Woody Allen

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  • Topic: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Zelig
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woody allen
Woody Allen is a challenge for philosophy. Why? Laughter
is of course not one of the most fundamental but is never-
theless one of the most controversial and intriguing topics
in philosophy, in whose analysis various philosophical dis-
ciplines have to work together—philosophical anthropol-
ogy, philosophical sociology, and aesthetics proper. This
bestows on comedians a certain philosophical interest—the
more so since, “while comedy may be the most widely ap-
preciated art, it is also the most undervalued,”1 an injustice that calls for redress by philosophy. Philosophers have to
operate with abstract concepts; but it is reality, or at least a certain interpretation of reality, that has to show whether
the concepts developed are fruitful. Therefore, every phi-
losopher interested in elaborating a general theory of laugh- ter is well advised to study those works that make people
laugh, and Woody Allen can claim to make a certain type of
people in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (mainly Western, particularly European intellectuals) laugh
as nobody else can. It may well be that a careful analysis of his work will contribute to an improvement of the main the-
ories of the comic developed till now. What are the causes
of Allen’s success?
First, Woody Allen has succeeded in impersonating a
certain type of comic hero, and it well befits philosophy to try to find the general features common to Victor Shaka-
popolis in What’s New, Pussycat?, Jimmy Bond in Casino
Royale, Virgil Starkwell in Take the Money and Run, Field-
ing Mellish in Bananas, Allan Felix in Play It Again, Sam,
the jester Felix, Fabrizio, Victor Shakapopolis again, and
the loquacious and fearful sperm in Everything You Always
Wanted to Know about Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), Miles

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© 2007 University of Notre Dame Press

Woody Allen: An Essay on the Nature of the Comical

Monroe in Sleeper, Boris Grushenko in Love and Death,
Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, Isaac Davis in Manhattan,
Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, Andrew Hobbes in A
Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Leonard Zelig in Zelig,
Danny Rose in Broadway Danny Rose, Mickey Sachs in
Hannah and Her Sisters, Sheldon Mills in Oedipus Wrecks,
Cliff Stern in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Nick Fifer in
Scenes from a Mall, Max Kleinman in Shadows and Fog,
Gabe Roth in Husbands and Wives, Larry Lipton in
Manhattan Murder Mystery, Lenny Winerib in Mighty
Aphrodite, Joe Berlin in the musical-like Everyone Says
I Love You, Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry, Ray
Winkler in Small Time Crooks, CW Briggs in The Curse
of the Jade Scorpion, Val Waxman in Hollywood Ending,
David Dobel in Anything Else, Sid Waterman in Scoop—
and even to those persons in some of the films directed by
Allen whom he did not play himself but who nevertheless
share some of the aura of the comic hero usually repre-
sented by him: Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity, for example,
plays Lee Simon in a Woody Allen-like manner (to name
only one feature, he stammers). Obviously, there are huge
differences between, to name only two, Victor Shakapopo-
lis and Harry Block; however, that they have something in
common is due not only to the fact that Allen’s repertoire as an actor is quite restricted (therefore Block seems less mean than probably was originally intended) but even more to
the desire of his public to recognize in the roles he plays
something of what they associate with the Woody Allen
persona—who, owing to Stuart Hample, for some years
even became a cartoon character. Even if Allen were able to
play a figure like Judah Rosenthal in Crimes and Misde-
meanors or Chris Wilton in Match Point convincingly, his

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© 2007 University of Notre Dame Press

Vittorio Hösle

audience would be frustrated—whereas the public was
perhaps surprised, but not frustrated, when Henry Fonda
played the villain in Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in
the West. In the following I call the...
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