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Sunday, December 1, 2013

Happy birthday, Woody Allen (we need the eggs!)

I have laughed a lot in my life. I don't know whose fault that is. My dad had a quick sense of humor;
he seemed to enjoy wordplay and certainly love the TV comedians of those days, Jackie Gleason, for instance, and the guys who would appear n Ed Sullivan. He even watched the evening cartoons with us sometimes, and he was particularly fond of Huckleberry Hound. So the laughing bit I come by honestly.

We were all big fans of Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, and the local Phoenix kids show that went on for decades, Wallace and Ladmo, which featured the many characterizations of the ubertalented phenomenon Pat McMahon in skits that had us in stitches. Later, in my seminary days, I was thrown into close contact with some guys who kept me roaring with their outrageous (usually raunchy, ethnic, scatological, sociopathic, and otherwise inappropriate) barbs, bon mots, and one-liners.

But I would have to say that from the mid-1970s to the present, the one fellow most responsible for my  laughter would have to be Allen Konigsberg, a nebischy Jewish redhead with a chip on his shoulder and an inferiority complex the size of Israel, who goes by the name of Woody Allen.

I fondly remember reading aloud his prose in books gleaned from his essays in the New Yorker and other periodicals, books with titles like Without Feathers and Getting Even, and sitting around a swimming pool with friends howling as we took turns reading our favorite parts. Allen started out as a joke writer for other comedians, went into standup comedy himself, and building on those successes went on to a long film career that includes both the funniest and (some of) the most profound cinematic pieces I've ever experienced. Anyone who can sit through the older comedies (like Play It Again, Sam, Bananas, Sleeper, or Take the Money and Run without laughing just needs to have their pulse checked. His great films of the 70s and 80s, like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Radio Days are less manic but still hilarious, while being more reflective. As for me, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy is one of my favorite films of all time, Broadway Danny Rose his most underrated, and I think that Crimes and Misdemeanors ought to be a required part of every morality and ethics course taught in Catholic colleges. and after all of those movies, I haven't even mentioned many of my favorites: the asphyxiatingly funny Love and Death, Gene Wilder's movie-stealing turn as the ewe-smitten doctor in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, and the sweet literary conceit of Midnight in Paris.

Sure, there are plenty of missteps too, but the high points are so high that the mistakes are easily forgiven. Spend a little time today on one of the dozens of websites dedicated to the funny and memorable quotes from Woody Allen's long career. I'm grateful for the oxygen the laughter he's generated in me for so long, probably prolonging my life for a few months. With any luck, I'll be able to spend some of that time rewatching my favorites, and measure my joy by the memories of the people and events these films conjure in the watching. I hope so. I need the eggs.

Video clips:
1. Counseling with the rabbi in Radio Days, because "the universe is expanding."
2 - closing scene of Annie Hall, the great old joke about the cousin who thinks he's a chicken.
3. Why life is worth living, from Manhattan.