Starburst Memories: Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as a Comic Strip by Stuart Hample

This handsome book is a collection of the ‘Inside Woody Allen’ cartoon strips that were syndicated daily between 1976 – 1984. It was endorsed by Woody and he provided jokes and off-cuts of material for Hample to use. The two first met through Jack Rollins, Woody’s manager/ producer, in the early days of his stand up career as he was trying to establish his act in the clubs around Greenwich Village. It was in 1975 that Hample approached him, with some trepidation, to do a strip based on his persona ‘alone in an uncaring universe’ populated with broad characters – his analyst, his parents, his multiple girlfriends – the drawing was approved by Woody and included in an animated sequence in Annie Hall:

The strips proved very popular, 465 papers signed up before publication, the most successful start-up for any strip.

It is easy to see why, they are a gentle pastiche of Woody’s wit. This is a great book to dip into, rather than read from cover-to-cover, because they become a bit hit and miss after a while. They are presented here in their proof version, complete with blue pencil marks, corrections and overlays.

Hample_WoodyAllen1

What is most interesting about this book, and why I include it now, is that it gives an insight into how Woody Allen was shaping his character and his film persona. The introduction of the book talks through the relationship that Hample had with Woody and includes correspondence between the two of them.

His film output during this period was showing a shift from the slap-stick and quick-fire gags to more considered and serious-comedy (post ANNIE HALL). Woody provided direction to Hample on how the strips should be pitched, as he was concerned that they were becoming too populist. The publishers were insisting on a set of criteria to ensure that the strip appealed to the widest possible audience with edicts such as:

“Go easy on the God references so we don’t offend the Bible Belt readers”,

“Aim at a broad base. The strip is now too highbrow, philosophical,”

“Minimize sophisticated gags”

Woody had no truck with such requests and was urging Hample in the opposite direction, insisting that maintaining the integrity of his image was more important than popularity and that he should push the boundaries.

“We must not just use jokes that exploit my image  – jokes should have genuine insights. Don’t pander. Try not to be run-of-the-mill. Don’t be afraid to be far-out. Lead your audience; don’t ask them to lead you. Resist easy jokes that are to be expected…”

He goes on to encourage Sample to use real characters from his personal life, such as Diane Keaton or Louise Lasser, with some suggested scripts:

“Louise: Gee, even though we’ve been divorced for eight years, I still call you with problems right?

Woody: What’s the matter?

Louise: Did you watch Mary Hartman last night? Do you think the girl who played LouLou Belle is prettier than I am?

Put more involving ideas in the strip. Use my publicly perceived life.(Prescient: Larry David does this in Curb Your Enthusiasm.)”

This socratic dialogue is fascinating as it shows that Allen is acutely aware of how his character is an important signifier and that the strip has a role in developing this image as a director and performer.

“In all cases go for the esoteric reference – it’s more me. I have always meen willing to lose half my audience with esoteric references, and you know what? They’re always smarter than me and know my references and more. Never underestimate them. Despite Nixon.

I notice that the content of the strip often drops beneath the level of the humour that I wold do. I can tell this because the syndicate is not complaining about the content. Always a bad sign. I feel its not sophisticated enough.”

It is striking that Allen always seems to have a bewilderment when faced with his enduring popularity in the 70s (which he explores in STARDUST MEMORIES (1979)). This book is an interesting supplement to that shift in his films that occurred during the period. A paper in California dropped the strip because it was too gloomy, full of rejection and disappointment with life. Allen was unrepentant:

“I take that as a compliment. If a comic persona can reveal the pain, then it is a mark of deep the humour is. In the long run, that’s what gives it dimension …

… I will never please the big market guys. They labour under the delusion that they must aim at the lowest common denominator, they’re wrong. I’ve never cared about being popular and I won’t start now. What’s the worse that can happen?”

More than any interview, this gives a revealing insight, inside Woody Allen.

4 responses to “Starburst Memories: Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as a Comic Strip by Stuart Hample

    • The polymath provides an illustrated introduction which is a riff on the strip with the characters with polyhedral heads (d20s with legs). Its bizarre.

  1. Pingback: STARBURST MEMORIES – Woody Allen on Woody Allen | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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