Comedians invite familiarity and it seems perfectly proper that the audience should be on a first-name basis with them: Charlie, Buster, Groucho, and so on. In his detailed and thoroughly researched study of not so much the man but the man at his work, Julian Fox heightens the reader’s sense of intimacy with arguably the most productive and talented American comic performer, writer, and director through the past thirty years, instantly recognizable as Woody. Yet this intimacy is not always a comfortable one, and Fox emphasizes the tensions, pains, and frustrated desires that animate Allen’s work and turn it into much more than merely a laughing matter.

Fox moves chronologically through Allen’s career, discussing his early behind-the-scenes joke writing, stand-up comedy work, and lifelong composition of plays and short stories. Everything funnels into his film work, however, and the bulk of the book is taken up with analyses of and anecdotes about his films from WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT (1965) to MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995). Like most critics, Fox spends much time on Allen’s on-screen persona, but especially as the films pass from the farcical and fantastic to the more thoughtful and philosophical, he points out how Allen’s highly stylized comic schlemiel is often the vehicle for intense social and cultural as well as autobiographical analysis. Allen’s recurrent themes and concerns are, for lack of a better term, quite serious: the psychology of women, existential dramas, unresolvable moral dilemmas, and the many problems of living in the modern world of disintegrating values, societies, and personalities.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Fox’s book is his focus on Allen’s working method, and the discussion of each one of his films concentrates on how they are not so much made as remade, shaped through a rigorous process of rewriting, reshooting, and restructuring via editing. Fox reveals that the nervous, disorderly, and spontaneous comedian is also a highly skilled, dedicated, and demanding craftsman.