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Woody Allen: "And I'm thinking to myself, gee, I'd like to have my own television show, because, you know, why not, I deserve it.... And I walked right over to CBS and I walk right in on them, unannounced. And I say 'I want to have my own television show. I've done a lot of big projects this year -- a film and a play. And, you know, I'm a VERY big star.' They said 'Really! Which one?'" (rimshot!)
By 1969, Woody Allen had been in the public eye for about a decade, thanks to appearances on "Candid Camera" and having made the rounds of the variety and talk shows of the era (Dean Martin, Andy Williams, Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, etc.). He wasn't above doing such game shows as "What's My Line?" and "I've Got a Secret" and even playing "Password" with Nancy Sinatra. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN was in the moviehouses and Woody himself was on Broadway starring in his own "Play It Again, Sam." So he may not have been a "big star," but he had gained enough notoriety to be beyond being a newcomer, or even a cult favorite. "The Kraft Music Hall" was an anthology variety show (on NBC, not CBS), with frequently revolving guest hosts, so it wasn't that odd that a hot comic and celebrated wit would be given a shot at hosting.
What is odd, however, was that Allen had hosted an episode in 1967 and wasn't happy with the material that was supplied for him by the staff writers; so this time he wrote the show himself. Yet, despite having creative control, the special isn't that special; it is, at best, typical TV fair for the late sixties: A little risqué, a little bit topical and mostly just hokey. (Though Woody probably didn't have complete control of the show; I can't imagine him choosing The 5th Dimension to be his musical guests and it is obvious that he wasn't comfortable introducing the commercials for the sponsor, Libby's canned vegetables.) The show sometimes gets singled out for classic status, but mostly because of the unlikely guest appearance by the Rev. Billy Graham, whose brief Q & A with Woody and the studio audience is certainly the show's high point. His own appearances on talk shows obviously prepared Woody well for this type of encounter and he conducts himself admirably, never letting his obvious dislike for Graham's beliefs become nasty or overly confrontational. The evangelist Graham neatly sidesteps the few zingers that Woody throws at him and you get the feeling the two men genuinely respect each other as professionals, if nothing else. Allen may have missed his calling by not trying his hand at a real talk show.
Oddly, this largely unscripted segment certainly works better than the stilted sketches that Woody wrote. A major problem is that Woody is paired in the skits with a young Candice Bergen, who regrettably is still several years shy of being able to act with any degree of competence and certainly hadn't yet developed any comic flair. Not that she is given much to work with. One skit, involving two actors who are suddenly faced with doing an on-stage nude scene may have been cutting-edge naughty at the time, but now seems tired and obvious. A later skit is something of a take off on "My Fair Lady" with Bergen playing an incredibly stupid woman who is taught to be an intellectual by Allen as a Rabbi (who inexplicably is a psychiatrist in disguise). Even noting Woody's strange fascination with mocking rabbis, the sketch seems particularly unfunny, coming right after the somewhat more sincere religious chat with Graham.
Certainly the most imaginative and ambitious skit is "Cupid's Shaft," an attempt to capture the flavor of silent movie comedy. Bearing a strong resemblance to Harold Lloyd, with a bit of Buster Keaton tossed in, Woody plays a lowly park maintenance worker who falls in love with a society girl (Bergen), whose amnesia tends to come and go with every bump on the noggin. Though physical shtick has never been one of Woody's major strengths, he manages to handle the pratfalls and double takes quite well. The bit doesn't quite capture the tone of a real silent movie -- it looks too much like a taped skit and not a film -- but it does reflect Allen's respect for film style and his love of doing parodies of old movies. And it underscores that Woody's strong suit was and is mostly verbal humor.
One shouldn't judge a TV special like this too harshly, obviously it was made on a minimal budget and tight schedule. But it is of interest in that it was one of the last times Woody appeared as a stand up comedian on TV. The very success on stage and screen that no doubt got him the opportunity to do this show would be the very things that would pull him away from the medium pretty much for the rest of his career.
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