Allen takes us from his childhood in Brooklyn (his father was a bookmaker who held a variety of menial jobs, his mother worked for a flower shop) through his early days submitting jokes to newspaper columnists. He was quick, funny, hard to top. He was hired young as a comedy writer for television shows, including some of Sid Caesar’s, before becoming a stand-up comic and beginning to direct movies. He had two early marriages, to Harlene Rosen and Louise Lasser.
There were two surprises, for me, in this early material. Most memoirists exaggerate their sense of outsidership when young. Conversely, Allen writes that while you might presume he was a lonely nebbish in high school, he was in truth very popular and adept at many sports, especially baseball.
The second surprise is how hard he pushes back at the notion that he is any kind of intellectual. He presents lists of the authors he hasn’t read, the movies he hasn’t seen.
“I have no insights, no lofty thoughts, no understanding of most poems that do not begin, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue,’” he writes. “What I do have, however, is a pair of black-rimmed glasses, and I propose that it is these specs, combined with a flair for appropriating snippets from erudite sources too deep for me to grasp but which can be utilized in my work to give the deceptive impression of knowing more than I do that keeps this fairy tale afloat.”
Like many of our fathers and grandfathers, Allen is a 20th-century man in a 21st-century world. His friends should have warned him that “Apropos of Nothing” is incredibly, unbelievably tone deaf on the subject of women.
This tone deafness starts before the book has even properly begun. On the dedication page, he writes, “For Soon-Yi, the best. I had her eating out of my hand and then I noticed my arm was missing.” I had to rub my eyes with my freshly sanitized fingers and read that second sentence again.