Last week, the NY Times profiled comedian Myq Kaplan in developing a joke about chivalry. As a result, there has been much debate as to how comedy should be developed, though the turns and mutations that Kaplan enacts on his joke were very intriguing.
Then, I, completely on a whim, bought a compilation album of Woody Allen’s stand-up and heard this track:
There is absolutely no way that this joke was anything but the inception of Allen’s lauded film Midnight in Paris. More so than a joke developed over a few months, Allen has since twisted a bit full of seemingly esoteric literature and art references in the 1920s into an entire motion picture that cleaned out the original screenplay category in virtually every major movie awards ceremony this year.
What must have he gone through to go from one of the more random tracks on Woody Allen: Standup Comic to Midnight in Paris? I don’t personally have the luxury of chatting with Woody Allen about this very question, which, by the way, isn’t answered on the trivia page for Midnight in Paris‘ IMDB profile either. On said page, however, you’ll find an item that reads, “Wrote the concept for the film Hollywood Ending (2002) on the back of a matchbook. Years later, he found the matchbook with the notes for the film on it and made the film.”
With 45 films and counting under Allen’s writer-director belt, it’s amazing to think that the seed of some of them are found in unlikely, rather innocuous places. Specifically, the Lost Generation bit is largely out of context to those listening to it now, especially if you don’t care for the literature of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or the art of Picasso, or have any idea who Ernest Hemingway is. Yet, that misplaced context, so I surmise, must be the perfect void for the medium of motion pictures to fill, an idea that must have struck Woody Allen at some point.
Throughout Midnight in Paris, the world of Paris over scores of years is fully realized, as are the very eccentric characters of free-wheeling Ernest Hemingway, friendly Gertrude Stein, and very weird Salvador Dali. Instead of being a story that disappointingly ended with a “you had to be there” excuse, all the necessary details for the delightful humor of a lost Owen Wilson in 1920’s Paris are in place.
It may seem obvious to you that such details are essential cogs to the story of Paris, but what’s amazing is how important context proves itself to be in comedy. If you listen to the Lost Generation bit again, there’s only one joke (it’s the one about Fitzgerald’s New Year’s Party) that doesn’t entirely depend on prior latent knowledge of the arts in the so-called “Lost Generation” following WWI. If you do know all the references like I did (feel free to call me pretentious because I am), you’ll most likely laugh.
With that in mind, I imagine that Woody Allen loved that bit so much, especially since he closed some shows with it, that he didn’t want to let it fall into the obscurity of a stand-up compilation album. I imagine that he had sort of a blind faith in how funny it was to the point that it rested in the recesses of his mind until he determined that the idea to make a movie with unexplained time travel is what the joke really needed. Of course, I could be wrong and Allen could have had the idea for the movie all along even before he came up with the joke, and in that case the adaptation process, in that case, worked in reverse.
Either way, the fact still remains that the humor in anything largely depends on context, otherwise, as said before, you’ll just have to have been there. In the case of Midnight in Paris, that’s near impossible without it being a movie.