Friday, January 06, 2012

Meeting Woody Allen

Ready for some Friday Questions?

Bowling Joe gets us going with a Woody Allen query.  (Lot of great comments about Woody re yesterday's post): 

I just watched the PBS American Masters two-part feature on Woody Allen, which was very enjoyable and informative. My question is, have you ever crossed paths with Woody Allen and if so, any good stories? Thanks.

I met him once. No great stories though. This was in 1977. ANNIE HALL was out. At the time, Woody played clarinet in a jazz band every Monday night at Michael’s Pub in New York. I was in Gotham on vacation and went to see him perform. Surprisingly, the club wasn’t packed. We were able to get a good table and we didn't have to tip anyone a hundred.

During the break he just stayed on stage. One or two people asked for autographs, which he obliged. Woody Allen was my idol at the time, and although I don’t usually do this, I was such a geek fanboy that I decided to go up and introduce myself. I’m sure it helped that I was writing for MASH at the time. When you meet a celebrity you should say that, too.

Anyway, he was very warm. We discussed our mutual friend, Larry Gelbart, and basically just chatted for about ten minutes. I told him how much I loved ANNIE HALL. He told me how much he loved MASH. I was telling the truth. He was just being nice. Like I said, he performed every Monday night. MASH was on Monday nights. Still. It was a major thrill just to meet him. We shook hands. I requested “The Purple People Eater” and that was it.

Ray Morton asks:

I know this was before your producing tenure on MASH, but what do you know about the addition of the Captain Spaulding character -- the singing surgeon played by Loudon Wainwright III in season 3? He only appeared in 3 episodes and then disappeared. I've always wondered why he was on the show in the first place, where the idea of having a sort of a musical Greek chorus/ narrator came from, and why he vanished without a trace.

This was an experiment producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds tried. They were always looking for inventive ways to tell stories. One idea was to frame the episode around a song. They tried it a few times and it just didn’t work so they abandoned the idea. I think this was around the time Loudon Wainwright had his only Top 40 smash – “Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road.” It’s the one love song I wish I had written.

From Scott from Wisconsin:

I read (not sure how accurate) that Warner still has the Ponderosa set in storage. Is it common practice for studios to keep sets from iconic shows or are they more likely to be tossed or taken home?

Unless a show is a big hit, the sets are usually dismantled. And you’re right. Crew members and the staff will often scrounge props or pieces of the set.  When BIG WAVE DAVE'S was canceled I took a surfboard. 

I knew a guy in college who had parts of the original Star Trek Enterprise bridge assembled in his dorm room. Wonder how much those are worth today?

But for the most part sets are struck, maybe parts are stored for future use if they’re generic enough. For example: restaurants. A different coat of paint and new set dressing and an Italian joint from MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE becomes a sushi bar for MODERN FAMILY.

I believe the Smithsonian has the actual sets from MASH and CHEERS. So instead of seeing a Mercury capsule or Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane, check out keepsakes of my career.

From Anonymous (please leave your name):

When you watch a current sitcom, do you see all the punchlines coming from a mile away? Or are you ever surprised by a funny line (like us non-writers)?

I often wonder if people in show business can simply enjoy a show or movie, or if they find themselves constantly thinking "I would have done that differently."

Yes, on some shows it becomes a game to shout out the punchlines just before the characters. It’s a game that lasts for maybe five minutes because then I turn the show off.

Worse – jokes so bad they make me groan. Usually two groans a show and I’m gone, often for good.

But there are series that genuinely make me laugh. PARKS & RECREATION for one. It doesn’t have the sizzle of other sitcoms like MODERN FAMILY or BIG BANG THEORY and it’s on a network that loses in the ratings to Univision, but for my money, PARKS & REC has quietly become the best sitcom on television.

I try not to think what I would do differently. Otherwise, every show I watch becomes just a bad runthrough. And honestly, when I sit down to watch a show I want to love it. I want to be surprised, drawn into the story and characters, and entertained. And since so few shows really deliver I greatly appreciate the ones that do.

And finally, DwWashburn (immortalized in a Monkees song) asks:

R/E Laughing at your own jokes -- Have you ever seen an actor who thought a line was so funny that he/she could not deliver it without breaking up? You see actors all the time in blooper reels getting "the giggles" but I wonder if you have seen the same reaction from the written word? Was the line rewritten so it could be delivered?

Not that I can remember. Sometimes we’ll change lines if they’re too much of a mouthful and the actor can’t get them out. But if a line is funny enough to evoke that kind of reaction, we’ll do sixty takes if necessary.

This has happened a couple of times in episodes I’ve directed. What I’ll do is this: If the actor has the giggles and can’t get it in three or four takes, I just move on and get it in a pick-up later after the audience has left and the actor has had a chance to settle down. But you know how it is – you get on a laughing jag and that causes the people around you to break up too. Now imagine that with 200 other people. It’s hard enough to recover from a laughing jag without hearing 200 other laughers who can’t control themselves.

What’s your question?


birdie said...

Speaking of Larry Gelbart...I guess this would be another Fri question: is it true that Alan Alda's (absolutely hilarious) character in Crimes + Misdemeanors was at least partially or loosely based on him? It is listed in the imdb FAQs but you can't always trust those, so I was wondering if you have any additional insight. I probably consider that Woody Allen's best movie, incidentally; closely followed by the other 3 that are typically considered his best (Annie Hall, Hannah, Manhattan).

Michael said...

First, one of my best friends and I went to Michael's in the late 1980s to see and hear Woody perform. My friend was a clarinetist and said that if Woody had stayed with that, he would have gone very far in THAT field, too.

As for break-ups, Laurel and Hardy did a short in which they are exposed to laughing gas at the dentist's office. The key to it, of course, was that they couldn't stop laughing, which meant that, well, they had to keep laughing ... and find ways to keep each other laughing. They did it so well that the two of them were basically overcome and had to stop filming for the day.

As for a great breakup, I highly recommend doing a You Tube search for Tim Conway elephant. If you've seen it, you know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

The Tim Conway elephant thing is the greatest. I have seen it hundreds of times and it brings tears to my eyes every time. I think it's Mama's comment that throws it over the top.

The only Woody Allen movie I have ever enjoyed was "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex..." Small little bits, not all with Woody, that were funny. Gene Wilder as a GYN with a! Just never got Woody and never got that excited about any of his movies.

Pam aka SisterZip

LouOCNY said...

As for a great breakup, I highly recommend doing a You Tube search for Tim Conway elephant. If you've seen it, you know what I mean.

Two words: Father Duffy

which brings up a potential Friday question: Does every show make a gag reel up, and do some of the stars and crew get a copy of it?Some of them are so classic: the Trek ones, MASH, the LAUGH IN is funnier thna the show was - I could watch Arte Johnson riffing dirty on Tyrone Horneigh (thats Hor - NAY)forever...

The reason I ask is that I have a fairly extensive collection of blooers from various compiles, and seemingly most of the ones from the 60's seem to feature two people - Don Rickles and Tim Conway - coincidence?

Kristin said...

Hi Ken,

Friday question: What do you think were the top five moments in Sam and Diane's relationship?

MBunge said...

"PARKS & REC has quietly become the best sitcom on television."

That show suffers from a surprisingly common malady with current NBC comedies. It doesn't understand that "clever" is not the same thing as "funny".


Jim S said...

Baseball question. What do you think of the whole Ryan Braun winning MVP while under double secret probation, and the baseball writers not taking away the award, which was won, according to the league, while under the influence?

Another Ken said...

Hey Ken, glad to see you praising "Parks and Rec". Along with "Community", one of the best comedies on TV. Beats overrated dreck like "The Big Bang Theory" any day.

Cap'n Bob said...

Don't sell yourself short. Maybe Woody Allen taped MASH and watched it later.

Breadbaker said...

We were just at the Smithsonian and the sets for Cheers and M*A*S*H weren't out. I think they rotate exhibits. You could see Julia Child's kitchen, though.

Pat Reeder said...

As a Woody Allen fan going way back to the beginning (I even watch "Casino Royale" every time I stumble across it, just to see the five or so hilarious minutes featuring Woody, reportedly -- and obviously -- written by him), I agree with Birdie above that "Crimes & Misdemeanors" is his best film. Well, at least the best of the later, less funny ones. For pure comedies, I think "Love and Death" is his "Duck Soup."

One of the reasons I didn't care for "Match Point" as much as the critics did was because to me, it felt as if he were just recycling the serious half of "C&M" with younger, prettier people and a change of venue. Without the contrasting comic story and the older protagonist's moral/religious struggle, it seemed like a beautifully made but shallow retread.

I'm still a huge fan, though. I've stuck with him through his personal scandals and a lot of lackluster pictures (I even paid to see "Curse of the Jade Scorpion," "Small Time Crooks" and "Hollywood Ending" in theaters), and I defended "Stardust Memories" as brilliant while all around were egging it. But I have to admit, in recent decades, I wish he'd put some of his scripts through at least a second draft ("If you want to do mankind a favor, tell funnier jokes"). And watching Will Ferrell play an oversized, lumpy, whiny, stammering version of Woody in "Melinda and Melinda" was a form of torture that should be banned by the Geneva Convention.

Michael said...

Friday baseball question: What do think about the Bill Conlin Hall of Fame?

Michael said...

correction to above question:

Friday baseball question: What do think about the Bill Conlin Hall of Fame controversy?

Johnny Walker said...

Nice to see so many Woody Allen fans. I embarked on a personal project to watch all his films in chronological order and ended up getting stuck at C&M. It's a brilliant film in many ways, but it's also thoroughly depressing. It was quite a shock to see Allen's pessimistic (as he describes it himself) view of the world laid so bare, and so starkly.

I'd always thought he was a very upbeat and optimistic person, but as part of my project I read just about every contemporary interview with him about the film I'd just watched, and I really got into his mindset. Far more than I ever wanted to, actually. And it was quite an ugly place, all told.

I realised that Allen in Annie Hall, once you strip away the comedy neurosis, is basically him. He REALLY does believe that life is either "miserable" or "horrible", and he really IS obsessed with death. Poor guy.

I now realise that a lot of his comedy movies have a thread of existential angst running through them. Often in such a way that casual viewers don't notice. But once you know it's there, it's actually very obvious, and it kind of takes away some of the joy.

He also, if we're going to get into the "nitty gritty" of it, uses an air "rationality" to justify himself and his opinions. And it works to a degree, until you realise it's actually an unhealthy detatchment from the world around him. (The most obvious case being the damage he caused to his children when he married their sister.)

Still, an interesting and talented guy.

David no longer from Montreal said...

Friday Baseball question: Tim Raines' stats make him look like the love child of Tony Gwynn and Lou Brock. Why hasn't he got much Hall of Fame love so far?

(Of course, by the time you reply, the HoF voting will be announced, and who knows what could happen?)

ump902a said...

DW Washburn was written by Lieber/Stoller. I saw it performed on stage in Smokey Joe's Cafe.

Ref said...

...his girlfriend's adopted daughter?

Paul Duca said...

Interesting trivia about a show set...when BATMAN was cancelled by ABC in early 1968, Fox worked out a deal for NBC to air it. However, by the time this happened, the main standing set--the Batcave--had been dismantled, and it wasn't financially feasible to rebuild it.
(I believe that's why Fox ended up giving THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR to NBC...which after its first season went over to ABC).

DyHrdMET said...

I just bought your book. Can you come to New Jersey to autograph it for me?

sephim said...

When Woody Allen finally gets that movie he's been making just right, it's going to be fantastic...

D. McEwan said...

"Cap'n Bob said...
Don't sell yourself short. Maybe Woody Allen taped MASH and watched it later."

On what? the home video revolution came in during the 1980s, after M*A*S*H was over, too late even for AfterM*A*S*H.

Paul Duca said...

Doug...Woody Allen could certainly afford the $2395 the first Sony Betamax (with built in TV) cost in 1975, or the $1000+ for a stand alone model with separate clock timer, or the earliest VHS models--the type that popped out the tape from the top and had a wired remote control. Not to mention the $20 a blank tape. He had the resources to be ahead of the curve.

D. McEwan said...

Did Woody have the "resources"? Sure. Does it sound at all like Woody Allen that he'd be that committed to watching TV? When he did have an evening off, and he wasn't locked in a room writing, there were still high school dances to troll, I mean high-toned literary salons to attend.

Matt Patton said...

Favorite lyrics by Loudon Wainwright (I wish I could remember the name of the song . . .):

She's living in a city a thousand miles away
A city full of male models
Not all of whom are gay . . .

Wendy M. Grossman said...

In the 1970s even I had a friend with a reel-to-reel video recorder he used to tape TV shows. Since Woody Allen worked in the business, I imagine he had *something*.

As for Woody Allen movies, my favorites, personally, are Manhattan and Purple Rose of Cairo. I also have a lot of affection for Broadway Danny Rose that's due to having spent years on the folk scene, where small-time struggling but passionate acts and agents are common.


Kevin S. said...

I know for certain that the Smithsonian has the original M*A*S*H set as an exhibit that is rotated and not always permanent.

Unless you know otherwise, Ken, my recollection is that the now-defunct Hollywood Entertainment Museum (not to be confused with the current 'Hollywood Museum') used to have the Cheers bar and Sam's office on display. The current whereabouts of those sets and the other displays are a mystery. I don't think they were recreations. You can read up on it here:

It would be great if you can find out what happened to the Cheers bar. The Smithsonian should have it if they don't. Start a campaign on your blog and save it!

By Ken Levine said...

The one in Hollywood was a recreation, despite what they may claim. I was told it's at the Smithsonian. Whether it's displayed is another matter. It should be though. Haven't we seen enough space capsules?

Steve Crooks said...

Friday question:

I presume, perhaps incorrectly, that TV writers know how to correctly use "who" and "whom". Yet 90% of the time I hear "who" when it should be "whom". What's the deal? Writers hate "whom" and feel it's antiquated? Writers feel like no one uses "whom", so why would a character say it? The actor doesn't memorize that accurately and drops in "who" and no one cares or notices?

It drives me bonkers, and probably my wife too, since I always correct the TV like an idiot. Whom's fault is this????

Kevin S. said...

Thanks for the update on the Cheers set, Ken. It's definitely something that has earned its rightful place in history next to Fonzie's leather jacket and Archie Bunker's chair. Maybe I'll inquire with the Smithsonian and get the facts about the Cheers whereabouts.

K. said...

Hi Ken,

I just received what I would assume is the official answer from the Smithsonian regarding the Cheers set being in their collection.

"According to curators in the Division of Culture and the Arts in the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, the bar set from the
television program Cheers is not in the collections of the museum.

We appreciate your interest in the Smithsonian."

So, where do we go from here? It would be nice to find out what happened to the real set if you know who to ask (and if the Hollywood Museum one truly was a fake).

- Kevin S.