If you haven’t already seen this bit of stand-up please don’t read what follows below without watching the clip or listening to the audio; I’ve embedded it and everything. In the text below the clip I talk about the routine and probably ruin it for you. SPOILERS as those internet people like to say.
Audio version, delivery slightly more confident, audience more enthusiastic but pay off a little less shocking: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=94729656
Whilst the endless shelves of cash in DVD’s that sprout from superstore shelves around Christmas every year might suggest otherwise stand-up comedy is probably best experienced live. Surrounded by strangers indulging in the communal experience of seeing someone captivate a room or die on their arse probably beats grainy YouTube videos but this grainy old clip from the mid sixties made me laugh and genuinely startled in a way that very little live stand-up has.
Watching the recent “Woody Allen: A Documentary” it was interesting to learn that he absolutely hated stand-up; despite a natural knack for simply being funny he was terrified of performing in front of a crowd. The young Woody just wanted to write gags, but his management knew they could only make big bucks by putting him upfront and on the stage. You can see in his performance – in the way his body twist and curls around the mic stand – channelling his obvious discomfort into comedy. This person doesn’t really want to be here but he is, he has to be: these jokes won’t tell themselves. If Woody was young now, would he even need to take to the stage? He could probably jump from gagsmith (in 2012 on Twitter most likely) to scriptwriter without the pain of the stage in between. Luckily for us he was born in 1935 and we’ve got this gag.
The gag for most of its telling seems like a shaggy dog story, a tale of bizarre mistaken identities delivered with quips and internal call-backs, until the punch line. The punch line that literally feels like a punch, the punch line that turns it all around, where the funny little Jew with the specs and nervous tics turns the audience’s laughter back on itself. The audience has laughed at the protagonists antics driving around upstate New York with a Moose tied to his car, they’ve laughed at the antics of the Berkowitzes and the confusion of the costume party. They’ve taken in the Jewish nature of the joke, then, that punch line. It’s so painfully hilarious not just because of the absurdity of the situation: a man dressed as a moose mistakenly mounted to wall of a country club but because it is equally absurd that Jews cannot enter the club. Woody himself, who has stood, seemingly against his will, entertaining you for the last few minutes would also not be allowed entry to this club due to the blind luck of the body he has been born into.
I am watching this at a distance of nearly 50 years, what it felt like to watch this in the flesh I don’t know. Did the contemporary audience – the non-Jewish, the non-black, non-other – wince in the way I did? What I do know is that the wonder of this gag is the way in which it makes the idea of judging someone on their race or religion seem stupid; as stupid as thinking a man in a moose costume is a real moose. As Woody’s early comedies prove not every gag needs to be felt on an emotional or intellectual level – sometimes a joke is just a joke – but sometimes a punchline is as good as a polemic.