Eric Lax met Woody Allen in 1972 and interviewed him extensively for his book "On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy." Since the book was pbulished in 1975, the two men have talked periodically about Allen's work, most recently in his penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. Lax: Literary interviews always seem to have two questions. One of them is: Why do you write? Allen: Because I like to write. I mean, that's what I do primarily. It is probably the most pleasurable part of even a film. I think I mentioned to you once that Tennessee Williams said, "It's a pain in the neck to put plays on. It would be nice to just write them and throw them in a drawer." That's how I feel. Doing approximately one file a year is my main source of living and what I do. When I have spare time, it's a treat for me to write something for The New Yorker or one of the other places that I publish. It's a pleasure for me to just sit home and write. It's what I would do for fun if I had another job. I would look forward to coming home in the evening and writing. Lax: Waht does a writing day consist of? Allen: I'm usually an early riser, habitually so from making films. So I get up, generally speaking, never later that 8 o'clock but usually before. I like to get working by 8:30 or quarter to 9. And if I don't have to go anyplace I can work happily all day long, though not straight through. I'll work a couple of hours and take a break and maybe practice the clarinet and go back to work. I like to work. I write prose in longhand on one of those classic legal pads. I like to lie on the bed and write. A play or a filmscript I generally write at a typewriter because there you're only writing dialogue or scene description. It's not anywhere near as meticulous. When I'm writing prose, I have the pencil or the pen and my nose is pressed to the pad and I'm writing very thin and meticulously; each word is meaningful and you're constantly putting in, taking out words, rearranging and crossing them out. Lax: On average, how long does it take you to write a piece? Allen: Approximately a week. If I could work all the time on it, it would take me a week or maybe not even that long. But what usually happens is that I will get an idea for something, and I'll be making a film, so I'll begin it on one weekend and then I can't come back to it until the next weekend. It may take me eight writing days. Lax: How much of life or experience shows up in your prose? Allen: Usually it's from stuff that I've read. I'll be sitting around and for one reason or another glance at an article on UFOs or something or finish a book, and immediately something amusing will hit me. Of the stories in Side effects , "The Shallowest Man" is the only one that actually happened to me. I went to visit a dying acquaintance in the hospital, and as I was sitting there talking with him I was thinking to myself that all the little nurses were so cute in their white suits, and they were all fussing over me because of my movies. And I was thinking, My God, I should come and visit this guy all the time. This is just wonderful, all these pretty little nurses are coming up and making conversation and there could be a hotbed of, like, sexual adventure and wonderful excitement. needless to say, I didn't do that, but it occurred to me. It was a typical sensitive thought under the circumstances. Four weeks later the person was dead. Lax: Do you get any material out of your dreams? Allen: No, I don't get anything. I hardly even remember them. I was amazed once that after Robert Altman had a dream that was to be the movie Three Women , he woke up excited over it and that day made a deal to make a movie of that dream. Like making a three-dream deal, you know? They have options on two other dreams. It was astonishing to me. Lax: Three of the 16 pieces in Side Effects are short stories, which is a new form for you. Do you have a favorite among them? Allen: My own favorite piece is . . . I can't think of the titles [takes a copy of the galleys] . . . "The Condemned." But it was much more of a personal achievement to have written "The Kugelmass Episode" or "Retribution" or "The Shallowest Man" and get them published because they're very different for me than anything i've written. In the past I really only write casuals for The New Yorker . I'd like to develop as a writer. It would be a nice thing for me personally if I could start to write more short stories. So I liked "The Condemned" because when I reread the stuff just before publication I had no reservations about it. It just seemed to work for me right down the line. But I feel good about the short stories because the Kenyon Review and The New Yorker wanted to publish them. I feel that I don't get published because of my name. It's not that I just send stuff to The New Yorker or anyplace else and they just say, "Oh, yes." They don't. I get my share of rejections. Lax: Does The New Yorker heavily edit you? Allen: It varies. They edit me certainly for grammer and punctuation because I'm illiterate that way, really. But sometimes I'll send a piece over there and they'll call up and say, "It's wonderful and it practically needs no editing in our opinion at all." Or another time I can send something over, and they'll say, "We think it's wonderful, but there are a half-dozen things that don't quite come off and we think you should consider changing." But they never insist. They're very good about that. They never force anything on you. Lax: Do you show your peices to anyone before submitting them? Allen: No. Lax: Do you laugh at your own jokes? Allen: Once in a while I'll laugh at one but it will bear no relationship to whether the audience will laugh or not. I'll laugh as it comes to me, as it emerges, and I'll think "Oh, God, this is so funny, wait until people read this." And I'll send it over to The New Yorker and they'll call me and say, "Yes, we like this story, but would it be possible to take out this line? We just don't think it quite comes off." And it will be that line. Lax: Who makes you laugh out loud? Allen: Well, for loud laughter of course it's the same two guys all my life, [Robert] Benchley and [S. J.] Perelman. You don't get to read that much humor. I enjoy reading those people who are naturally funny. I will read Peter De Vries and Fran Lebowitz and Art Buchwald and Russell Baker. I get a kick out of all those people. I'm amazed how they can do it, really, how some of these columnists can be as funny as they can be so often. These people occasionally make me laugh out loud and I appreciate them, but I could be reading almost anything by Perelman and find myself laughing out loud. Once in a while I'll hit a sentence or something that just kills me. Lax: There are so few truly funny writers, but people assume that because it makes you laugh, humor is easy to write. ALLEN: Right. But it's tough, it's very very tough if not impossible to do if you can't do it. [Laughs.] You know? If you can do it, it's not so tough. I don't find it difficult to do but it's only because of some lucky fluke of nature that I can do it, whereas I can't, whatever, play my clarinet with much feeling. For me that's very tough to do. But someone who's a natural can just play a scale and sound beautiful and they're always on key and on pitch. I have the same thing with comedy. LAX: Do you ever find yourself using a second or third generation of a joke you used before? ALLEN: That happens. Over the years you get a cluster of jokes on the same subject or the same concept expressed in a different way. I think if you combed through my books, you'd find that a lot. Once in a while you remember you've used it in another form, but more often than not I'll say to myself, That's a funny way of expressing that thought. Sometimes this will happen in a whole piece, and I'll send it over to The New Yorker and they'll say, "You've done this much better before." More often than not I'll accept their opinion on that and let it go. LAX: We've talked before about the problems you have finding appropriate endings for your films. Do you have problems with the endings of your pieces? ALLEN: Not nearly so much. The flexibility in writing is infinitely greater. In film you get one ending and if it doesn't work you have to think of another, get the actors back, shoot it, work it out -- it's really a nightmare. Whereas I can end a piece 15 times a day if I want. The medium is so much easier to work in. You erase stuff. [Laughs.] It's such a pleasure. In movies you can't do that. In movies you have stuff on film and it's irrevocable. It's so hard to adjust your little errors and mistakes. LAX: There is obviously a huge difference between prose pieces and film scripts. Is there a corresponding difference in the way you collaborate with Marshall Brickman on some of your films? Allen: I'm not the first to say this, but there's no correlation between writing for a spoken medium and writing prose. I can't fathom in my wildest dreams collaborating with someone to write prose, it's ridiculous. But when you're writing a film script you can have two guys in a room or be alone or have seven guys in a room as some films have and just pitch ideas and make notes because a film is written with the camera. If I'm sitting here with five collaborators and we're all pitching ideas for a scene between me and Diane Keaton, say, I could just take notes and work it out with the cameraman because what's interesting is behavior and the words don't mean much. So Marshall and I can wander around the city and pitch a million ideas and talk about character traits and things and eventually I get something down on paper because they have to budget something -- they need to know, will we be in a penthouse or in the desert? But I don't need anything on paper. I could talk over an idea with Marshall or think out something by myself and if I had Diane and Tony Roberts and I knew we were going to be in New York, then I could put the thing together so it would come out. Because it isn't writing. It's performing, or photography and performing, but it's not the same as writing. LAX: You talked earlier about wanting to develop as a writer. The three short stories seem the beginning of what your trend has been in movies, which is to move on from going strictly for a laugh. ALLEN: Yes. The casuals in the book are meant just for laughs, and the more laughs I can get from the reader, the more successful I think they are. And they comprise most of the book. But the short stories are humorous but don't go for relentless laughter at all. If I am lucky enough to develop I will probably write amusing short stories and hopefully an amusing novel. That would be what I could do, I think.
The thing I don't want to do is have years pass and just keep doing casuals all the time. I have been trying to grow in my films, not always to the encouragement or happiness of many of my fans; they would like me to do just out and out comic things. I can understand that and I'm sure I will do that again. But it's more stimulating for the person doing things -- it may be more tedious for the people that go to the movies -- to mix it up and experiment and, you know, strike out a little. As long as you can get by that emotionally and not lose confidence and not hurt the film companies.
It's different in publishing because no one gets hurt if I sit home and write a heavy short story or serious short story, nobody loses any money. In films the problem becomes very complex because I spend millions of United Artists' dollars to make a film, and I'm trying to develop as a more dimensional film maker, and they have to bear with and the public has to bear with it. From a commercial point of view there are many people who like that in a certain sense. More people came to see Annie Hall and Manhattan than the more out and out laugh pictures that I did. I'm not saying they're better pictures, but more people came to see them. These are things that are on your mind when you're making a film. I can tear up a piece of writing and throw it away. But with a film, I've already spent their 5 million bucks or 3 million bucks or whatever, and something has to go into the theaters. LAX: You are a very eclectic reader. Who have you been reading lately? ALLEN: I'm an undisciplined reader. I do mix it up. The last weeks I've been on a poetry kick. I've been reading Carl Sandburg. I've read quite a bit of him before on my binges of poetry reading. I love his stuff. It's the style. I was a big Walt Whitman fan, and William Carlos Williams. I like American idiom, that stuff that oozes American images and speech. It always sounds very pretty to me. I always come back to the poets I've grown up liking: Eliot, Yeats, Sandburg, Emily Dickinson. I've also been reading some Joyce Carol Oates and enjoying it. Then I read Anthony Summers' book Conspiracy which, you know, gripped me. I couldn't put it down. I was riveted to the page. Completely fascinated. Then the usual stuff. I'm always picking out a little morbid piece here and there to focus on. LAX: Do you ever write poetry? Allen: No, I wish I could. I think that I could write poetry if only I knew how. [Laughs.] That is to say, I've even thought about asking someone to teach me the fundamentals of it. Because, I know this sounds absurd, I feel there's a connection between comic writing and poetry. The both have so much to do with delicate interplays of words and rhythm, so much so in comedy that I can only liken it to poetry in a certain way, though it isn't poetry. You can express things in short form in poetry, which I think I could do. And I wish some poet would sit down with me for a period of time and give me a little help. I've just had no education in it. But if I could just get a little help about technique I think it might be something that I might be able to do. LAX: Are there any books someone else has done that you wish you had written? ALLEN: Like everybody else I would have liked to have written the Russian novels. They would have been the most fun for me, that would have been great. I've never thought of wanting to have written something else. I've never thought, Oh, boy, if only I had written Ulysses or Saul Bellow's works or something. Incidentally, I put Bellow at the very top of achievement in terms of comic writing. I think when you read something like Humboldt's Gift the wit is so cascading, so wonderful, it reminds me of the feeling I got when I first saw Mort Sahl, of just that endless invention in terms of great wit, great comedy, great comic notions one after the other. LAX: You parody a broad range of subjects, from philosophers to food critics. Is there one subject you particularly enjoy taking off on? ALLEN: I enjoy parodying more academic stuff, more intellectual stuff. I still can't seem to stop people from debating whether or not I'm an intellectual. I've said so many times that I'm not, that I don't make any pretext to it, that I make a tiny bit of literacy go a long way. And people will write that I'm an intellectual despite this. Then people who are genuine intellectuals read that and get annoyed, correctly so, and say, "Who is this twerp who thinks he's an intellectual and represents himself this way when he's not?" I have an ear for mimicry, that's all. It's not different in a certain sense than when a guy imitates Humphrey Bogart or Marlon Brando. And then people will write and wonder whether I really understand those things that I'm writing about when I make references to various books or poems or whatever, and they wonder whether I've read them, and if I have, do I really understand them? Or am I just being facile and superficial? And yes! That's it! I don't know how else to put it. I'm being facile and superficial and just entertaining in those things, that's all they're meant to be. LAX: Are you still obsessed with, for want of a better term, the human condition, and the inevitability of death? ALLEN: Yeah, I still wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat over the human condition and my mortality in particular. [Laughs.] That stuff all continues to amaze and obsess and depress me. I'm hoping that I'll be able to write that out of my system and then go on to things that are more enjoyable for people. The next movie I do, I would really like to get off my own obsessional themes and do, you know, something -- a jazz musical, or murder mystery, or political satire -- something that in no way deals with the poignancy of failed relationships, mortality, aging, the self-conscious obsession with the darker side of life, you know, all of those things that I am, as I say, a fourth-rate mind on and tedious about. [Laughs.] I think I've gotten a certain amount of mileage out of that and have, you know, shed no real light on it. I still feel as I look at my movies that my contribution is that of the whiner. I let out this great cosmic whine, this nagging -- you know, it's not heroic, it's not unheroic, it's just an unpleasant whine about, "Oh, God, why do we have to go through all this?" And I feel that I've got to stop whining about it and get on to another mode. LAX: The other question that always seems to be asked of writers is: What matters? ALLEN: To me, the same thing all the time. My obsession has been the utter tragedy of the human condition. [Laughs.] It's an interesting thing when you see that subject elaborated on, filtered through or created upon by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Kafka and people like that; it's one thing. Then you see someone like myself who is interested or obsessed with those themes but you get them filtered through an infinitely less intelligent, infinitely less literate, less gifted person with a completely different sensibility, a sensibility of films and the streets of New York. In a sense it is almost not perceived as the same subject matter because the sensibility dealing with it is so different.
It's such a downer for me, such a disappointment for me when I see the subject of, you know, the tragedy of the human condition filtered through my sensibility as opposed to filtered through, you know, Tolstoy's [laughs] for example. It's so absurd and ridiculous that it could even be considered a legitimate concern of mine. I mean, I should really be doing stuff about, you know, petting on the first date [laughs] instead of trying to do that stuff. Because those guys were so formidable and so bright and so gifted and so in touch with the deepest emotions and the deepest, most profound ideas. And when you see a kind of little superficial jerky version of it by a pop comic film maker or casual writer, it gets a little discouraging to me. [Laughs.]
But that's my obsession still, that's what matters to me. It does not matter to me really a lot whether the president is Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, though I'd prefer Jimmy Carter. But it doesn't really matter a huge amount. What matters to me is that no matter who gets elected president, you know, I'm still going to be 45 in December. [Laughs.] Neither of them can do anything about that for me.