Woody and Me

In my last installment, "Standup to Fear," I wrote about my anxiety over performing standup at a synagogue comedy night. I thought I had gotten it out my system and that was the end of it, right?

Not exactly. A comedy club show director enjoyed the blog, and I'm now booked to perform standup at 9:30 on March 2 at the Metropolitan Room comedy club (34 W 22nd Street, New York, NY 10010; I have no idea why I included the zip code, except maybe it looks more official).

You're all invited.

As I try to summon the courage for this alleged performance (hopefully some of you will feel I'm worth the $14 cover, plus two drink minimum), I think about my roots. If I go way back, it all begins with one influence: Woody Allen.

Today there are extreme reactions when one mentions his name: on one end of the spectrum, he's hailed as a genius comedian, brilliant screenwriter/director, and king of the nebbishes; on the other, well, some people go straight to "the pedophile who married his daughter."

If you are in the latter camp, you've probably already printed out this piece out just to burn it.

For the rest of you, I'm only going to address the former: Woody Allen, unparalleled artist who has entertained and inspired me (and many other nebbishes) from childhood to present. I reveled in his comedy albums, which included masterful one liners ("I was thrown out of NYU my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final -- I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me") and innovative flights of fancy ("The Moose"). Then there were all of those hilarious comedies, from his plays (Don't Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam) to his clever books (Getting Even, Without Feathers, Side Effects), and numerous film classics (Bananas, Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan). I even caught a screening of Woody's hilarious rare TV special at the Museum of Broadcasting, during which he traded Biblical barbs with Billy Graham.

While attending the Dramatic Writing Program at Tisch School of the Arts (NYU), my single-minded freshman year goal was to meet Woody Allen. He had just released a string of gems (Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo), culminating with a bona fide masterpiece (Hannah and Her Sisters), and I was studying his work in several classes. Four Films of Woody Allen, a collection of four transcribed screenplays, was required reading.

With book in hand I went with a couple of college friends to Michael's Pub, where Woody played clarinet every Monday night. At the bar we plowed through a mob of tourists and Japanese businessmen with cameras who had no clue about the identity of the performer on stage ("Crint Eastwood, Crint Eastwood!"), and at last was awarded my first up-close look at the man himself.

My heart thumped as I watched him perform. The music was fun and I could feel his intensity and deep concentration on his instrument. But how would I get near enough to him to get an autograph? Hadn't I heard horror stories of how he treated fans?

The set finished and Woody left the stage. The Japanese businessmen reached around the bar to snap more photos, and Woody slinked to the side to avoid any eye contact. My chance was slipping away...

Something took control. As if hypnotized, I went through the bar area and out the front door. And there he was -- Woody Allen, just a few feet in front of me chatting with some guy I didn't recognize.

I hesitated. No -- worse than that, I froze into a star struck catatonia. Fortunately, one of my friends had followed me outside and was there to push my shoulders toward Woody, who had just finished his conversation.

I looked down and there he was, standing right in front of me. Taking the book and pen from my hands he muttered, "What do we have here?"

My big moment. I had to say something and act natural, but my tongue felt like I'd eaten a dozen pineapples. I watched him scribble his name inside my book and somehow bleated a few words: "Woody...I love your work...I go to NYU and I want to be a comedy writer just like you."

He returned the book and pen, looked up, and quipped: "Really? I'm trying to get out of it."

All of those years later -- for whatever uncontrollable reason -- I'm still trying to get into it.

When I see all of you at 9:30 on March 2 at the Metropolitan Room comedy club (remember: 34 W 22nd Street, New York, NY 10010... oh yes, and by the way, please call 212-206-0440 and give my name to confirm a reservation), I will be hoping to channel the nebbish with the glasses who pioneered neurotic comedy as art.

You'll recognize me by my contact lenses.