Sunday, January 6, 2013
RARE WOODY ALLEN TV: PART ONE
A few years back I managed to track down a number of rare Woody Allen TV appearances and specials. Many of the standup appearances now are posted on YouTube but a few of these shows have remained difficult to find.
THE LAUGHMAKERS (1962, but not aired until 1968) was an unsold pilot written by Allen for ABC. The setting is an improvisational comedy club (this is less then three years after the founding of Second City) in Greenwich Village. Alan Alda and Louise Lasser appear very briefly as members of an improv group. The leading roles are played Louise Sorel (an ingenue of the period who later did a Star Trek guest shot, a few short-lived sitcoms and spent years on a TV soap opera) as Joyce and Paul Hampton (otherwise unknown to me) as Ted.
I’ve never been a big fan of improv -- it always reminds me of the old Howie Mandel standup bit, where he asks the audience: “Okay, give me a location. Now give me an occupation. Now give me a bunch of funny things to say.”
The show opens at the club (The Freudian Slip), giving the viewer a sample of improv, with the audience shouting out ideas (too bad Allen doesn't have them yell out jokes as well -- would have an intriguing Mandel harbinger). Beatnik-types fill the club and improv is explained as well as the forming of the troupe. “We were all performers in an avant-garde drama. The lead actor was a veal cutlet.” One of the Beatniks is notably played by Michael J. Pollard (later to become briefly famous as C.W. Moss in Bonnie and Clyde): “C’mon Joyce, I need to get home and listen to my Marcel Marceau record.”
The crusty but lovable (remember the pilots scene in Network?) club owner is played by crusty but lovable Broadway vet David Burns, giving Allen a mouthpiece for his Jewish humor: “It’s not enough that I like you. I’ve got no taste.” And, “If you want me I’ll be next door at the day old bakery. My children should grow up without ever knowing the thrill of fresh rolls?”
A new girl fails to show up for her audition, and Joyce (an homage to James?) is drafted to take her place (“Sorry I’m late -- my Zen lesson ran long), which she does with rather incongruous competence. The improv for the try out later appears in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN. Ted plays the robber trying to stick up a person who turns out to be an old friend (played by Joyce), a standard Second City exercise. Casual chat. “May I have your watch? Thank you.” “Keep your hands up or I’ll have to shoot you.” Payoff of the sketch is she’s a cop and arrests him.
Then it’s back to Joyce’s apartment (the series was apparently intended to split time between the club and domestic scenes, a la the workplace/home paradigm most famously associated with the previous year's DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, but actually going back through Andy Griffith to Make Room For Daddy -- all three being Danny
Thomas-Sheldon Leonard productions). Joyce: “I have a marvelous recipe for pre-Columbian coffee.” Allen mixes in jokes (many from his standup routines) during the chat but the dialogue doesn’t flow. “When I gave that up and began acting off Broadway in an elevator shaft my mother tried to take an overdose of mah jong tiles.” Act One ends with the two kissing and a complex coffee machine going off.
Act Two. News from the club owner that a scout for Ed Sullivan will visit the club but Joyce quits the team. The two debate in a series of exterior shots. Joyce wants to be a poet, and reads her latest work to Paul: “That poem has an othernerness you’ll never have.” Paul: “I don’t want an otherness. I’m happy with my thisness.” In an attempt to show her up, Paul prepares a poem, which he tries out on his friends (Friend 1: “That’s pure Shelly.” Friend 2: “Shelly Winters.”)
It’s beatnik poetry night at a neighboring business, The Café Decadence. Joyce reads her poem. Audience gives mild “finger snaps” approval. A special guest is there: a famous beat poet. Terrified of humiliating himself, Ted tries to make tracks -- his emergency excuse: “I’m late for a surprise autopsy" -- but his fellow improv troupers restrain him from leaving. Unable to escape, Ted walks onstage and performs “Ode to a Drivers License.”
The poem consists of him reading, in beatnik style, his drivers license in full -- perhaps the greatest comic poetry reading scene ever (even with the dull Hampton), although one gets the feeling it would be even funnier with Allen himself doing it.
The audience erupts in applause: “Yeah, go.” “Crazy.” King Beat offers his judgment: “That was beautiful” -- giving David Burns a nice moment of irascible incredulity as the club owner: “What’s beautiful? He read his drivers license.”
Joyce decides to stay part of the troupe. We see them perform another improv. Will the young couple stay together? Will they make the Ed Sullivan Show? Or even Joe Franklin? Will our lovebirds become the new Nichols and May?
Allen must've felt constrained by the sitcom format, as the ending breaks the fourth wall. Ted looks to the camera: “Say goodnight, Gracie.” Joyce looks to the camera: “Goodnight, Gracie.”
Not only a little Brechtianism, but also a reference to the comic favorites of Allen's youth.
The musical score is Dixieland jazz (some may find this predictable Woody, but revival Dixieland was closely linked at the time to Greenwich Village, at least in the mass audience's mind). The show was shot one camera, and has a surprising amount of movement for a sitcom. The final scene is the couple riding through Manhattan on a motorcycle. This is a decade after the three-camera approach had been perfected by I LOVE LUCY.
THE LAUGHMAKERS, for all its brilliant one-liners, has several serious flaws. The most obvious is the casting of blandly whitebread Paul Hampton as the male lead. Hard to believe he could get the role with Alda around (especially since AA had already played a notable guest shot in an episode of Sgt Bilko), but perhaps the network insisted on a WASP-type for the series lead.
Another problem is the setting of an improv club. Expecting viewers to laugh at stage antics is a tricky business that can often fail disastrously (see the allegedly hilarious slapstick bit in Chaplin's A KING IN NEW YORK). Note that THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW never showed Alan Brady performing sketches -- it was always the writers preparing the routines for him. Mixing in the improv bits may have seemed like a hip idea, but it actually draws the viewer outside the stories and characters.
But the biggest problem is the pilot's very structure. Allen attempts to use the standard "introduce a new person to the group" plot, but he didn't think it through enough. Joyce is the outsider welcomed to the group by Ted, but she -- the attractive upper class intellectual so omnipresent in Allen's oeuvre (if I can use that word in mixed company) -- seems more at home in this milieu (sorry, I've seen a lot of French films lately) than Ted does. A faulty pilot does not necessarily guarantee a bad series (Taxi's pilot inexplicably had TWO outsiders introduced to the group, and that series became a classic). But it may be one reason ABC didn't pick it up.
A better -- more workable for a series, that is -- plot might have been a nebbishy writer type (I wonder who could have played that part?) falling in with Village bohemians, including Joyce, and hanging around the (non-improv) club. Perhaps even inheriting the club -- sort of a Beatnik-era CHEERS.
Next up for this series is the unaired PBS Special MEN IN CRISIS: HARVEY WALLINGER, a spoof of Henry Kissinger that was deep sixed by the Nixon administration.