Woody Allen is an anomaly in cinematic history. Aside from Chaplin, no other filmmaker has left such a unique mark on film history both as a character and an auteur. Much like Chaplin, Allen appears, even stars, in most of his films, always playing the same neurotic character, and bringing mucho of the comedy to his films. His style is infectious. So much so, that even when Allen is not in his films it’s clear which actor is playing his stand-in. Since the start of his career in 1965 Allen has made nearly one film a year in a wide range of genres from zany bizarre comedies like Sleeper, to more grounded romances like Manhattan, and even some full on dramatic films like Match Point, though mostly remaining within his signature comedy-drama blend. Two of his films, which are perhaps best representative of his comic style, are Annie Hall (1977) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In the following essay I would like to examine the nature of comedy within each of these films and the way in which Allen approaches comedy as both a director and a character. As with all Allen’s work, Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters share a sort of comic thesis statement about the nature of life. Like early filmmaker Mack Sennet, Allen understood that there was something inherently comedic about death. For Senett this comedy often came in the narrow escape from death, but for Allen the comedy was in inescapability of death; eventually everyone dies.
This idea is perfectly embodied in the second scene of Annie Hall. In this scene Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, is reflecting on his childhood and a young Alvy sits in a doctor’s office. His mother explains to the doctor that he’s been depressed. When asked why the young Alvy explains that he read that the universe is expanding which means that someday it will crack and fall apart and the world will come to an end. Allen’s mother says that he has stopped doing his homework to which Allen replies, “What’s the point?” The Doctor smiles at him and responds, “It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy, and we’ve gotta try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here” (Annie Hall 1977).
This morose idea of “if-we’re-all-going-to-die-then-what’s-the-point?” is the driving force for Allen’s films both as an authorial thesis and as a mantra for his on screen persona. In Hannah and Her Sisters Allen’s character, Mickey Sachs, after finding out that he does not have brain cancer, runs from a hospital skipping and jumping only to stop moments later with the realization that maybe he isn’t going to die today but eventually he will. “I’ve got to get some answers,” he says to his producer as he quits his television job, “Otherwise I’m going to do something drastic” (Hannah and Her Sisters). This quest for answers also creates a lot of the comedy in Allen’s films as his characters go to great lengths in their search for the truth.
Also seen in these two films, as is typical with much of Allen’s work, is their resistance of any specific genre. In his review of the film, critic Roger Ebert wrote “[Hannah and Her Sisters] is not a comedy, but it contains big laughs, and it is not a tragedy, although it could be if we thought about it long enough” (Ebert 1986). Though I disagree with Ebert in his assertion that the film is not, overall, a comedy, I think he is correct that the film exists in a sort of grey area between genres.
Even looking more specifically at the different types of comedies, as defined by film historian Gerald Mast, both Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters resist specifics. Of the eight comic forms defined by Mast in his book The Comic Mind, each films seems to fit more than one type. Aspects of both films fall into the Picaresque comedy with Allen as the “Picaro Hero.” The function of the picaro hero, Mast writes, is to “bounce off the people and events around him” providing comedy in his interactions with the people who populate his world (Mast 7). Though Annie Hall is, story wise, a film about Allen’s character trying to make sense of a failed relationship with a woman named Annie Hall, the picaro element is still clearly there in the interactions between Allen and the rest of the world. Like Don Quixote, Allen’s character is constantly finding himself as the butt of some joke, forced to interact with people he would call idiots. It is in watching Allen suffer through these interactions that a key portion of his comedy emerges: the comedy of his on screen persona.
After watching numerous movies with this same neurotic death obsessed character the audience develops a certain fondness for him and each situation takes on a new level of hilarity. Watching the movies is almost like having a conversation with a friend about another mutual friend. Your friend says, “You’ll never guess what happened to so-and-so,” and immediately upon hearing the situation you already start laughing, imagining how the friend will react. It’s the same with Woody Allen. There’s a shot in Hannah and Her Sisters where the camera shows a close up of a holographic post card of Jesus Christ on the cross. When the Camera moves left the crucified Jesus opens his eyes, and when the camera pans right he closes them. Watching this shot, which comes within a montage of Allen’s character seeking a religion to convert to, the audience already knows that they’re seeing things from Allen’s point of view. Even before it happens they know that in moments Allen is going to shrug and shake his head at this. Thus, when the camera does pull back to reveal Allen staring at the postcard and shaking his head, the gag is heightened by the anticipation of the payoff – a sort of comedic suspense has been created.
Another example of this picaro style is in Annie Hall when Allen’s Alvy character is approached by a fan, who has seen him on late night television. Allen, disgusted by the goonish man, struggles to get away until at last he is saved by Annie’s arrival. Here the comedy comes from watching Allen’s character deal with a bizarre man who populates the world he lives much how Chaplin’s the little Tramp was always bumping into people in his film. It is funny watching Allen deal with people like this, partially because of how he reacts but also because he’s a snob. It’s like the old gag of the rich woman in the nice dress getting a pie to the face. It’s funny on the one hand because there is a certain satisfaction in taking someone of a higher status and lowering them, but it’s also funny in how they react. Allen’s character could react dramatically in anger or tears, but instead his character always resorts to snide sarcasm that flies under the radar of his assailant. “I need a large polo mallet,” he moans as he tries to escape the fan in this scene.
Then, in this same scene, upon Annie’s arrival the comedy style suddenly shifts into one of Mast’s other types, the goof comedy. Mast explains that this style of comedy, which he believes to be unique to film, persists mainly of characters riffing and improvising bits, like the quick rapid-fire spoken jokes of Groucho Marx. In certain moments Allen’s character falls into this, quickly spewing a series of jokes. As Annie steps out of the cab he says, “Where’ve you been? I’m here with the cast of the Godfather…What did you come by way of the Panama Canal…Sweety I’m here with two guys named Cheech” (Annie Hall). This same style is also present in a few scenes in Hannah and Her Sisters though on a more subdued level as Allan plays a more minor role in the film.
These two films by Allen also show a love of the absurd. True, direct forays into the absurd are rarer in Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters than, say, Bananas (1971) but they are certainly still there. In the classroom scene at the opening of Annie Hall Allen observes his old elementary school class and then asks each of the students what they are doing today. “I’m a tire salesman,” answers one. “I used to be a heroine addict, now I’m a methadone addict,” replies a bug eyed little boy. The camera then cuts to a timid mousy looking girl who replies simply: “I’m into leather.” In a subtle gag in Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen unpacks a bag full of things he’ll need to be a newly converted Catholic: A bible, a Madonna, a crucifix, oh and, of course, a bag of wonder bread and a jar of mayonnaise. Allen loves to catch us by surprise with little throwaway gags like this which really have very little to do with the story but are still quite entertaining.
The final type of comedy which Allen’s films fall into is, as explained by Mast, the comedy of the tragic hero in which “the central figure eventually discovers the errors he has been committing in the course of his life” (Mast 8). Mast notes that this story type is also used by many tragedies (Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, Othello) but goes on to say that the “difference between a comic and non-comic plot depends entirely on whether the film creates a comic ‘climate’ in the interest of arousing laughter or a non-comic one in the interest of arousing suspense, excitement, and expectation” (Mast 8). This insight perfectly explains why many of Woody Allen’s films, though not always hilarious, are most certainly comedies. In Annie Hall the discovery of the character is in Alvy’s understanding of relationships and their worth even when they fail, while in Hannah and Her Sisters the discovery is Mickey’s realization that life is worth living, even if, as he puts it, “you only get to go around once” (Hannah and Her Sisters). Each of these films is driven by the characters quest for answers to this question. Admittedly, Hannah and Her Sisters with its ensemble cast cannot be said to be only about Allen’s character, yet he does provide the center for the film. Although each of the film’s characters is lost in life and, in the course of the film, struggles the make sense of the world, Allen’s character is perhaps the most lost so it is his revelation which is the most impactful and, in the course of the film, marks a turning point for all the characters.
With all these different things at play – the absurd, the picaro hero, the tragic hero – one might imagine that the comedy of the films gets lost in the shuffle. Far from it. Though neither film has a high gags per minute count, the comedy which is there is impactful and has a staying power not found in the humor of a lot of gag based comedies. By taking a comic idea, the inherent comedy of death, which also has inherently tragic elements, Allen is able to make light of the human condition while also taking it very seriously. Yes, his films seem to say, someday everyone will die. Yes, sometimes that certainly puts a damper on things, and yes, ultimately, everything is pointless, but that doesn’t mean life isn’t worth it. At the end of Annie Hall, to make this point, Allen’s character reflects on an old joke he once heard: “This guys goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doctor, my brother is crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ The doctor says, ‘Well why don’t you turn him in?’ The guys says, ‘Well I would but I need the eggs.’ Well I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships, now. They’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs” (Annie Hall). As mentioned earlier, the difference between comedy and tragedy is ultimately in whether or not the film creates an environment that promotes laughter or tears. Aware of this Allen literally ends it with a joke, because at the heart of all his philosophical musings about the fleeting nature of life, really, he just wanted to make you laugh.
Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists, 1977. DVD.
Ebert, Roger. "Hannah and Her Sisters." Chicago Sun Times [Chicago] 7 Feb. 1986: n. pag. Print.
Hannah and Her Sisters. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Dianne West, Barbara Hershey. Orion Pictures Corporation, 1986. DVD.
Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind; Comedy and the Movies. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1973. Print.