The year 1969 was an early peak for Woody Allen. His first film as a director, “Take the Money and Run,” was a big hit. He also wrote and starred in the Broadway comedy “Play it Again Sam,” which was also a major smash (and as a side note, my mother saw that production and confirmed it was infinitely funnier than the subsequent film adaptation). Allen tried to go for a 1969 triple play by conquering television with a variety special, but sadly television was the one medium he failed to master.
To be blunt, “The Woody Allen Special” is anything but special. A main problem with “The Woody Allen Special” was the casting. Rather than import his “Play it Again Sam” co-stars Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts, Allen was saddled with Candice Bergen as a guest star. This was during a period of her career when Bergen was celebrated for her undeniable beauty while being slammed for her undeniable lack of talent. Even Bergen herself joined the critics during this period in speaking frankly about her blatant inability to connect dialogue with emotion (in a funny 1971 interview, she happily acknowledged: “At least I know my limitations – which are legion!”).
Sadly, Bergen decided not to recuse herself from “The Woody Allen Special” and wound up steamrolling the unique comic rhythms of Allen’s sketches. In playing an aspiring actress forced to do a nude scene with Allen, or portraying the over-emoting heroine of silent melodrama, or turning up as the unlikely pupil of a wise Hasidic rabbi, Bergen inspires pants-breaking erections with her beauty and torturous groans from anyone who expects an actress to be able to act.
Adding to the confusion is the Fifth Dimension, who perform two musical numbers which are haphazardly inserted into the show. Allen clearly had nothing to do with their presence and he is visibly uncomfortable introducing them. The singers don’t interact with Allen and manage to go through protracted productions with appropriately artificial smiles (although one of their songs, “Bill,” is always a joy to hear and watching the young Marilyn McCoo as the lead singer is a pleasure to the senses).
The most intriguing guest is the Rev. Billy Graham, who surprisingly agreed to join Allen for an audience Q&A. However, Allen is clearly on his best behavior with the popular evangelical preacher and he parks his smart-aleck jokes for very polite humor (at one point he asks Rev. Graham to name his favorite commandment). Rev. Graham never reels off the one-liners, but he does offer an intriguing answer to an audience question regarding his worst vice (Rev. Graham admits to drinking too much coffee per day!).
In between these segments are commercials for Libby’s canned fruit snacks. Libby’s sponsored the entire show and packed it with their commercials. For no clear reason, Tony Randall was hired to play a detective on the hunt for the elusive Libby’s products. Randall, who had the tendency to overplay the coy and fey nature of his screen persona, was never worst than in these commercials.
But ultimately, Allen is the cause of this disaster. His acting is self-assured, which is puzzling since he is never truly funny (much of the special has a very obvious laugh track which artificially yuks up the response to dull jokes). His comedy writing was uncommonly stale and his attempts to be timely and hip (without irking the censors) fall flat. As the novice actor forced to audition nude opposite Candice Bergen, he reels off the worst one-liners this side of a Bob Hope TV special. Consider these exchanges:
Woody: It’s exciting isn’t it, to finally be in a play that says something for change?
Candice: Oh yeah, I mean, this is hard hitting adult stuff – it’s all right here. Violence, dope addiction, corruption, poverty, betrayal, fascism.
Woody: Yeah, it’s about time somebody wrote something about the New York City school system.
Or maybe this give-and-take, from later in the same sketch, when a director tells the performers to get undressed:
Woody: My mother is coming for opening night! She hasn’t seen me naked in 30 years, she’ll know something is wrong.
Candice: Why does it have to be nude? Why can’t we work with something that has the same effect? Like clothes!
Woody: I just met this girl, I don’t know her. She’ll see my ribs.
Director: Look, it’s only a play.
Woody: Look, the country is not ready for my body! I never go to the beach. I’m so white, black students will riot!
Are you laughing? If you are not, don’t worry – you are not alone. When “The Woody Allen Special” aired on September 21, 1969, it was anything but a success. The program was never broadcast again and Allen never starred in another television special.
To date, “The Woody Allen Special” has never been commercially released on home video. The reason for its absence is unclear, but most likely Allen has sought to keep it out of sight. Allen fans can see it in private screenings at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York (which is where I saw it), or they can hunt around eBay for a bootleg video. There is at least one extreme Allen fan who has a web site stocked with rare Woody Allen videos and this title is among the goodies for collector-to-collector sale.
To be frank, “The Woody Allen Special” is strictly for those who think Allen walks on water. And as this program clearly proves, Allen is more than capable of drowning.
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