A Rare Look at Woody Allen’s Unaired Pilot About an Improv Comedy Team

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.)

After 55 of these articles, it’s nice to know that blindly searching for things in the Paley Center collection can still yield serendipitous gems. When I typed in the phrase “unaired pilot” into the search I was first presented with a lot of the usual suspects from TV history: the original Star Trek episode, “The Cage,” a copy of Dan Harmon’s Heat Vision and Jack, the black and white first episode of Gilligan’s Island and so on. What I wasn’t expecting was a little thing from 1962 that was labeled: “LAUGHMAKERS, THE {PILOT} {Woody Allen, Alan Alda, Louise Lasser}.”

What I had found was a sitcom pilot that Woody Allen had written but never went anywhere. Written in 1962, this would have fallen in Woody’s career shortly after finishing his first professional TV gig as a writer for Sid Caesar’s TV show, and just after he began a new career: that of a stand-up comic, working the circuit in New York City’s trendy Greenwich Village (which will play into our story a little later). There’s very little information about this pilot online (IMDb has it listed as a short film with a slightly different title), but it would appear that this was initially produced for ABC before they ultimately passed, missing the boat on having a sitcom created/written by future legend Woody Allen and featuring also future legend Alan Alda, a full ten years before he’d get his big break in M*A*S*H. I know it’s not fair to gloat from the future, but, way to drop the ball, ABC!

[UPDATE: According to the always astounding keeper of comedy knowledge Kliph Nesteroff, this pilot was one of 28 commissioned by ABC that season, an all-time record. With the goal of creating a number of New York-based pilots utilizing writers and directors from the area, they also commissioned a pilot from Mel Brooks called Inside Danny Baker which can be found on the newly released Mel Brooks boxset from Shout! Factory. While neither of these pilots were greenlit, this did eventually lead to the creation of Get Smart!, so all was not lost.]

But let’s get to the show itself. Despite the fact that this program came at such an early point in Woody’s career, it’s surprising to see the title card which features the words “By Woody Allen” almost as large as the title itself. (Incidentally, the titles play over some Dixieland jazz music, the Woody Alleniest choice you could make in music.) The second surprise is how modern the show feels while still being completely of its time. First there’s the subject matter: the story follows the behind the scenes travails of a struggling improv group, trying to make a go of it in New York City’s trendy Greenwich Village (see?). At the same time, one of the major plot points involves a trip to a hip coffee shop for some competitive beat poetry. The show is a single camera program, which would make it fit in on the schedule today, but it has a prerecorded laugh track plopped on top and is, of course, in black and white. And above all, it’s a show about young people! And they’re talking about stuff young people would care about! They try to have sex with each other! On TV in 1962! The top 3 programs of that year were, in order, Wagon Train, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke. Hindsight is 20/20, but it’s pretty clear that unless this improv troupe was playing at the Ponderosa Ranch, this show didn’t stand a chance.

The show begins with the group performing their show for a crowd at their home base, The Freudian Slip. It’s clear right away that the comedy style is directly influenced by the Second City style that had blossomed shortly before this time. Two actors perform a blackout sketch for the audience, meaning a very short three or four line scene ending in, obviously, the lights blacking out, and then ending their set with an improv set. When asking for topics, our heroes get some super early-sixties suggestions: Khrushchev, psychological warfare, invading an island. After the show, backstage, Sid the club owner harasses one of our lead characters, Tad about the light crowd, saying, “I’ve seen more people playing solitaire!”

Depressed, Tad goes to a cafe along with his fellow cast mate, Danny, who can be distinguished by his black frame hipster glasses, or as they would have been known in 1962, regular glasses. Here they are approached by two beatniks who saw the show that evening, including the super spacey Joyce Hayes, played by Allen’s future wife, Louise Lasser. Tad, who is clearly desperate to seduce the young lady, encourages the young lady to audition for the group before she is pulled out by her friend who wants to “go home to go listen to the new Marcel Marceau record.” (If you don’t get it, look it up. It’s a nice piece of business.)

The next day, Joyce shows up for her audition, and after meeting her and learning that she’s been kicked out of several colleges, the rest of the troupe is skeptical. But, when she gets up on stage, she and Danny improvise a scene in which she is held up at gunpoint only to realize that they knew each other back in high school. They catch up, and as they do so, he casually asks for her wallet, or reminds her to keep her hands up and she cheerfully obliges. Then, as they part ways, she says there’s one more thing, and informs him that she’s a cop now. She’s a natural!

In the next scene, Tad walks her home to her apartment. When they arrive he asks “What does your apartment look like?” barges in, and then lies down on her bed, which is about as risqué as it gets on TV in the sixties. We learn a little bit about Joyce’s upbringing and her life, such as how her father subsidizes her artistic lifestyle and her mother’s reaction when she learned that her daughter wanted to be an actress: “she tried to take an overdose of Mah-Jongg tiles.” Sound familiar? That’s because Woody Allen doesn’t waste a funny line, and later recycled it in Annie Hall, fifteen years later.

From here, things escalate quickly and the plot moves come fast and furious. Back at the theatre we see Young Alan Alda performing on stage wearing the dumbest looking Beatles wig you’ve ever seen, really chewing the scenery in what is pretty much his only scene in this entire pilot. Backstage, Sid reveals that the bookers from the Ed Sullivan show were in the crowd and want to put the group on TV. Of course, in particular they loved Joyce. Then, with perfect sitcom timing, Danny enters to inform them that Joyce has quit. Her reasoning is that she’s too much of an artist. “Today it’s Sullivan, yesterday it was the newspapers. They’ll never leave us alone and let us work.” She speeds away in her car, as Tad chases alongside her on his Vespa which, in a weird non sequitur, he then drives up the ramp of a moving van which then closes it’s doors, trapping him inside.

Back at her place, Joyce reveals that she’s realized her true calling and now wants to be a poet. She reads Tad a sample: “Night must fall / as gangs of sly assailants / scribble Calvin Coolidge on Bartok’s grave.” She proclaims that her work “has an otherness you’ll never have,” to which Tad responds, “I don’t want an otherness. I have a thisness.” Finally a classic sitcom deal is struck: at the Cafe Decadence on Saturday, they’ll both write a poem. Whichever one goes over better wins. If it’s Tad, Joyce stays with improv. If it’s Joyce, she does what she wants.

On the day of the poetry-off, the cafe is filled with beatniks and the rest of the improv troupe. Joyce reads her poem first, which ends with a tribute to one of Woody’s biggest inspirations, “God bless Ingmar Bergman.” From the crowd, Sid corrects her, “Ingrid Bergman.” Tad prepares to perform next, only to learn that there’s a special guest that evening, Jon Plume who is going to read his poem, “Ode to a Fungus.” Unfortunately, Tad’s plan was to read that very poem. When Tad goes up, he pulls something out of his pocket and decides to read a poem called “Ode to a Driver’s License.” On top of a bongo beat he reads such lines as “State of New York, man. / Department of Taxation and Finance. / Do not write in space below. / This is to certify the above / Expires in 1965 / Crazy. / Crazy driver’s license. / You are my mother.”

Tad’s poem is by far the winner, and so Joyce has no choice but to return to improv. Back at Joyce’s car, she admits defeat, and Tad reveals his deception. Irritated, but not angry, they drive off together in her car, and accidentally drive up the ramp of a moving truck and the movers close them inside.

While this is definitely a show that wouldn’t have lasted long in 1962, as I watched, it felt an awful lot like a cross between 30 Rock and The New Girl with its too-witty-for-TV banter, and it’s kooky, at times cartoony, characters. While it’s a shame there aren’t any more episodes of this series to enjoy, we can all rest soundly knowing that that participants landed on their feet. But now at least we all know what would have happened if Woody had been handed the keys to a network sitcom: we probably would have loved it.

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

A Rare Look at Woody Allen’s Unaired Pilot About an […]