Woody Allen: Television as Crisis

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Senses of Cinema, 2019, (92)
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HomeFeature Articles Woody Allen: Television as Crisis Alex Munt October 2019 Feature Articles Issue 92 “Renata Adler said television was an appliance rather than an artform.” Woody Allen in Meetin’ WA, Jean-Luc Godard, 1986 It was in high-school that a precocious Woody Allen (Allan Stewart Konigsberg) started writing jokes for print media.1 At seventeen he was published in Nick Kenny’s column for the New York Daily Mirror, then Earl Wilson’s column at the New York Post.2 Allen recalls, “One day after school I started typing jokes out and looking at them. And I immediately sold them at ten cents a crack to newspaper columns. I was working immediately so there was never any doubt about what I was going to do.”3 This early commitment to a life of writing would find a diversity of creative outputs: print media, stand-up comedy, radio, theatre, essays, prose and screenwriting for television and feature film – which is the focus of this article. In 1953, Allen enrolled at New York University, taking an arts degree with a major in film production. He lasted just two semesters.4 After abandoning a formal education, and harbouring ambitions as a playwright, he turned to private tuition from Lajos Egri, having been an admirer of The Art of Dramatic Writing.5 However, Allen quit this path to formal screenwriting education and confirmed his ongoing commitment to autodidacticism. Some decades later, the character Gabe (Allen) in Husbands and Wives (1992) reiterates this, “You can’t teach writing…it’s not something you can teach…y’know you can only expose the students to good literature and hope it inspires them. The ones that can write can write when they come to my class and the others never learn.” It was the momentum of the first “Golden Age” of television (the late 1940s to early 1960s) which propelled Woody Allen to screenwriting, and from New York to California. In 1955, he was selected to participate in a new NBC Writer’s Development Program (Brunette 2006: xv) for NBC Comedy Hour (1956), The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57), mingling with Bob Hope, Pat Boone, Mel Brooks – with Sid Caesar as his favourite.6 Allen biographer, John Baxter notes of Allen’s formative experience in writing for television that it, “…soured Allen not only on Los Angeles, but on the craft of writing comedy for TV.”7 Allen purportedly said, “You hack around from show to show and you’re always worried – is the comedian you’re writing for going to be dropped because of bad ratings?”8 He would contribute to The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-71) and The Tonight Show (1954 – ongoing). In 1962, Allen remarked he had contributed 20,000 jokes for comedians.
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