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Woody Allen on Humor: Exhibitionism, Narcissism, Aggression


In Hebrew, the word  “smile” literally translates to the poetic phrase  “the daughter of laughter,”  according to an article I was reading in an academic journal today.

The first comedian referenced in the article is Woody Allen, which made my own smile fade into a raised eyebrow. It’s striking how the news can change the way you read a piece of social science.

To back up,  over the weekend I read Dylan Farrow’s disturbing story about childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Woody Allen in the New York Times. Today, while doing entirely unrelated research, I came across Woody Allen, quoted in The Social Function of Humor in Interpersonal Relationships.

The article’s author, Avner Ziv, summarized Allen’s  four-part view on what motivates a person to become a comedian, i.e., someone who wants to go on a stage and make people laugh.

1) Exhibitionism and narcissism;

2) The need to form relationships and be accepted.

3) Aggressiveness: “Comedians often talk about their wish to have an audience die from laughter,” .

4) People look better when they’re laughing.

Interesting, in a stomach-churning sort of way, to read this list after  Dylan Farrow’s accusation.

Now, let me be clear, lest I’m taken out of context!  Although numbers one through three on this list seem relevant in the Court of Public Opinion, where this matter is currently being tried, and although this court lacks all standards of evidence, in my view this list of Allen’s is merely of interest, AND not determinative of…anything.

It’s a list that probably fits most comedians (and artists)  and obviously there are plenty non-abusers in those professions. Also — I looked it up — it seems there really isn’t an agreed upon psychological profile of child abusers. (Other than having experienced abuse themselves, and  “some evidence indicates that perpetrators are shy, weak, passive, and nonassertive, with low self-esteem.” (Psychological Profile of Pedophiles and Child Molesters. )

I also substantially agreed  with a point that was made in The New Inquiry’s analysis of the response to Farrow’s blog post, and especially that her accusation was being discounted more because she was accusing a celebrity.

Here’s something else that Allen said that also seems relevant to that point. In Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking (Vintage), by Eric Lax, Allen said: “The audience worships the celebrity and on the one hand cuts the celebrity much more slack than the celebrity deserves, merits, or earns. On the other hand, the audience loves it when the celebrity is denigrated…”

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