Becoming Woody Allen
by Lou Stone Borenstein
I started writing and performing comedy five years ago. I was perfectly fine before then. Once my life as a comedian began, things turned fast. In the exciting, stimulating, confusing, frustrating, and painful five years of what only a master exaggerator would call a career, I’ve noticed myself changing. I find myself more nervous in social situations, less interested in meeting others, less interested still in talking to others, ironically opposed to smart people, annoyed by all religious and nonreligious beliefs, and in dire need of contributing to a world that is mediocre at best. In other words, I’ve become more and more similar to that all-time great recluse: Allan Stewart Konigsberg -- a man so hermetic that, since 1952, he’s made sure the entire world calls him by a different name.
Woody Allen and I used to have few things in common. We were both born New York Jews, neither of us ever having requested the kosher option. That, and an appreciation for comedy from a young age, are just about the only things we shared. (He and I both also love to play an instrument, but if you ever heard my musical talent, you would immediately classify it as “an appreciation for comedy.”) Part of our birthright is our common love for “New Yawk” as he, and arguably any true New Yorker, calls it. He glorifies the city in his movies and I do it in the only way the average Joe (more likely a Jacob around these parts) is able to display his love: with overwhelming arrogance. Sadly for most of us, our self-confidence as New Yorkers never translates into courage as anything else. How useful it would be to shift that confidence over to the areas of dating or making hamburgers.
Mr. Allen most famously mastered the part of the confidence-lacking nervous character, out-stammering Jimmy Stewart, Bob Newhart, and coming in a close second to Elmer the Fudd. (What is a Fudd, anyway? Woody would surely tell you it’s an ethnic slur. And a superfluous one at that, along the lines of Shlomo the Jew.) I’ve never met Mr. Allen, so I don’t know how perfectly his stage and screen persona reflects his real personality. But I do know that it is becoming more and more a reflection of mine. Despite my newfound nervousness around others, I have not yet developed a stammer, although any more second-guessing of the words coming out of my mouth can only lead to some new form of gibberished English, which is still preferable to the Queen’s English, which contains no Yiddish.
A side effect, or perhaps root cause - who can tell the difference anymore? - of this nervous character is an absolute dread of other people. I now find few things more painful than having to tolerate their conversations and overly sensitive rules of politeness. For some reason, it’s rude to walk away from another person citing boredom as a reason. Even the dentist who yanks your tooth out with tools from Machiavelli’s basement doesn’t expect you to feign interest in the simultaneous one-sided conversation that occurs. Every partygoer runs the risk of being sucked into dialogue worse than a root canal. It’s a universal problem to which I’ve simply become more risk-averse. When there’s a gathering, I am filled with the desire to avoid it, even if there’s cake. First-rate babka is never worth second-rate conversation.
Often the worst conversation comes from those who purport to be best at it. Mr. Allen has made a habit of poking fun at intellectual types, especially those that expect his participation when he’d much rather watch the Knicks game (an example that dates back to a time when the team was something to celebrate). Yet we all know his perfectly specific accusations come from a place of his own intellectualism, a place located somewhere between the cerebellum and the horseradish that’s still stuck from Passover 1957. As for me, I was on my way to becoming one of those very intellectuals. Good grades at good schools and a work ethic toward success had me on that track. Instead, I now make fun of the proverbial eggheads. And, much like college flunkout Allen, I can’t help but look down my nose at anyone who isn’t capable of both discussing Freud and screaming at the ref for his latest bad call. Never at the same time, though, as that would discredit the complaint and also raise strange questions about one’s feelings toward men with whistles.
Religion has often been a core component of Mr. Allen’s work, very publicly questioning different beliefs and the idea of believing itself. I’m sure that I will too reach a point of similar doubt and curiosity, but not until I figure out the mystery of car ownership in Manhattan. (Coincidentally, free parking on Sundays may or may not be a sign from above.) While neither of us actually hate anyone for their beliefs, I do find myself sharing his inevitable distaste for everyone who isn’t Jewish plus everyone who is more Jewish than us, the sum total of which equals the entire population of the world. Luckily, we will both stay out of trouble as neither of us have any desire to ever accost another person, even on a day of rest when they are forbidden from fighting back.
Another development that now brings Mr. Allen and myself closer is my increasing need to create a body of work due to the increasing likelihood that I will die someday. He’s given the world 44 screenplays, three stand-up albums, and gossip galore for most of the Nineties. To date, I’ve given the world zero screenplays, zero albums, and not only do I provide nothing to gossip about, but I am about as interested in spreading gossip as I am in spreading syphilis (which, to dispel any rumors that may be floating around, I do not have). Mr. Allen and I could both do without the world of gossip. Him because it intrudes on his personal life and myself because none of it is ever about me.
Also, I recently started wearing glasses. That must mean something.
So, why does life as a comedic writer and performer seem to inevitably lead to this Woody-like personality? Perhaps it’s because the comedian is really just a psychoanalyst evaluating an entire world, one that hasn’t paid its bill in six months. Or a masochist sizing up the human populace with the intent to destroy it via witty observations followed by well-timed pratfalls. Or a narcissist spewing his deepest predicaments out to as many people as possible in the hopes of finding an answer or at least a ride home. Whatever the reason, I gladly embrace becoming more similar to one of my great comic heroes in the only way he, and now I, know how: with insatiable neuroses.