As Woody Allens Oscar-winning comedy reaches the end of its fourth decade, what are the lines that still cause the biggest laughs?
I turned 40 and I guess Im having a life crisis or something. So states Woody Allens Alvy Singer in the opening monologue to his best film, Annie Hall.
Today Annie Hall itself turns 40, and its a good time to express just how influential this masterpiece was to New York, to fashion and film and the culture at large. Its an important and insightful look at adult relationships, but before that its a comedy, and one that may only be matched by Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of the sheer volume of quality jokes.
For this anniversary, Ive decided to rank the 40 top moments of hilarity. Beneath that is a space in which you, the reader, can tell me how terrible the list is and such small portions, too.
40. I mean that as a compliment
When Alvy Singer shacks up with a reporter for Rolling Stone (Shelley Duvall), were treated to one of the more baffling lines in the entire film: Sex with you is really a Kafkaesque experience. Were left to wonder if this is some sort of entomological reference or something to do with red tape.
39. Tony Lacey
Paul Simons small role as the sleazebag Los Angeles record producer is wonderful for a number of reasons, from his space cadet grin to his invite to hang out with Jack and Anjelica at the Pierre. Best is the meaningless compliment he gives to Annie after her set: It was very musical.
38. Alvys Grammy
Well talk about Grammy Hall later on in the list, but the mere mention of Annies Norman Rockwell painting progenitor inspires Alvy to reflect on his own. My grammy never gave gifts. She was too busy being raped by Cossacks.
37. Its so clean
Annie is stunned at how clean Los Angeles is compared with New York. Alvy knows the reason. They dont throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.
36. Three times a week
Via a split-screen, we watch Annie and Alvy share their rate of intercourse with their analysts. He says its hardly ever, maybe three times a week. She says: Constantly! Id say three times a week! Its clear theyve made a breakthrough here.
35 . Alpha rays
When Alvys friend Rob springs him from jail, we see Robs gone full-California. Putting what looks like a spacesuit over his head, Alvy asks if theyre driving through plutonium. Keeps out the alpha rays, Max! You dont get old.
34. The Sorrow and the Pity
Alvys repertory film screening of choice (when Ingmar Bergmans Face to Face has already started) is a four-hour documentary on Nazis. It makes Annie feel guilty and wonder how shed hold up under torture. You kidding? If the Gestapo would take away your Bloomingdales charge card, youd tell them everything.
33. You see conspiracies in everything
Alvy and Rob (who both call one another Max for reasons that are never fully explained) take a stroll in a long, uninterrupted static shot. (Were talking mostly about jokes here, but lets not undersell Annie Halls marvelous cinematography.) Alvy explains the antisemitic micro-aggressions he thinks he encounters, from a record store clerk pushing Wagner to a work associate who answers the question Did you eat? with No, Jew?
32. Our sexual problem
The scene where Alvy and Annie wait on a movie line is like a one-act play unto itself. Well return to it again on this list, but a few moments from within this neutron bomb of comedy deserve their own pedestal. Among them, Alvys defense against Annies accusations of a sexual problem: Im comparatively normal for a guy raised in Brooklyn!
31. Red lamp
Alvys attempts to heat things up in the bedroom lead to some rather color-saturated places. While inserting a red lightbulb for a little old New Orleans essence, he rubs his hands together and says: Now, we can go about our business here and we can even develop photographs later if we want to. Younger viewers may not get this joke.
30. No, that was wonderful, I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype
Alvy meets his first wife, Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane), at a rally for Adlai Stevenson. In an attempt to flirt he descends into a cycle of horrible negging (as we now call it), assuming he knows everything about her just by her looks, name and that shes doing a thesis on political commitment in 20th-century literature.
Youre like New York, Jewish, leftwing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings and the really, yknow, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper, stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.
Allison defends herself, and Alvy admits to a truth that is, sadly, still extremely relevant in many social circles. Right, Im a bigot, I know, but for the left.
29. Woody Allen talking to a horse is funny
Annie Hall likes to break reality a lot. At one point, when Alvy is having an existential crisis in the middle of West 4th Street, he sees a mounted police officer. While there are no closeups, its clear that he is looking for relationship advice from a horse.
Even when Woody Allen was young, he was an old man. He does not care for this newfangled rocknroll music. So when he goes to a concert at Madison Square Garden (which may have been a slight jape at George Harrisons Concert for Bangladesh) hes not above mocking the late-era hippies that are faddishly following eastern philosophies. His date (Shelley Duvall) keeps using the term transplendent and, upon seeing a yogi, explains how millions of followers would crawl across the world just to touch the hem of his garment. Really? he responds. It must be a tremendous hem.
27. The Wicked Queen
Annie Hall is rife with split screens, direct-address, flashbacks and flash-forwards. Theres even a moment of animation, when the film suddenly transforms to Disney-esque scene. Diane Keatons voiceover informs us that cartoon characters dont menstruate.
26. I like to get all points of view
When Alvy comes to Annies place to kill a spider, theyve been broken up for a while. Hes irked to see the program from a rock show, but horrified to see a copy of the conservative journal National Review. Annie is just trying to expand her mind to new opinions, but Alvy has another suggestion. Why dont you get William F Buckley to kill the spider?
This is a particularly amusing jab, as Allen had previously destroyed Buckley in a televised debate.
25. Tell the folks where you are today, Donald
Alvy fantasizes about where the jerks he went to primary school with, including Melvin Greenglass, Henrietta Farrell and Ivan Ackerman, are today. A montage of tots look at the camera, starting with the mundane (I run a profitable dress company) to the dire (I used to be a heroin addict, now Im a methadone addict). But nothing beats the dazed-looking girl with messy hair and glasses who wallops the audience with three unpredictable words: Im into leather.
24. Alvys childhood home is under a rollercoaster
It may be a metaphor, but it was an actual house! When location scouts found it, they incorporated it into the script.
23. Reading syllabus
Alvy urges Annie to take adult education classes. He claims hes merely being encouraging, but she thinks its because he thinks shes not smart enough. (My read: shes plenty smart, but not demonstrative about it, and Alvy is too insecure to be seen with someone who isnt outwardly intellectual.) Looking through potential classes, she asks if she should take Modern American Poetry or Introduction to the Novel. Just dont take any course where they make you read Beowulf, Alvy says.
Its a random Old English dissbomb, but strangely funny when he says it.
22. Alvys parents
Woody Allen portrayed his parents far more lovingly in the film Radio Days, but here they are loud, sniping lunatics. And it is wonderful. When Mother discovers that the cleaning woman is stealing from them, Father vehemently opposes taking action. She has no money! Shes got a RIGHT to steal from us! After all, who is she going to steal from, if not us?
21. A set of aesthetic criteria have not emerged yet
In one of the more tender scenes, Annie invites Alvy on to her balcony for a quick drink. They banter like good New York intellectuals, and seem to know what they are talking about. Beneath them, though, are subtitles showing what they are actually thinking: She senses Im shallow v Im not smart enough for him. In a terrifically dated reference, Alvys self-criticism reaches peak form when he accuses himself of sounding like FM radio.
20. Grammy Hall
Youre what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew. Annie never quite clarifies, but later, at a dinner in Chippewa Falls, we cut to Grammys perception of Alvy (or at least what Alvy thinks she thinks of him), and its the iconic image of Woody Allen in full Hasidic regalia.
19. They cant hear you, Max!
At a few points in the film, Alvy Singer, our narrator, walks into his own memories, a technique Allen used again to more dramatic ends in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors. The rules during these encounters dont seem so cut-and-dried. He can argue a bit with his old schoolteacher about Freuds concept of a sexual latency period, but when he tries to tell his mother and father they are crazy, it falls on deaf ears.
18. A free-floating life raft
Brilliant writers like Woody Allen (and his collaborator Marshall Brickman, lets not forget about him) arent above some occasional sitcom patter now and then. While quibbling about whether Annie should keep her apartment or move in with Alvy, she derides the place for having bad plumbing and bugs. Alvy still thinks she should keep it, and is even upfront about it representing a fear of marital commitment. Then she tells him its $400 a month. That little apartment is four hundred dollars a month? Its got bad plumbing and bugs!
17. Bugs, continued
An asterisk to the above. When Annie first lists her apartments faults, Alvy is still spinning as best as he can to keep her from moving in. The most absurd rebuttal: Yknow bugs are, uh entomology is a rapidly growing field!
16. What is that your business?!
At a very early age Alvy Singer recognizes that life is meaningless. Its something he read, Alvys mother tells Dr Flicker. The universe is expanding, young Alvy moans, aware that all of mans achievements will one day dissolve into dust, so why bother doing homework? His mothers reply: What has the universe got to do with it? Youre here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
15. Those New York City girls
Annie Halls most brutal takedowns are against intellectuals and writers. You know, the people who love this movie the most. Alvys second wife, Robin, is an author who, in a moment of social terror, shouts: There are people out there from the New Yorker magazine! My God, what will they think?!
This scene, though, has one of the dopiest and most inside-baseball references when Alvy refers to another evening of making fake insights with people who work for Dysentery. When Robin rolls his eyes and corrects him (Commentary) Alvy jokes: Id heard Commentary and Dissent had merged to formed Dysentery.
14. Fashion goals
Much is written about Annie Halls sartorial choices, but what about the look Alvy predicts for himself in his opening monologue: Unless Im one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism.
13. Moths, dead
When Alvys second wife, Robin, fails to achieve an orgasm, she blames it on street noise, and says that her analyst thinks she should move to the country. Alvy promptly lists the reasons that wont be happening. The country makes me nervous. Theres crickets. Theres no place to walk after dinner. And then the killer: Theres the screens with the dead moths behind them.
12. Sharks, dead
Annie Hall added a lot to our lexicon, including the term dead shark. Flying back from Los Angeles, both Annie and Alvy realize their relationship is over. A relationship is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we have on our hands is a dead shark.
11. Jeff Goldblum
Annie Hall was Sigourney Weavers first movie, but you need a magnifying glass to see her (the cinematographer Gordon Willis was a genius, but whiffed it by not giving us a closeup here). She also doesnt have any lines. The young Jeff Goldblum, however, at least gets a few words. At Tony Laceys trendy LA party, hes seen on the phone chewing gum and saying I forgot my mantra.
10. Im due back on the planet Earth
The young Christopher Walken gets a whole scene, and its one of the best in the movie. As Annies brother Duane, he confesses to Alvy that, when driving, he has an urge to smash his car and explode into flames. His eerie delivery freaks Alvy out, setting up the great moment of panic when Duane drops Annie and Alvy off at the airport.
9. Winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest
Some of the sweetest moments of Annie and Alvys blossoming romance are glimpses of them just wasting time. A scene in which the two of them sit on a park bench and quietly make fun of the New York weirdos they see may not be exactly nice, but its rather realistic. The great inside joke is that the Truman Capote lookalike was actually Truman Capote.
8. Is there booing on there?
Staunch New Yorker Woody Allen got a lot of his anger toward Los Angeles out through this film. When Alvy visits his friend Rob, now a sitcom producer, he is so revolted by the fake laughs added to the shows soundtrack that it makes him physically ill. Nobody laughs because the jokes arent funny, Alvy argues but Rob shrugs it off: Thats why this machine is dynamite. Much to my shock, you can still hear laugh tracks on some mainstream television programs 40 years later.
7. The Incas did it
Though Woody Allen was always a man out of time, Annie Hall is still set in the 1970s. As such, it features the greatest cocaine gag in all of cinema. Whats the kick of it? Alvy asks as he shoves a little powder up his nose, only to immediately sneeze and blast $2,000 worth of the stuff all over the carpet.
6. Holiday meals
The best split-screen in Annie Hall comes when Alvy is at dinner with Annies healthy, real American family (talkin swap meets and boat basins) juxtaposed with Alvys frantic, high-volume table-bound Jewish battle royale. I can tell you from personal experience that Alvys mother shrieking his wife has diabetes! and pronouncing it diabetiss is excellent documentary film-making.
After a moment of cacophony the two sides begin to speak to one another, and the small talk leads to a discussion of how to spend the holidays. You fast? Yeah, no food. To atone for our sins. What sins, I dont understand? To tell you the truth, neither do we.
5. Food critic
This scene is so perfect and so concentrated with jokes that some breeze by you the first time. One thing that only gets funnier each time you see it is when everyone is complimenting Mother Hall (Colleen Dewhurst) on the meal. With a standup comedians hand gestures, Alvy clears his throat, smacks his lips to say: Its dynamite ham!
4. If life were only like this
The best sequence in Annie Hall is the one on the movie line. But maybe its just because its the longest. The film opens with a shock-and-awe bombardment of a comedy montage, a blazing first act only matched by the Coen brothers Raising Arizona. We finally catch a breath with this unedited static shot, in which Annie and Alvy bicker as a pseudo-intellectual dingus pontificates about art in an attempt to impress his date. When Alvy just cant take any more (or maybe he doesnt want to face up to Annies accusations?) he turns to the camera and asks: What do you do when you get stuck on a movie line with a guy like this behind you?
The pompous windbag (who happens to teach a class at Columbia called TV, edia and Culture) refuses to back down, particularly about his insights into Marshall McLuhans work. Luckily Alvy, has Marshall McLuhan standing behind a lobby placard, ready to tell this guy you know nothing about my work! and how you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!
Its among the most gratifying scenes in all of cinema, and Woody Allen knows it, concluding: Boy, if life were only like this!
3. The Lobster
As with the Truman Capote bit, the most earnest scenes in Annie Hall are just everyday moments. And this one has the most bite. When the couple are trying to cook lobster at a rented beach house, one of the live creatures escapes, causing havoc in the kitchen. Talk to him, you speak shellfish! Alvy jokes to his non-kosher lover.
The scene is charming and hilarious, but made all the more poignant in counterpoint to a later scene, after the breakup. A repeat lobster accident happens when Alvy brings a different girl to the same house, and as he squirms and quips she stands there dumbfounded: Are you joking, or what?
2. Joey Nichols
When Alvy takes Annie and Rob back to his youth, he gets to see that bothersome friend of the family, Joey Nichols. Joey Nichols thinks that the fact his name is a homonym with nickels ought to blow any kids mind. Nichols! You see? Nickels! he bellows, slapping a nickel on his forehead. You can always remember my name, just think of Joey Five Cents! Thats me! Joey Five Cents!
The young Alvy Singer (nine-year-old Jonathan Munk) gets probably the biggest belly laugh in the whole picture when he sighs whaaaaat an asshole!
1. The rest of the country
Right before Alvy meets Annie for the first time, hes engaged in another heated conversation with Rob about antisemitism. (See number 33 on this list.) In under five seconds, he gets to the truth about living in New York City. Dont you see? The rest of the country looks upon New York like were leftwing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way, sometimes. And I live here! This throwaway is my favorite moment in the entire film.