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.)
Of all the comedy available at the Paley Center, I have to imagine that one of their rarest is a short film made by Woody Allen in 1972 called Men of Crisis: The Harvey Wallinger Story. In it, Allen plays Harvey Wallinger, a top Nixon aide (whose career may have some resemblance to that of Henry Kissinger’s) who has had a hand in every aspect of the administration, all the way down to helping Nixon with his makeup before the Kennedy debates.
Allen produced the film for very little money on his own and then gave it to WNET, the public TV station in New York. Shortly thereafter, it was scheduled to be shown on over 200 PBS stations across the country just before Nixon began his re-election campaign. Suddenly, PBS realized that showing a short film that does nothing but make fun of the president might not be a great idea if they want to keep their broadcast licenses and federal funding and quickly bailed on showing it. The special has never been on television, and though an attempt has been made in the last few years to do so, it seems unlikely that Woody will allow it to air. The experience clearly left a sour taste in his mouth, and Allen has cited it as the reason why he’d rather just “stick to movies.”
Besides Woody, the film also features two of his frequent leading ladies, Diane Keaton and Louise Lasser who play (as usual) his former lovers. “Men of Crisis” is only 25 minutes long and moves quickly, with a pacing and sense of humor that is more reminiscent of Sleeper than Midnight in Paris. It’s filled to the brim with some real classic-Woody-Allen-style gags, including a great run discussing Harvey Wallinger’s early years starting by discussing “his father, who died in childbirth,” after which Allen’s character set a record at his school by “graduating 96th in a class of 95” before moving on to receive his “Ph.D. in needlepoint at Harvard.”
The film itself is produced in the mockumentary form, which Woody had used in his previous film, Take the Money and Run, and like his 1983 film Zelig, Men of Crisis uses real news footage in between all the fake, funny parts. (Allen managed to dig up some fun, embarrassing footage of the political figures of the day, including one really strange clip of a Nixon press conference in which the president explained that he had no intention of running people over with his car. It would have made a great Moment of Zen for the then ten year-old Jon Stewart.)
The whole package is designed to feel like one part of a recurring profile series. As a result, it relies on a lot of talking heads to move things forward in between the doctored black and white photos and funny news clips. I’m basically trying to say this film was clearly made on the cheap, so don’t expect a lot of Bananas-style fight sequences and crazy car chases.
But is it still funny? Well, that depends on how you watch it. The general gags like the ones mentioned above, or when Woody’s character suggests that the makeup artist staple a flag to Nixon’s face, still work, and there are a lot of those in there. However, viewers expecting a savage skewering of what they know about the Nixon administration might be a little disappointed, mostly because the thing they probably know, Watergate, hadn’t happened yet. Still, to make PBS quake in their boots, Woody must have been hitting his target; it’s just that some of the specifics are harder to appreciate today.
But when it comes down to it, even if names like Spiro Agnew and Hubert Humphrey don’t mean a lot to modern viewers, funny is funny, and Woody Allen knows what he’s doing there. And while it’s not like there’s a dearth of his material to be found, but for fans of Woody Allen’s early stuff, a trip to the Paley Center is due.