By Woody Allen
Random House, 160 pages, $21.95
THE INSANITY DEFENSE: THE COMPLETE PROSE
By Woody Allen
Random House, 342 pages, $15.95
Like every other kind of writer, humorists go in and out of fashion. Nobody seems to read Stephen Leacock anymore, and I wonder about Robert Benchley—both are probably too mild for our visceral time—but then why is H. Allen Smith, the Tex Avery of humorists, likewise remanded to dusty stacks?
Meanwhile, the inspired, quietly daffy P.G. Wodehouse is clearly on the ascendancy, with Overlook’s wonderful series of hardcover reissues, new anthologies and an excellent recent biography.
And now, with his first collection of pieces in over 25 years, Woody Allen is reclaiming the attention that his recent movies have done so much to dissipate. Even if you’re a fervent reader of The New Yorker, there’s new material here—the first eight pieces in Mere Anarchy have never been published before.
The new collection also serves as a referendum on S.J. Perelman, the single biggest influence on Mr. Allen’s humor writing, as opposed to his films, which have a slightly dour, social-realist mood largely absent from his stories, which are more or less purely absurd.
Like Perelman, the inspirations in the new collection are primarily genre parody: Raymond Chandler noir, police procedurals or the conflation of high-brow intellect and low-end culture, as in the Friedrich Nietzsche diet book: “Fat itself is a substance or essence of a substance or mode of that essence. The big problem sets in when it accumulates on your hips.”
Like Perelman, a lot of the humor derives from archaic wordplay (“What obtains?”, “If you’ll stop your tergiversating … ”) and references you easily catch if you own a complete set of Black Mask magazine from the 1930’s, or keep constant company with Turner Classic Movies: “The blow caused my middle ear to ring like the Arthur Rank logo …. ”
“Sing, You Sacher Tortes” consists of a lunatic proposing a musical based on the intellectuals of fin de siècle Vienna. The opening takes off from “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls, as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Adolf Loos sing “Form Follows Function.” Alma Mahler torches “I’d Love to Be Groped by Gropius,” and there’s a great comic number for Freud called “Just Say the First Thing That Comes to Mind.”
Bill Maher thinks his references are hip? No, this is hip: “Down at headquarters, I chatted with Ben Rogers, my mentor and the man who solved the Yuppie Restaurant Murder Case, where the victims were shot and then lightly dusted with lime and fresh mint.”
For writing like this, rhythm is critical—so is the snapper at the end of the sentence: “Just yesterday, after finally filching some measure of lebensraum, I was about to consummate the sacred act of love with my one and only profiterole when your workers picked me up and moved me so they could hang a sconce.”
This is funny, not because of the picture created by the words, but because of the clash of language. “Hang a sconce” has the “K” sound that the two old vaudevillians from The Sunshine Boys insisted was a fail-safe component of laughs. Mr. Allen obviously agrees, because “sconce” shows up a couple of times as a one-word punch line.