes for fascinating reading, and we’ll leave you with this history from WMFU. Nerdist has more thoughts on the relationship between The Lost Generation joke and Midnight in Paris here.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.