What I Learned from the Paley Center Archives This Year

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that I am a writer. (I sort of spoiled the surprise for you when I wrote a sentence down and then you read it.) More specifically, I am a comedy writer. When I started going to the Paley Center several years ago it was for entertainment, but it was also for my own education: to observe the comedians and performers of the past and to fill in the gaps of my own comedy history. However, when I came across what would become the subject of my first article for Splitsider, a short film made by Woody Allen that was never released to the public, I felt like I should get the word out. 56 articles later, I feel as though I’ve learned an awful lot. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from my year in the library at the Paley Center.

A Rocky Beginning Can Lead to a Legendary Career

Sometimes it can be hard to remember that everyone didn’t charge right out of the gates. There are overnight successes, but more often than not, the secret to being great is pretty simple: do the work. For example, the first appearance of Jackie Gleason’s classic Honeymooners characters, Ralph and Alice. There’s the same set, the same characters, and Gleason himself, but something feels off. Whether it’s the fact that Pert Kelton is playing Alice instead of Audrey Meadows, or the fact that the two are just plain mean to one another, the whole thing feels good, but not great. Similarly, we have Robin Williams’ first TV special on HBO. In his most recent specials or other standup appearances it’s wall-to-wall laughs for the comic, but in 1978 you really got to see him sweat. Well, you always do, but you know what I mean. Throughout the set we see Robin struggle and comment on it until finally he manages to win them all back with a high-energy rendition of what was going on inside his brain. In both cases we see some pretty inauspicious starts from some of the biggest names in comedy despite having big things ahead.

(In terms of this particular lesson, this is just the tip of the iceberg. We saw early, pre-legend material from Woody Allen, Jon Stewart, and Marc Maron that certainly wasn’t bad but certainly didn’t touch the towering highs of their later careers.)

Interviews Can Be Awesome

If you told the twelve-year-old version of me that I’d one day write a bunch of articles about adults in the 1970s and 80s interviewing other adults, I would have probably looked at you funny and then asked you to describe The Avengers movie to me again. However, Adult Me has learned that these interviews can be an amazing resource for information. For example, there was Tom Snyder’s talk with David Letterman, Billy Crystal, and Merril Markoe, all at the beginning of their careers, as well as Dick Cavett’s interview with the amazing Groucho Marx towards the end of his, not to mention the occasional recap I’ve done of the various panels the Paley Center has held over the years. In each of these pieces, the subjects have attempted to articulate the behind-the-scenes process that goes into making comedy, the dissection of which can actually be more difficult than actually making it. In addition to Dick and Tom, I’ve seen great interviewers do their thing like Johnny Carson, Julie Klausner, Alan King and Sarah Vowell, each of them pulling information out of their subjects so effortlessly that it feels less like I’m watching an interview and more like I’m watching something intensely exciting like, oh, let’s say, The Avengers movie.

Even the Greats Can Misstep

In the same vein of the greats not always starting out that great, this year I learned that sometimes the greats don’t always stay that great. Let’s look again at Jackie Gleason, this time after his great successes on the Colgate Theater and The Honeymooners. At this point in his career he’s a household name and whatever he wants to do on TV is fine with the networks. Well, unfortunately, that project in 1961 was called You’re in the Picture, a game show so bad that the second episode was just a half-hour apology from Gleason. Or what about the sitcom from the delightful Martin Short, known as The Martin Short Show? You’d think it would be hard to mess up what is effectively a combination of Short, Steve Martin, and some of the best cast members from SCTV, but unfortunately, it happened. In both of these cases, this wasn’t the end of their careers. They simply had to dust themselves off and try again, as Aaliyah had advised them.

Keep ‘Em Guessing

In comedy it’s absolutely possible to have too much of one thing. The good ones know that in order to keep surprising the audience and by doing so, keep getting laughs, you’ve got to keep the viewer guessing. In his Paley Center panel, Louis CK explained this by comparing the job of being a comedian to being former Yankee’s picture, Orlando Hernandez. “You have your fastball which are jokes, and then you have weird sliders. They don’t know when they’re going to see what.” In looking at an old Steve Martin special entitled Comedy Is Not Pretty,I observed that the special is the rare example of a perfectly balanced sketch show because practically every sketch fit into a much different category from the one the preceded it. While these are the two examples I used to highlight this lesson, it’d be a safe bet to say that if you’ve watched something funny that you felt was really amazing and satisfying, it probably followed this rule.

You Never Know What You’re Going to Find 

Sometimes I go into the Archives with a specific program to watch and take notes on, and other times I just go in and hunt. The times in which I’ve been blown away by what I’ve found are innumerable. Most recently it was the unaired Woody Allen pilot, but there’s also been amazing finds like Chrissy: Plain and Simple, an unaired segment with Lenny Bruce on The Steve Allen Show, a reel of clips from Groucho’s You Bet Your Life that were too saucy for 1950s TV, and a billion other things that I haven’t found yet.

Old Stuff Is Still Really Funny

Television is a medium designed to be disposable. Sometimes that’s very literal: the 45 episodes of Monty Python were very nearly wiped. Much of Ernie Kovac’s work is purportedly at the bottom of a river. When it was invented, TV was supposed to be broadcast, go out into the airwaves and then that was it. Nobody really considered how they could even record it until much further down the line. But the fact of the matter is, there’s an awful lot of stuff that was and is worth preserving. I’m not interested in just writing recaps in which I run down what happened in a show to prove that I watched something: there’s a cultural significance and an importance to these programs. It’s unfortunate that one has to be in New York or Los Angeles in order to see a lot of them, but thank goodness that the Paley Center exists to preserve them and allow thousands of people to continue watching, enjoying, and learning from these shows.

Thanks for reading this year. Let’s see what we learn from the archives in 2013.

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

What I Learned from the Paley Center Archives This Year