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.)
1969 was a big year for Woody Allen. He had just written, directed and starred in the movie Take the Money and Run, he was appearing on Broadway in a play he wrote entitled Play it Again, Sam and to top it all off, on September 21, on CBS, America was treated to The Woody Allen Special, a one-time only oddity that hasn’t been seen since. A very strange combination of elements, The Woody Allen Special was a variety show in every sense of the word.
It opened with Woody doing a stand-up monologue (in which he manages to plug both of his previously mentioned specials). In it, Woody hits all of the topics that we now know him for. Sex and death (“both only come once in my lifetime”), his mother, (“I asked how do I get babies? She thought I said rabies. So, I was bit by a dog”) and cowardice (it’s far too long to quote, but he tells a great story about hiding in the closet from robbers, which turns out to be the TV on in the other room.)
From there, Woody introduces a sketch featuring a young Candice Bergen, in which the two play a young pair of Broadway actors on their first rehearsal for a new show. Enter the loud, stubborn director who informs them that the first scene they’ll be performing is going to be done nude. When they protest, they’re told that if they’re not naked by the time he returns, they’re out of the show. This leads to a lengthy, but funny scene in which the timid pair reluctantly strips down in front of each other, after a lot of bargaining.
The one thing that sticks out about the sketch, is that’s it’s very clear that Woody wrote it. Not just because of the tone and style of the sketch, but because Woody seems to be the only one with any funny lines. When they protest to the director, Candice is given the line, “Why does it have to be nude? Why can’t it be something that gives the same effect? Like clothes!” Whereas Woody gets “My mother is coming! She hasn’t seen me nude in over thirty years! She’ll know something is wrong!” And then once the pair begins to strip, as you might expect, it’s Woody who is put on the defensive and is the butt of the joke. But while it is a little one-sided, that side is entertaining.
A second sketch featuring Bergen, shown later in the special, has the opposite problem in which neither of the pair has any funny lines. However, this is because it’s a silent movie pastiche with the potentially dirty title of “Cupid’s Shaft.” The short version of this: Woody plays a down on his luck hobo who falls in love with Bergen, a wealthy heiress who has amnesia after she bangs her head against something. They fall in love, she hits her head again and remembers everything, hits it again and falls back in love, and on and on. Woody and Bergen are going to marry until he leaves to prepare and she regains her memories to return to her fiancé who wishes to marry her immediately at the very park where she planned on marrying Woody. It’s not so much funny as cute, and not so much short as way too long.
The final sketch that the pair performed was referred to as “An Original Folk Tale.” Candice plays a beautiful but stupid girl who is brought to Woody, dressed as a rabbi, to fix her. He trains her day after day until she seems to have improved, and he sends her to be unveiled at Norman Mailer’s Annual Cocktail Party and Fist Fight. There she meets Woody Allen, minus the rabbi getup, and when she realizes it’s him; she confesses her love for him. They embrace and the narrator sums it all up: “two different people learned to live in harmony and mutual respect. Until… the divorce.”
Beyond these sketches, there are some rather strange things going on with this special. (And I’m not even going to talk about the fact that all of the commercials are for a company called Lindy’s and feature Tony Randall as a detective who is trying to figure out who the sponsor of the show is…) For example, after the first sketch, Woody introduces the band The Fifth Dimension (best known for their version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”) who performs a medley of two of their hits. Right. I was not expecting this from The Woody Allen Special either.
But strangest of all is when Woody brings out his guest: the Reverend Billy Graham. Lucky for us, somebody has uploaded this to YouTube.
But in case you don’t want to watch the whole thing, it’s a very respectful conversation between two people who greatly disagree with one another, but are open to listening to what the other person has to say. And I don’t care what it says about me, I think it’s hilarious to hear Woody, in front of one of the most famous religious figures of his day, say that not having premarital sex is like “getting a driver’s license without a learner’s permit.” Or when Woody says that he doesn’t use any type of drug and Graham admits to drinking coffee and says he need’s Woody’s help, Allen can’t resist responding “Yes, if you have faith in me, I will lead you.” It’s one of the strangest pairings in all of television and it makes for some really compelling watching.
But is it still funny? I would say mostly. Some of the sketches overstay their welcome, and the nude actor sketch doesn’t really have an ending, but when Woody lands a solid joke, there’s no stopping him. Luckily there are enough of those to make it worth your while. However, if you can’t make it down to the Paley Center, do watch the Billy Graham interview above, and see what intelligent televised discourse looked like, before we went and ruined it.