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Side Effects
by Woody Allen
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Reviewed by: John Halcyon Styn

Ever have a book that knocks you down, grabs you by the hair and starts pounding your forehead against the curb? I've had maybe 5 books in my life like that. One of the early ones was Woody Allen's Side Effects.

Yes, Woody Allen is a wacko. And if you've only seen his recent movies, you might suspect he is a skilled, but fairly typical screenwriter. I assure you he is not. See Sleeper. See Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex But Were Afraid to Ask. Sex has a scene where a giant breast crashes across the countryside. But these films only give a small glimpse at his comic genius. Side Effects, written back when he was just a neurotic kid, gives a clear view of his divine lunacy.

It was humor like I'd never seen in print. I grew up on Mad magazine so I appreciate a good written gag, but this book showed me a whole new realm of written humor. Woody Allen transfers comedic timing to the written page better than anyone I've ever read.

It's a rare skill. Verbal timing is common. There are hundreds of comics on Evening at the Improv who are masters at delivering a punch-line. But try to name 5 comedic writers. (Cartoonists don't count) It is difficult to make the laughs come with nothing but words.

Comedy is much different on the written page than it is verbally. Word selection is different. Sentence structure is different. You have less control over how the words hit the reader's brain. The writer has to use different techniques to deliver a written punch-line.

Woody Allen was the first time I ever witnessed this skill. I was blown away by his style. I was in awe of where he took his stories. He crafted entire stories around laundry lists. It was like nothing I'd ever seen.

His early books are raw brain spillage. His words serve up ideas that normal people might have, but surely would never say aloud. Allen spills them out and rolls around in it. He gives an unfiltered look inside a twisted brain. And instead of apologizing for the lunacy, he frames it for all to see.

Side Effects' comedic timing and unapologetic subject matter changed the way I viewed the written word. It wasn't just a tool for comparing or contrasting Civil War generals for my History class. It was a direct link to the beautiful craziness of a brain unleashed.

Allen is not a traditional, academically-skilled writer. On the contrary, he is the antidote to that type of writing. And no matter how many Asian step-children he marries, I will forever be in his debt.

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