In Praise Of: Manhattan Stories, Woody Allen, and Restraint

Woody-Allen-Poster-Web

One of my earliest memories is this: I’m about six years old. 1985. As usual, I’m watching TV in the living room early one evening, while my mom cooks something elaborate in the kitchen. It’s just us two. And, also as usual, I’m watching something too old for me. It’s a talk show—maybe a Donhue re-run, I can’t remember.

Woody Allen is the guest. He’s tiny and he’s wearing a suit. And he’s talking about his family, making joke after joke. The audience is howling. The host was cracking up. Eveeryone in that TV studio seemed to be having a great ole’ time, thanks to this little nebbishy guy.

Then Woody talked about being Jewish. And I decided to become a Jew. Within seconds, in fact, I decided that I wanted whatever power that guy on TV had. I wanted to make rooms full of people laugh at me. I wanted to wear suits on television shows.

So I stomped into the kitchen, wearing only my Hulk underoos and likely clutching a blanket. I asked my mom, “Are we Jewish?”

“No. We’re not really anything.”

And I launched full-bore into an epic temper tantrum. The plates shook, my friends. I was devastated I wasn’t Jewish, and I was furious with my mom for not … making me Jewish? Logic wasn’t the point. My fury at being excluded from this mysterious clan of funny, clever people was all-consuming. For about five minutes. Then mom placated me with a a spoonful of cheese sauce, and all was well.

Last year, I got to play in a mainstage show called Manhattan Stories: Improvised Woody Allen. It was my first primetime improv gig, and frankly, I was shocked to get cast. I was an ultra-noob at the time, and I thought I tanked in my audition. But somehow, some way, my childhood dream of being Jewish, if only for a couple of hours per week, was coming true.

To this day, Manhattan Stories remains the highlight of my improv career. As much as I adore the other things I’ve done, and the people with whom I’ve done them, this show remains the pinnacle. Why?

Here’s a hint. A video of take-outs from a show promotional video we made. Notice Jon Bolden appearing, often like an unwanted ghost of Woody Allen, in the background…

For starters, the cast. It was a great mix of the old guard improvisers, and a few newer people like me (though I was, by some measure, the rookiest of rookies in the line-up). These were great performers who gave themselves over to the world of Woody’s Manhattan and its inhabitants.

And then the shows! The shows, except for maybe one or two exceptions, were superb. The cast had worked so hard, and our focus was so sharp, that we didn’t crank out any real stinkers. On the contrary, a couple of the shows, including Opening Night, were downright excellent. (And this remains the only improv show my mom has had a chance to see.)

The directors, Jon Bolden and Valerie Ward, were on top of their game. Bolden did an admirable impression of Woody, and he hosted the show each night. And his sheer passion for this genre infected all of us. That’s the best thing a director can do.

Manhattan Stories got extended for an extra month, which isn’t common. The shows were selling out, and we got a couple of nice write-ups in the press (including my only improv reference from The Austin Chronicle: “…hilarious improv newbie, Andy Buck…”

But since it closed in September of 2012, Manhattan Stories hasn’t been revived. There have been a couple of opportunities to do a one-off performance here and there. But each time, Jon Bolden sort of politely shoos away the idea. At first, this confused and annoyed me: Why wouldn’t we perform this fun show again?

But now, I get it. There’s something to be said for “going out on top.” There’s something to be said for not diluting an experience through over-exposure. Ricky Gervais took The Office and Extras—two gigantic money machines—off the air after only two seasons because it was time. Dedication to one’s artistic standards is a virtue. (Hell, simply having artistic standards deserves a standing ovation.)

And then, of course, there’s Woody himself, ever-present in the rehearsals and chit-chats. The six-year-old Andrew wanted desperately to escape the sun-fried scorched earth of Arlington, Texas, and take up residence on the Lower East Side, or the Upper West Side, or the Upper East Side, or Central Park North. Or whatever the hell. Just get me to New York. And while you’re at it, make it 1977. Give me some wide lapels, some Hush Puppies, a gigantic orange cruiser. Let me putter out to the Hamptons on the weekend. Place me on a grimy subway car with a legless bum who’s playing a violin made out of an oil can. Seat me at one of the dark, raucous bars that, I imagined, all Broadway stars hang out at after their shows. Let’s fucking do this, Woody!

I struggle with Woody Allen the Man. Woody Allen the Director is one of the finest things to happen to American cinema. Who could argue that? Woody Allen the director has made a movie per year since Nixon was in office. Some hits, some misses, but even the misses are more enjoyable to watch than 90% of the shlock Hollywood shits into our theaters. He’s ancient now, Woody is, but he’s still writing and directing (and acting in) fine films.

But Woody Allen the Man slept with his adopted daughter, and then he dumped his wife to marry her.

What the hell am I supposed to do with that? The topic didn’t come up much at all during the Manhattan Stories rehearsals. But I thought of it regularly. Here we are—-here I am—-reveling in the comedic genius and brutal honesty of Woody Allen, but Woody Allen is off somewhere crawling into bed with his daughter. Ick. Douche.

Again, what was I supposed to do with those two rather … opposing viewpoints?

I suppose what I did was this: mostly I ignored it, and then I made sense of it. Sure, I thought about it now and then—“hey, this guy fucked his kid!”—but I continued to soak up his films and his writings. I didn’t separate art from artist. You cannot do that with someone whose persona is so integral to his work; even the films Woody’s not in reek of him. Instead of separating, I fused his art and his personal life together. I saw them as one. The same mind who thought it OK to marry his step-daughter can also create compelling films and hilarious jokes. Simple as that. No, it’s not ideal; we’d all like our favorite artists to be impeccably cool and not at all rapey.

But in order for me to pay homage to a guy who’s done what Woody has done, I had to accept that a complex mind can produce things equally awesome and repulsive. And what’s more, I saw just how broken Woody Allen is. We laugh at his self-effacing, self-loathing persona in his films, but that is actually himHe works on movies so often because he needs to make amends, he needs to define his worth.

Allen’s been quoted famously saying he’s never watched one of his films. Never once. Why? Because he says he’d hate them, that he’d obsess over mistakes he (thinks he) made. That is the trademark of someone who doesn’t think themselves worthy. No matter how hard he tries, Woody Allen will never make a movie good enough to convince himself he is loved.

BAH!

OK, OK, forgive me for that digression into armchair psychology. I couldn’t help myself. My big point is that for Manhattan Stories, I just launched myself into the world. New York. 1970 and 80s. Intellectuals. Philosophies. Big ideas. Small petty concerns. Shallowness. Sex obsession. Therapy. Familial discord. Infidelity and loyalty.

I’m still surprised I got into that show, frankly. I think making it into Manhattan Stories convinced me, subconsciously, to slow down my improv training. I thought that if I could make it into this show, with these people … well, then I’d learned all there was to know.

Heh.

Look, I’m going to wrap this up now before I write 1800 words about the “nature of knowledge.” Nobody wants to read that. Nobody is probably even reading this. I’ll never read another one of my blog posts after I finish it, never.

4 Comments

  1. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on September 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    Opening night of Manhattan Stories is on my all-time best-shows list (I actually have one).

  2. Paul Normandin on September 13, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I read it. I see you Andrew. Nice write up. Can you do 1800 words on the Restraint part now? 😉

  3. jonbolden on September 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Thanks, Andy, this is bringing back a lot of memories.

    Just to be perfectly clear, It’s not about going “out on top”. I don’t want to remount the show unless we can recreate the amount of attention and time to rehearsing as we did originally. Only so the show doesn’t suffer. I think it “needs” that time and practice to be good.

  4. Jordan T. Maxwell on September 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    Such a phenomenal show. I think I caught it one of the last two nights and was astounded and gave it a standing ovation at the end. I was in the back and nobody noticed and I think I probably stood up right in front of the camera…but you guys deserved it. I’ve never loved Woody as a director, but I think he’s a spectacular and uniquely American writer. And man, did y’all capture his voice.

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