Splitsider

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Looking at 'Woody Allen Looks at 1967'

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

If "Best Week Ever" has shown us anything, it's that there is a definite market for instant nostalgia. People like being reminded of recent pop culture history, and better yet, they like being told why it was dumb. An early prototype of this concept appeared in December of 1967 when "The Kraft Music Hall," a regular showcase show sponsored by the processed food company, enlisted stand-up comedian Woody Allen to discuss and perform in satirical sketches about what happened throughout the year. And I think we can all agree that if there was one thing "Best Week Ever" was missing, it was guest appearances by Liza Minnelli.

Earlier in "From the Archives" we looked at the prime-time special Woody Allen produced in 1969 that followed the same format as this earlier one: opening monologue, sketches, musical numbers, interview with someone that is ideologically different from Woody. In 1967, we see that Woody was significantly greener, and perhaps a little more unfamiliar to home audiences. While he had made a number of TV appearances on shows like "Ed Sullivan," and "I've Got a Secret," the main body of work that we know the comedian for today, namely his prolific film career, was at it's very beginning stages. At this point on the big screen, Allen's output was comprised solely of James Bond parodies: an uncredited cameo in Peter Sellers' version of Casino Royale and Woody's original redubbing of a Japanese spy film, "What's Up Tiger Lilly?" At the end of '67, Woody was on his way, but he wasn't a household name yet.

The show begins (after a very long, very trippy opening sequence involving a wide variety of 1967-related images flashing in each of Woody's signature glasses lenses) with a stand-up monologue from our host. This includes a lot of material that I had never heard anywhere else. Despite what the title of the special might suggest, there was really only one brief topical piece when Woody describes trying to enlist in the Vietnam War only to have the officials at the board burn his draft card for him. He goes on to declare that President Johnson's popularity was highest in February because it only had 28 days in it.

Technically Woody performs only one other chunk as part of his opening monologue, but it's a lengthy piece in his storytelling style that is chock-full of mini-punchlines along the way. He discusses having broken up with his wife, due to their constant fights in which she called him an imbecile, and then after Allen grew indignant, she broke the propeller right off his hat. Lonely, he tried a variety of methods to meet women and ended up at a topless cellist’s show ("It's not dirty. The andante, the slow part isn't dirty, but the allegro drove me up the walls.") It is here that he meets a young lady who belongs to a student non-violent group and, to try and impress her, he tries to defend an African American kid who is being beaten up on the street. Woody attempts to do some judo and ends up attacking the victim. The races then unite to begin attacking Allen and the whole gang is then arrested with Woody getting a concealed weapon charge for the knife stuck in his back. Now, Allen claims, everybody hates him. The African American kid things he's a fake liberal, the two attackers think he's a real liberal, a liberal who was there thinks that he's a fascist, the police chief thinks he's a hippy because he had beads on. "I'm not a hippy, but what else do you wear with a black velvet dress?" And the story continues with the punchlines occurring just as rapid fire throughout. (My personal favorite: "A lot of people think I'm Jewish because of the way I look and worship.")

Now we come to the sketch comedy portion of the evening which are definitely more Carol Burnett Show than Mr. Show. The first features Woody and Liza Minnelli as a husband and wife about to head out to a party that evening. Liza enters in a mini-skirt, and playing against type, Woody plays a super conservative, super suppressed husband who demands his wife go and put an actual skirt on. "When we got married I paid two dollars for those legs," claims the protective husband. The fight continues, and then things escalate when the neighbor next door enters and immediately begins to hit on Woody's wife. The neighbor accuses Woody of being a prude until his own wife shows up in a mini-skirt and the tables are turned. "Get with it man, it's 1967!" exclaims Allen. The neighbor retorts, "It's 1967 for your wife! For mine it's 1947!"

After a performance of "Respect" and "Chain of Fools" by Aretha Franklin, we get a second sketch, featuring the decline of an aging child star from the 1930s. In it Woody plays Baby Bobby Dimple, the male version of Shirley Temple, who speaks (and sings his signature tune "I'm a Little Lollipop Fellow" in a screeching falsetto. We learn through flashback that he was spoiled rotten by his mother, and when Baby Bobby through a tantrum he was lulled back by being read the latest grosses from the trades. Back in the present, Bobby's hair has grayed and is running for Senate. He eventually loses, and alone in his Citizen Kane-like mansion with his mother, he throws another tantrum that can only be stopped when his mother "reads" an article in the paper to him about how everyone in the country loves Baby Bobby Dimple.

We are treated to Liza Minnelli's performances of "Feelin' Groovy" and "My Beautiful Balloon" in front of psychedelic backdrops and then comes the question and answer section with William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of The National Review and the ultimate WASP. The audience asks questions of the pair and they give their responses, both of them managing to be funny and charming. Allen suggests that he would like to see there be a true conservative be president for a year in the hopes of it curing America of it forever. Buckley believes Robert Kennedy could become president if he could induce all of the Kennedys to vote for him. Despite their very different opinions, the pair gets along and both come off well in the interview.

The final sketch of the evening is a parody of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde featuring Woody as actor "Warren Beauty" and Minnelli as "Faye O'Laye." There isn't an awful lot to say about the sketch, as there isn't much to it. We do see a massive shootout sequence at the end, only to reveal that the police missed, and the main joke that is made over and over again is that Clyde has a large extended family that accompanies the duo on their heists. And with that description I just saved you six minutes.

Like the 1969 "Woody Allen Special" that would come later, this hour seems to make Allen fit into a form that no doubt constricted him, and in many ways seems contrary to his natural talents. He's a fun interview, and there's no arguing that as a stand-up he's fantastic, but a sketch comedian he is not. I'd be interested to know how involved Allen was in the writing process for these segments, after a previous fruitful career as a writer for Sid Caesar's sketch shows. Perhaps the issue is that he's still unknowingly writing for Sid in this special: large, crazy characters and very specific movie parodies would absolutely work for an actor like Caesar. But Woody Allen is not really an actor. He's always going to be the character of Woody Allen on the screen, and that's a hard persona to break out of. Lucky for us, he figured that out and hasn't yet stopped being Woody.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

  • Archie Oogley

    Nice one, Ramsey, and a good exit from an article/episode that sounds like it wasn't a look-what-I-found and more of it's-a-slog, keep-looking.