Woody or wouldn’t he? Phoebe Maltz Bovy considers the contents of Woody Allen’s book ‘Zero Gravity’

Phoebe’s poodle Bisou skeptically reads Woody Allen.

Something jumps out about the listing of humour essays contained in Woody Allen’s new book. The reprinted contents of Zero Gravity first appeared in The New Yorker between 2008 and 2013—at which point a relationship initiated in 1966 came to a conspicuous halt.

Why not a word from any later? Well, it’s not much of a mystery.

In a twist of bizarro-nepotism, Allen’s estranged son, Ronan Farrow, ended up a marquee journalist with the magazine, thanks to his award-winning #MeToo reporting about sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. The Woody witticisms had to find other homes.

Moreover, employees of the Hachette Book Group—also the publisher of Farrow’s Catch and Kill—staged a walkout in early March 2020 to protest the impending publication of Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing, which had been kept under wraps.

Everyone was out of the office by the time it was hastily handed to a smaller publisher called Arcade, which also facilitated this follow-up book. (The format is familiar from four previous collections that remain a fixture of countless Jewish boomer bookshelves.)

This quasi-cancellation process—which also extended to his feature films being hidden from audiences, and stars renouncing their participation—is as much about shaky accusations of child molestation as it is about factually indisputable life choices (marrying his then-partner’s much-younger, but adult, daughter) and artistic choices (depicting many a nebbishy older gent pairing off with a nubile young thing). 

What, then, does Woody Allen humour look like in 2022? Would he, as in the memoir, reflect upon our current times?

A foreword by longtime friend Daphne Merkin oversells the contents. She unfavourably compares contemporary humour writers to Allen, saying that these inferior authors are capable of only “producing smiles of recognition, perhaps, but hardly chuckles or outright yelps of laughter.”

It’s an unfortunate comparison because “smiles of recognition” is exactly the level reached by the best essays in Zero Gravity. The idea of a cow plotting to murder Woody Allen, told from the point of view of the cow, is pretty good. As are the reincarnated Madoff victims, now lobsters, attacking their nemesis as he dines at a Manhattan seafood restaurant. (Yes, there’s some plot overlap, with animals exacting revenge on controversial elderly Jewish men.)

There’s some solid Jewish humour in the mix, like the Duke of Windsor explaining, “If I were to wear a clip-on [tie] I couldn’t be buried in a Christian cemetery.” Get it, like the tattoos-in-Jewish-cemeteries thing? Heh.

There are a lot of opportunities to heh, like when Allen makes his ten trillionth reference to a woman having nice gams, or to a wife’s bland cooking. The essays, stronger and weaker alike, are not so much offensive as culturally of a different time. I am far from a comedy presentist—give me a 1990s sitcom any day!—but the book has that quality of someone coasting on past greatness. And not even, as with David Sedaris, commenting curmudgeonly on today’s youth.

That said, there are occasional nods to the present moment, little mini-reminders that the year is not 2011 (or 1971) but 2022. Merkin, in the foreword, addresses “ladies and gentlemen and non-binary members of the reading public,” in a tone that suggests more a reference to wokeness than an embrace of same. 

That greeting hints at the contents of Allen’s essay “Sorry, No Pets Allowed,” one of the newer, non-New Yorker items. It’s a riff on a Miley Cyrus quote where the performer announces her willingness to try anything consensual—but drawing the line at bestiality. 

Told from a similarly coquettish young singer’s point of view, it’s a tale of a sexually adventurous woman who gets cancelled for her “politically incorrect” refusal to consider non-human creatures as partners. It ends in her in setting up a liaison with a mynah bird. “At first, I recoiled, but then penciled in the date. After all, the last thing I need is for all those ornithologists to call me a bigot.” 

Am I overreaching to say this reads as a reference to the culture-wars debates about whether lesbians are bigots if they say they won’t sleep with transgender women? Is Woody Allen really not just aware of the present-day outside world, but wasting his time on the planet with the same online discourse as everyone else? Then again, if J.K. Rowling chooses to be engagée, why not Woody Allen as well. 

The book ends on a less jokey note, with a short story, “Growing Up in Manhattan.” It’s a cozy, mid-century tale not unlike Philip Roth’s novella Goodbye, Columbus, about a neurotic young Jewish man with embarrassingly (to him) working-class parents falling for a rich young woman from a good family, but finding himself, for reasons I will not spoil, in over his head. (As with the no-pets essay, it’s about sexual squeamishness, but no animals are even alluded to being harmed.) It’s more Annie Hall than Bananas, and serves as a reminder of Allen’s gift for romantic comedy. If it were a movie I’d buy a ticket for sure.

Now you can tell Phoebe what you think: pbovy[@]thecjn.ca

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