You’ve arrived in show business when your early work is catalogued and studied not because it’s laudatory, but because it’s yours .
Television is where Woody Allen got famous. Movies are where he got good.
“I’m much worse than I remember myself,” Allen said by phone from his Manhattan office about the young, developing artist who resurfaces in “Woody Allen: The Television Work,” a presentation here of the New York-based Museum of Broadcasting. “It’s hard to look at yourself years ago and have any kind of positive feeling.”
The two hours-plus of Allen will be screened at 10 p.m. on consecutive Saturdays at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of the broadcasting museum’s annual television festival running here through March 23. Allen will not be there in person.
Coincidentally, this weekend’s Allen program follows an 8 p.m. screening and discussion of “The Wonder Years,” ABC’s charmingly nostalgic comedy series about growing up in the 1960s.
“Woody Allen: The Television Work” also chronicles a fitful, wobbly maturation--of both the medium and Allen, mostly in the ‘60s, long before he evolved into one of our best and most prolific film makers. (His latest effort is one of the three segments in “New York Stories,” which opens here today.)
Although chronologically an adult, the Woody on the small screen, artistically, is still awkwardly adolescent, a comedy writer, sketch actor and monologist with creative pimples. It’s like watching Kareem when he was 6-2.
Borrowing Allen’s tag line for some of his jokes: “It’s the truth.”
The material here is uneven, ranging from sketches in a “Kraft Music Hall” special titled “Woody Allen Looks at 1967" to a series of monologues to a 1977 interview with Dick Cavett on PBS shortly after the release of Allen’s best film, the Oscar-winning “Annie Hall.”
Written and performed by Allen, the skit material is mostly awful. It’s hard knowing whether a “Bonnie & Clyde” parody with Liza Minnelli actually has glimmers of brilliance or just seems to compared with an earlier, embarrassingly bad sketch in which Allen wears blond curls to ham it up as a spoiled, tantrum-throwing child star who never grows up.
Much better--and sometimes very funny--is his stand-up work on a “Jack Parr Program” in 1962 and “The Dean Martin Show” in 1967, where, sounding very New Yorkese, he reviews “the salient areas of my private life over the last yeah.” The inevitable life crises spill out in anecdotes about his sex life and parents “who bronzed my baby shoes with my feet still in them.”
Although inevitably self-critical, Allen has a different evaluation of the screening material, preferring the sketches to the monologues.
“Some of the writing . . . and some of the sketch playing was good,” he said. “But when I see myself as a stand-up comedian, the toughest thing is to find monologue material where I was respectable. I see myself as having all these inauthentic mannerisms that I don’t like when I see other comedians. My memory was that I had always managed to avoid those myself.”
The broadcasting museum held a similar screening of Allen’s TV work in New York last summer. Allen, whose sister Letty Aronson is museum vice president, said he had trepidations about the retrospective. “But I didn’t want to be a spoilsport or a wet blanket.”
Although he didn’t pick the material to be screened, he did retain the right of final cut, so to speak, and used it. He vetoed portions of his TV work that were “embarrassing and horrible for me” he said, and “tried to leave in the less negative ones.”
It’s somewhat ironic that Allen would be so critical of his own TV stand-up comedy, in that variations of comedy monologues thread even much of his movie work. His eye for the absurdity in the ordinary rarely fails. Particularly in his earlier films, however, there is a sense of someone working a crowd, alternating good jokes and bad jokes.
“Especially ‘Take the Money and Run,’ which is clearly like a monologue, joke by joke,” he observed about the 1969 film that was his first as director, writer and star.
“I do think that I’m primarily a monologuist. I act in only a limited degree. I’m not really acting in the way Dustin Hoffman acts. I feel at home talking to an audience, sometimes in disguised form.”
Sometimes, too, as a narrator, a la “Radio Days,” where Allen nostalgically replayed and refined childhood memories of radio being an eclectic common denominator for Americans of the World War II era, as TV is today.
Could he have made a “Television Days,” a comparable movie about growing up with infant TV?
“Television came into my life a little late for that because it missed my childhood,” said Allen, 53. “But one definitely could. There are enumerable colorful memories when television came into my neighborhood, how we all congregated and reacted, how the first family in the neighborhood to get it felt responsible to have the other families in to watch.”
At 14, he bought a ukulele and began “taking lessons from Arthur Godfrey” on TV. It didn’t stick. His taste now runs to jazz and the clarinet.
“And I remember going to a television show when I was younger,” Allen said. “It may have been a variety show, maybe Jimmy Durante. I remember the warm-ups actually going out among the audience and giving them money, actually peeling off bills.”
In a sense, it was Allen who would use TV as his warm-up, however, joining the writing staff of the brilliant and innovative “Your Show of Shows” while still in his teens, then going on to other shows and finally peeling off one-liners as a stand-up comic.
“Television had no influence on me whatsoever as a performer,” he said. “I really was not a television performer of any consequence. I did a number of guest appearances and essentially did my (club) act.”
He does credit TV for his discipline as a writer. “Having been in a situation where I had to come in every morning and write shows that were going to be done at the end of the week--having to go in and come up with something because it was going to be on the air--made me a blue-collar writer,” he said. “To this day, I go in in the morning and work. I don’t have to wait for inspiration to come. I can go in there and grind it out, day after day. I’m able to come up with a lot of film scripts and not get blocked.”
Although some of his movies have TV references, these are mostly negative, and it’s been 20 years since his last TV special, a CBS hour that the museum is not screening in Los Angeles.
“I’d love to do something on television,” Allen said. A jazz-related program is one possibility, he said. “And this is not exactly what I had in mind, but a movie like ‘Zelig’ would have made a wonderful television special because that style of documentary is so associated with television.”
Meanwhile, those who want to see Woody Allen on television will have to be content with the museum’s retrospective. The interview with Cavett may be the most arresting part of the program, with Allen at one point affirming his belief that “meeting the greats” is inevitably disappointing and should be avoided “at all costs.”
His opinion hasn’t changed.
“I always felt that there were people I would prefer to look at through their work,” he said. “Some of the magic wears off. Not all of them, but some of them. I always idolized Louis Armstrong. I was careful never to meet him, because I felt he was always someone I knew from his records and TV. So nothing was ever spoiled for me. I never really met Marlon Brando. Once I said hello to him at a party. And that’s fine with me.”
It’s the truth.