NY: Do you have a theory about why the culture keeps getting coarser?
WA: The country has, over the years, moved to the right. And it’s possible that accompanying that move to the right, you also get a lessening of taste. But I don’t know if what I’m saying is true, because I have shown some very good films—Bergman, Fellini—to kids from good schools like Yale. Bright kids. And they were not impressed. You know, it wasn’t as though I picked out some kid from the Midwest who’s a churchgoing barbarian. Those same kids that you see in the movie house doubled over with laughter over fraternity toilet jokes are very often kids from Columbia and Yale. We might also still be feeling the fallout from the sexual revolution, when everybody just ran amok talking dirty and doing things that were forbidden and it became the mark of drama and comedy to be simply outrageous. Not necessarily dramatically interesting or particularly comic, but just outrageous.
NY: Is there a recent film about New York by another director that you think especially nails the experience of living here?
NY: Let’s talk about 1968. You were still doing stand-up, and an amazingly fertile period for comedy was just winding down.
WA: Yes, it started in the late fifties. All of a sudden there were all those wonderful kind of Catskills-style comics—Jack E. Leonard, Phil Foster, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, and they were hilariously funny guys. And then—see, Lenny Bruce I found artificial. I found him one of those guys who—without being a genuine intellectual or a particularly thoughtful person—saw an avenue to exploit and exploited it. I mean, he was fine. I think he towered over me. But then strange flowers started emerging on the scene that were different from the other flowers. There was Nichols and May. Jonathan Winters. And Mort Sahl. And they made the world of small, chic nightclubs and being a comedian not only acceptable but kind of snobby or stylish. And people that had ambivalent feelings about being a comic before suddenly found you could discuss intellectual matters.
NY: As you did.
Change is almost always negative. Things degenerate.
WA: But I was not in that class. There was a whole group of us that were successful comics. Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, myself. But the three great geniuses of the period were Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, and Mort Sahl. I still find Mort Sahl funny. I was with him the other day, in California, and he’s 81 and he’s teaching at Claremont College. And he said they have a course out there that they offered him to teach, on the Holocaust, and he didn’t take it. He said, “I wanted to see first how history judges the event.”
NY: The persona you developed in stand-up and later in the movies was of an anxious, neurotic Jew. Do you feel like the anxious, neurotic Jewish archetype still has the same cultural meaning now?
WA: I don’t know. I didn’t set out to do it. I just went up and made jokes, and people told me that I was an anxious, neurotic Jew. I didn’t sit down and think, This is a good side of the street to work.
NY: Do you think the New York Jew has gotten too assimilated?
WA: No, I’m a big one for assimilation of everybody. But the basic problems remain the same. People still have existential anxiety, relationship anxiety. It just may not be expressed in Hebraic idiom.
NY: Do you know anyone who still goes to an analyst?
WA: I do, though psychoanalysis has gone through a lot of changes.
NY: As the world’s most famous analysand, can you say whether you think analysis works?
WA: People always tease me. They say, look at you, you went for so much psychoanalysis and you’re so neurotic, you wind up marrying a girl so much younger than you. You don’t like to go through tunnels, you don’t like to stand near the drain in the shower. But I could also say to them, I’ve had a very productive life. I’ve worked very hard, I’ve never fallen prey to depression. I’m not sure I could have done all of that without being in psychoanalysis. People would say to me, oh, it’s just a crutch. And I would say, yes. It’s a crutch, and exactly what I need in this point in my life is a crutch.
NY: For a long time, you enjoyed largely favorable coverage in the New York media—until you first started seeing Soon-Yi. The press—particularly the tabloid press—hit you hard. And certainly over the years, this has become more of a tabloid town. Do the tabloids amuse you or trouble you?