Standup Comic, 1964, 1968
United Artists, 1978
Format: Double LP
File under: Vintage wretchedness.
Inside the gatefold of this compilation of Woody Allen's early live comedy work, it's clear that Allen sent the press' Thesaurus into a tizzy even before he started making memorable films. (That said, several bits from these days went straight into Annie Hall.) Apparently, Time called him " A flat-headed, redheaded lemur with closely bitten fingernails," and Vogue broke out the baffling phrase "Soft as coffee."
Compared to the Allen who sulked through Stardust Memories, he's a confetti-and-chocolate fountain here. A delighted giggle crawls up in his throat as each bit reaches its absurd switchback of a punchline. Surely, Allen is the official comedian of victims and failures; Standup Comic offers a stark look at how much confidence and command that role takes.
As any early-career document should, this one captures a few hints of callowness, or at least things that don't serve Allen's tricky craft all that well. The anecdotal bit "Eggs Benedict" concerns a friend who's called, for no reason, Eggs Benedict. Some bits just seem far too obvious, even for those who love Allen's methods of surprise: "...a very reform Rabbi–a Nazi." Mercifully, those are usually just little detours on the way to something better.
Released not long after Annie Hall, the collection is clearly geared toward listeners who discovered Allen via his movies, bringing plenty neuroses for the Annie fans and silly nonsense for the Bananas fans. They won't be surprised to know that the first track of the first side is called "Private Life" (um, what else, Woody?), or that the bits obsess over Jewishness, New York, self-delusion, cowardice, and sexual failures.
That said, it's not just a parade of familiarities. In an Allen film, there's so much to ease the experience and hold the attention; these bits challenge in their own right, and it takes some effort and a good half-dozen listens, at least, to get used to following his narratives on a record. As an oral storyteller, the young Allen harnessed all the pacing and reason of a pinball machine: In "The Vodka Ad," he begins a tale about being propositioned to shoot a commercial, and within a couple minutes he's talking about Freudian analysis, hijacking an elevator, and being "breast-fed from falsies." Get distracted from one of these for just a second, and the rest of it gets a lot less funny, if not completely confusing.
On "Down South," he prods and pokes at language with an awkwardness that seems to predict the delivery of Todd Barry and Eugene Mirman. When Allen accidentally gets mixed up with some Klansmen (again, you sort of have to be following this), his life starts flashing before his eyes, and he recalls, for example, "fryin' up a mess... o'... catfish" before realizing these aren't his own memories (again, you sort of have to be following this).
Self-indulgent and difficult as he'd always be, the Allen of Standup had already figured out how to express his very specific quirks with instinctual rhythm. Adjusting to it takes some maddening effort, and that opens up a vivid spiral of eccentricity that most stand-ups will never match.
Current whereabouts: As always, at work on the next "Untitled Woody Allen Project."
Album availability: Rhino re-released the set on CD in 1999–but the tracks appear to be in a different order–and it's not hard to track down through web retailers.
Key track: "My Marriage."