THE LAUGHMAKER is one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pilot episodes that are produced to become potential TV series. A few actually make the schedule; most never see the light of day beyond the boardrooms of the networks. I came across THE LAUGHMAKER on eBay.com, on a bootleg tape that also included unaired pilots for "My Favorite Martian" and "Mr. Ed," as well as an early episode of "The Ford Television Theatre" that might be considered as a prototype for "Father Knows Best." THE LAUGHMAKER is the only one that didn't become a series and it is easy to see why: It's not just because of its quality, but because it seems to be somewhat ahead of its time.
But the main thing of interest about "The Laughmaker" is that it is one of Woody Allen's forays into television. Of course, Woody got his start on television, as a gag writer for Sid Caeser and other fifties TV shows, as on-air talent on "Candid Camera" and the kids' show "Hot Dog," and by doing stand up on various variety shows during the 1960s. When he established himself as a legitimate filmmaker in the 70s, he pretty much left television behind. He's just the writer here, but it is an indication of Allen's rising stature that the title credit reads "The Laughmaker by Woody Allen."
The story takes place at a New York improvisational comedy club called the Freudian Slip. The place is ran by vaudevillian David Burns and the troop of performers include Alan Alda, Louise Lasser and Sandy Baron, as well as Paul Hampton, who plays Ted, the central character of the story. Also joining the group is Louise Sorel as Joyce, a stereotypically flaky society girl, prone to being expelled from colleges. The focus of the pilot is the romance between the sardonic Ted and kooky Joyce; mixed into the story are little comedy skits from the stage of the club.
The show certainly isn't typical of 1962 TV fare. For one thing, family themes were the norm and workplace comedies were still on the horizon -- and comedy clubs themselves were still a rarity. More, the glossy, slick nature of the typical sitcoms of the era, where everything is obviously filmed in a studio, is passed over in favor of a grittier texture and location shooting, so that the show has more of the feel of an actual low budget movie. The one undeniable and regrettable concession to the time and the medium is the presence of an oppressive laughtrack; the poorly used laughtrack only accentuates material that isn't particularly funny in the first place.
Though by no means is it top drawer Allen material, the show does reflect a Woody Allen mentality, albeit in a primitive form. For one thing relatively obscure ethnic references -- like jokes about overdosing of Mah Jong tiles -- are tossed in. And, in what would be a recurring theme in Allen's films (and his life), Joyce feels pangs of guilt over being a success in comedy and worries that she should be striving to create real art, in this case poetry. The tendency to belittle the importance of humor, while simultaneously romanticizing and mocking the pretense of being a real artist, is a trait that would haunt Woody's work for decades, both on and off screen.
The attempts to be both sophisticated and cutesy don't quite gel in THE LAUGHMAKER, the "improvised" bits, for instance, don't seem improvised, just sadly unrehearsed. But the idea of finding comedy in creating comedy is valid, as seen in everything from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to "Seinfeld" to "30 Rock." A show like this could work today. And much of what is in this pilot would reappear in Woody's later films. But, the one thing THE LAUGHMAKER does make clear is that the one thing Woody Allen's written material needs most is Woody Allen actually doing it.
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