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Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Observing Woody Allen's Next-Level Self-Deprecation in 'Woody Allen: A Documentary'

It’s no secret that sometimes comedy is taken a bit too seriously. Comedy obsessives love not just the jokes, but the mechanics and emotions of the comedy world. There are a raft of comedy documentaries exploring comedy and comedians, but do they really have anything significant to add to the discussion? This series looks at comedy documentaries and whether they’re interesting, insightful, and possibly even…funny?

Comedian is only one of the many jobs of Woody Allen, so it makes sense that a film about him is only partly about comedy. Woody Allen: A Documentary is an honest, thorough look at the life and career of one of the funniest minds on the planet.

Despite his notorious dislike of interviews and publicity, Allen is featured heavily in the documentary, discussing his career, touring his childhood neighborhood, and showing off the 60-year-old keyboard on which he still types all of his scripts. While Eddie Izzard’s prominence in Believe suggested that less favorable viewpoints might have been glossed over, Allen’s presence ensures this this will be a candid look at his life. No one would hate a reverential look at Allen more than Allen himself.

Most of the two-part, three-hour documentary, which originally aired on PBS last year, is devoted to Allen the filmmaker. But the beginning, running through his early comedy writing and stand-up years, is a treasure. According to the stories, he bombed constantly and hated doing stand-up, but his agents forced him because they knew he would one day be great (the fourth greatest ever, according to Comedy Central).

Even after he found his comedic footing, the early years weren’t all glamor. In the early 1960s, he could be found on TV boxing a kangaroo, or attempting to sing with a “talking” dog. The idea, he says now, was for him to “seep into the pores of the multitude.” It clearly worked.

The documentary isn’t afraid to discuss some of Allen’s less successful or well-received films, nor does it gloss over the infamous scandal involving his relationship with then-partner Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi. Allen now seems nonchalant about the proceedings, saying the publicity “took a little edge off my natural blandness,” but there are hints from relatives and co-workers at how difficult and chaotic that time was for him. (And time hasn’t quite healed all wounds, given his son Ronan’s much re-tweeted Father’s Day tribute. )

In a refreshing turn from Jamie Kennedy’s whining, Allen genuinely doesn’t care what other people think about him. In discussing his scandal, he says calmly, “Everybody had an opinion about my private life, which I felt they were all free to have and free to respond in any way that made them happy.” He’s even less interested in what people think of his films — his recent success was a “happy accident because you try and make a good film every time out and, for some reason, Midnight in Paris was affectionately embraced by people. I think that’s what they are.”

As the documentary goes on, Allen’s genuine self-deprecation becomes more impressive. At one point, while looking through his notes of film ideas, he describes a potential main character as “some little jerk like myself.” Despite his undeniable role as one of the greatest filmmakers ever he insists that he doesn’t “have the concentration or the dedication that you really need to be a great artist. I’d rather be home, watching the ball game.”

And so, in conclusion…

Is it interesting? Yes. Despite its long running time, the documentary never runs out of steam because its subject never seems to either.

What does it have to say about comedy? Allen seems to have a somewhat uneasy relationship with comedy. For him, it’s so easy that he writes jokes constantly without trying, and wishes he was better at tragedy. But he clearly respects the need for funny — the documentary ends with a telling quote from his film Stardust Memories. “You’re not Superman, you’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”

Is it funny? As is appropriate given the subject matter, its funny sometimes, when it feels right. Allen’s early stuff holds up so well that some of the one-liners he wrote for newspapers in the 1950s are twitter-worthy gags. Allen himself is still very funny, and the documentary includes old interviews with him that are brilliant.

Can I stream it on Netflix? Not yet, although apparently soon. For now, it comes on two separate DVDs, so brace yourself.

Any comedy documentaries you’d like to see discussed? Do let me know.

Elise Czajkowski is a freelance journalist in New York City. She’ll be probably be home watching Woody Allen movies all weekend, so come on over.

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  • Alexkolanko

    The quote at the end of the movie is from stardust memories not sleep

  • Boozinsusan

    Do you mean "typewriter" instead of "keyboard?"  Unless he is a magic person who writes scripts via keyboard…