Woody Allen's Annie Hall voted funniest screenplay ever written

Director’s 1977 comedy about neurotic New York couple tops Writers Guild of America’s list of 101 funniest scripts

“There’s an old joke,” begins Woody Allen, talking straight to camera. “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

According to the Writers Guild of America, these are the opening lines to the funniest screenplay ever written. In a ballot filled out by thousands of writers, Annie Hall, written by Allen and Marshall Brickman in 1975, was voted the film that made them all laugh the most, beating classics such as Some Like It Hot, Airplane! and The Big Lebowski to top the list of 101 funniest screenplays.

Allen’s film, starring himself and Diane Keaton as a neurotic couple living in Allen’s beloved New York, is often celebrated as a game-changing work by the director. It swept the 1978 Oscars, including best actress for Keaton, best script, best director and best picture.

Woody Allen in the opening scene from Annie Hall.

In an interview with the New York Times when the film was released in 1977, Allen said he had written the film as a comic “stream of consciousness showing one individual’s state of mind, in which conversations and events constantly trigger dreams, fantasies and recollections”.

The film’s bitingly funny and neurotic script boasts some of the most-quoted lines in modern cinema about love and relationships. In one memorable scene, Allen turns to Keaton’s character in bed to say: “That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”

Speaking about the Writers Guild’s decision to name Allen’s film as the funniest ever written, Lowell Peterson, executive director of Writers Guild of America East, said: “I think it’s a combination of Woody’s unique sensibility and his commitment to drama as well as to joke. Annie Hall is the complete screenplay in that sense; it is that sublime intersection between compelling characters, dramatic conflict and great jokes. While it is not the only film of his to combine those things, I think maybe Annie Hall does it best of all.”

Peterson said the votes for Allen’s film proved that both the film-maker’s storylines and his jokes had not dated in the 38 years since the film was released.

“It was released alongside so many other films in the1970s heyday of Hollywood,” he said. “Not many of those films stood the test of time, but Annie Hall certainly has. That speaks to the quality of the writing but also the experience of a New York-based writer who absorbed the city he loved and described it to the world.

“It was a game-changer because the internal lives of these characters became something that could be laughed at in a knowing way, and people could laugh but also recognise themselves in these people.”

As well as Annie Hall, Allen also had six other scripts in the Writers Guild funniest film rankings, including Sleeper, Bananas, Take the Money and Run, Broadway Danny Rose, Love and Death, and Manhattan.

With the abuse allegations that have recently been levelled at Woody Allen by his daughter Dylan Farrow still ongoing, Peterson responded to suggestions that Allen may have been a controversial choice for the award. Allen denies the allegations.

“Controversial choice in winning? No,” he said. “Our members voted entirely on the quality of the scripts and I think that many writers, maybe most writers, prefer to focus on that. When they are voting on these screenplays, they tend to put to the side the weaknesses, transgressions or allegations about individual artists’ personal lives and make purely artistic judgments.”

Despite the obviously autobiographical elements to the Annie Hall (Allen was in a relationship with Diane Keaton at the time and, like his character Alvy, had been married twice before), he insisted that the film was mostly fiction. Allen did, however, concede that at least one aspect of his own life was reflected in Alvy: “There’s one clear autobiographical fact in the picture,” he said in 1977. “I’ve thought about sex since my first intimation of consciousness.’’

Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian’s chief film critic, said that while Annie Hall was “arguably Woody Allen’s best film”, and despite writing in 2010 that the film was the best comedy of all time, he now had a “bee in his bonnet” about it being described as his funniest.

“There’s hardly any subject about which pundits, critics and writers are more solemn and pompous than the business of making people laugh,” said Bradshaw.

“My feeling about this is that they wanted it to be a Woody Allen film, because it gives these lists a certain cultural cachet, but felt they couldn’t choose one of the early, genuinely funny films because that makes them look stupid. So they chose a Woody Allen comedy with the most serious content.

“I would say, for the actually business of making people laugh, I would put Love and Death higher than Annie Hall.”

The Writers Guild’s top 10

  1. Annie Hall – Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman, 1977
  2. Some Like It Hot – Screenplay by Billy Wilder & IAL Diamond, 1959
  3. Groundhog Day – Screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, 1993
  4. Airplane! – Written by James Abrahams & David Zucker & Jerry Zucker, 1980
  5. Tootsie – Screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, 1982
  6. Young Frankenstein – Screenplay by Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, 1974
  7. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George and Terry Southern
  8. Blazing Saddles – Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor and Alan Uger, 1974
  9. Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, 1975
  10. National Lampoon’s Animal House – Written by Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, 1978

Contributor

Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The GuardianTramp

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