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Twilight of the Tummlers

Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn at the premiere of Whatever Works at the Tribeca Film Festival.  

The picture that results is, anyone would concede, strange—a Larry David movie that doesn’t quite feel like a Larry David movie and a new Woody Allen movie that isn’t really new. Nonetheless, it’s Woodyish enough, and Larryish enough, to make you wish that Allen—who doesn’t appear in the movie—had contrived a way for the two of them to share the screen, emperors of adjoining comedy galaxies finally colliding. To watch the movie is to witness the Jewish man as funny–sad–barely functional Gloomy Gus come to life again and also to wonder if that guy still has any relevance in an age when American Jews don’t feel so bad about things, except on Yom Kippur.

For Boris, the only possible consolation for existential hopelessness is romance: “My story is, whatever works, as long as you don’t hurt anybody,” he says as the movie starts. When I ask Allen if the line represents the Weltanschauung of his thirtysomething or current self, he says his outlook hasn’t changed: “Yes, whatever works to get you through is fine, and not necessarily in relation to relationships. If it’s collecting stamps obsessively, or listening to ball scores, if you’re not encroaching on anyone else, then that’s what you have to do. I think from a philosophic point of view, existence is a nightmare. If you are honest with yourself, it’s a painful thing to go through. You know, the time goes.” He pauses, winces, shrugs. “And then, it stops.”

This, by the way, is why people tend to confuse him with his characters.

Before going further, let us note a complication: Neither Allen nor David sees anything particularly Jewish about their comedy. Perhaps that’s not entirely unexpected given that Allen has always cited Bob Hope as a seminal influence, but, to steal a phrase from Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers: Really?!

“Right,” Allen says politely. “You know, it’s funny. I have a blind spot there. Because I wouldn’t see what I do as Jewish humor. I would see it as funny if you think it’s funny, or not if you don’t. But I never think of it as Jewish in any way. Now, as I say, this is a blind spot. Because you and other people might feel differently.”

“I get the same thing,” says David, laughing. “People, you know, Jews, they come up to me, they go, ‘Hey, I’m a Jew—I get it.’ ‘I’m a landsman—love your show!’ Jews want to be the only ones who like it! They think it’s for them. It’s not just for them. And I don’t think that way either.”

Fine. But at least in the secular sense, Allen’s and David’s comic style is Jewish to its marrow. (And as Lenny Bruce famously said, “To me, if you live in New York or any other big city, you’re Jewish.”) If that kind of humor is vanishing, the reason may be that it emerged from a combination of pain and pride that now seems more historical than contemporary. Jewish humor has always struggled between extremes: The excluded outsider is also the smarty-pants; self-mockery tussles with self-aggrandizement; the prideful intellectual is also a slave to his basest appetites and most uncontrollable bodily functions. And every era has found its own mode of angst. The often cruel jokes of a century ago about the anxiety of being a greenhorn from the shtetl with an old-world accent gave way to the urban anxiety of the first-gen Americans running small businesses, which in turn gave way to the suburban anxiety of their children, who were enjoying the American Dream but still couldn’t get into the country club. “ ‘My wife won’t have sex with me! I’m gonna die tomorrow and nobody cares! Everybody’s trying to rip me off!’ ” says Sam Hoffman, creator of the delightful new website OldJews (see here), a growing archive of alter kocker humor. “These are the fears of somebody who’s one generation removed from the village and is now in America in the middle of the twentieth century.”

It was in that fifties moment, when self-effacement and self-abasement, paranoia, pessimism, and the dread of being conspicuous were defined as the cornerstones of Jewish humor, that Allen, still in his teens, cut his teeth professionally. Growing up in Brooklyn, at a time when a Jewish-comedy sensibility thrived in movies and nightclubs, on radio and TV variety shows, Allen began as a gag writer, selling one joke at a time, then landed a job writing for Sid Caesar.

Being faster and sharper than everyone else around you could make you funny, but also outsize and sometimes a little grotesque, or even a lot grotesque (think Uncle Miltie in a dress or Jerry Lewis in buck teeth). Allen’s more understated style opened up a new possibility. In the modern Semitic-comedic golden age that lasted from World War II until the end of the seventies, two Jewish personae ruled: the schnook and the bellower. Allen was the Atlas, or maybe the Job, of schnookdom (a class that also includes Albert Brooks and Richard Lewis); he could elaborate the archetype into a hundred different subcategories, from the philosopher-schlemiel (“Most of us need the eggs”) to the sad striver at romance to the joyless nudnik of Hannah and Her Sisters, always running in petrification to the doctor because of a spot on his back (“It was on your shirt”). On the other hand, the bellower (Mel Brooks; Zero Mostel; shades of Howard Stern; and many, many shades of Larry David) is what Allen describes as the bombastic neurotic— the guy with no volume control or sense of boundaries, the man so uncomfortable in his own skin, not to mention in the company of genteel Gentiles, that he threatens to unleash chaos just by saying the wrong thing, the only skill for which he has an unerring talent.