The better-than-you’d-think-it’d-be American Masters two-part documentary on Woody Allen that premiered on PBS last November portrayed a Woody gone not a little bit soft. Oh sure, ask him and he’d tell you that life is stupid because we’re all going to wind up dead and that existence is absurd; all that “real adolescent, fashionable pessimism,” as Diane Keaton’s character in Manhattan puts it. Last night, at 92nd Street Y, Woody (what, I should refer to him as “Allen”?) joined his old buddy Dick Cavett onstage in front of a packed house, moderated by the Columbia film professor Annette Insdorf, to talk about one of the softest subjects you could have found: radio. (The discussion was followed by a screening of 1987’s Radio Days, one of the most explicitly nostalgic of this unrepentant romantic’s films.) So, you basically had two guys in their mid-70s—for all the doom and gloom, Woody is only 76, and you have to stifle laughter when you learn, in the documentary, that this famous hypochondriac’s parents lived to 94 and 100—talking about the good ol’ days when, as Woody put it, “you turned [the radio] on when you got up in the morning and it was with you all day.” You know, like Twitter.
They talked about Jack Benny, Woody saying that he’s “still great,” the “t” over-articulated in his style. Insdorf noted that Benny, whose original last name was not Benny, is the only person to have stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for work in three different media: film, television, and radio. They talked about Orson Welles. At one point, betraying his formidable learnedness, Woody referred to the “propensity of the medium.” They talked about Bob and Ray, and about Fred Allen—no relation: Allen was not his original last name (it was Sullivan). They talked about the most recognizable voice of them all, Arthur Godfrey, whose radio theme song, they did not mention, was “Seems Like Old Times,” which is sung at the end of Annie Hall.
They also talked of their shared love of magic (shared also by Welles and Cavett’s old boss Johnny Carson). Cavett spoke poignantly of growing up in Nebraska—Lincoln, not Omaha, as he corrected Woody after Woody referred to Omaha for the second time (shades of this)—and getting magic tricks in the mail from Max Holden’s and wondering, “someday, will I be in New York City?” (“I did get to New York: Max was dead, and the shop was closed.”) Cavett recalled listening to the radio drama series Grand Central Station and imagining boarding a train bound for Grand Central Station, and proceeded to take out a piece of paper and read from the introduction to the show:
Drawn by the magnetic force of the fantastic metropolis, day and night great trains rush toward the Hudson River, sweep down its eastern bank for 140 miles, flash briefly by the long red row of tenement houses south of 125th Street, dive with a roar into the two-and-one-half-mile tunnel which burrows beneath the glitter and swank of Park Avenue, and then [and here Cavett paused while some older audience members said the words with him] Grand Central Station! Crossroads of a million private lives! Gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily!
It was a poignant reminder that there actually were more unlikely places from which to shoot to success than middle-class postwar Midwood. Cavett was the better magician; Woody said he practiced for untold hours in front of a three-way mirror but didn’t get good. “I never did anything for anybody,” he remarked, in a line just begging to be yanked out and extrapolated from. “It was the mirror and me.”
People laughed at many of Woody’s not-funny lines, and laughed extremely hard at his somewhat-funny lines. You got the sense that what he always said was true: that his jokes are contrived things; that, yes, he’s incredibly good at them, and can write jokes at will and can improvise and be hilarious at will, but it’s not actually his default setting. For large portions of the discussion, which lasted over an hour, Woody was, in effect, the straight man to Cavett’s funny man. Perhaps the line of Woody’s that got the biggest laugh was when he imagined Cavett’s childhood, “growing up in the dark, Nebraska, Omaha—goyim.” I laughed, but it felt fake, playing to the crowd. You could tell when he was being genuinely funny, as when Cavett recalled a time the two had gone to the Stage Deli and Woody, adopting a Yiddish accent, insisted that Cavett “jus’ try dis sahndveech.” “I know you remember that,” Cavett said to Woody. “I remember the sandwich,” Woody replied. That is Woody humor. It’s when he was trying.
We forget that “Woody Allen” is schtick; that he bought his first pair of thick, black-framed glasses because a guy he wrote jokes for wore them; that Allen is his given first name. At the end of a long day, he is the avuncular man with mostly white hair and rumpled corduroy pants calmly sitting on a stage and, as always, serenading us with the wonderful news that it seems like old times. Great work if you can get it.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.