Woody Allen had a surprisingly large presence on television in the 1990s. There were two movies that starred him, one movie that was about him, an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer auditions for a Woody Allen movie, and then there’s this: an entire Woody Allen-themed episode of the sitcom Just Shoot Me. This episode earns itself a spot on this site by somehow coaxing the Woodster himself to provide a cameo.
Just Shoot Me, a popular and long-running sitcom, took place in the production offices of “Blush” magazine, run by wealthy businessman Jack Gallo, his idealistic daughter Maya, high-strung ex-model Nina Van Horne, philandering photographer Elliot, and Finch, the sarcastic secretary.
Yes, I lifted most of that from the show’s IMDb summary page, but I have seen the show before. In fact, I even recall coming across this particular episode one night on late-night syndication. In it, Maya (Laura San Giacomo) writes an article titled “My Dinner With Woody” in which she speculates about what it would be like to meet her “intellectual hero.”
Maya then gets a call from Allen himself, asking to meet her. She can barely contain her excitement at first, but it turns out it’s not the real person, just a former mental patient who’s convinced himself he’s Woody Allen.
She’s disappointed of course, but finds that this guy (real name Preston Breckman) does a good enough Woody impression that she actually sort of enjoys his company. They begin a short relationship and Maya sometimes finds herself forgetting he’s just an imitator. Only when her co-worker Elliot digs up Preston’s psychiatric case file does she realize that by being with him she’s only encouraging Preston’s delusions, and preventing him from getting the help he needs.
The Woody Allen impersonator is played by comedian Ed Crasnick. He looks nothing at all like Woody Allen. Even less, in fact, than Dennis Boutsikaris in Love and Betrayal. This time though, that’s sort of the point. When Maya walks into her office thinking she’s going to see Woody Allen and, instead, this guy is standing there, it’s actually pretty funny.
The way the fake Woody is written is funny as well. He tells a lot of jokes, and they mostly follow the same rhythms and style of the real Woody’s jokes, but tweaked and exaggerated just enough for them to come across as unnatural. In other words, he sounds exactly like a second-rate Woody Allen impersonator. Some examples: “Nice kid. He’s like the Von Trapp kid they left behind;” “I know why you don’t like me, you’re an anti-Semite. Why don’t you go into your dark room and and develop the master race?”
At the very end of the episode, Maya has broken things off with Preston but then gets another call from someone claiming to be Woody Allen. This time it’s the real Allen (who plays himself), but of course she doesn’t believe it. She tells him “you don’t even sound like Woody,” but then Preston walks in and she realizes who she’s really talking to. She drops the phone in shock and the real Woody notes, “you’re not much of a conversationalist.”
It’s a testament to Woody Allen’s penetration into pop-culture consciousness that Just Shoot Me, a network broadcast prime-time TV show, would deem it appropriate to devote a whole episode to him. The show’s humor isn’t exactly subtle (the side-story involves Jack going blind and peeing in an elevator), but there are a handful of jokes specifically targeted at people who at least know who Woody Allen is. At several points, characters directly turn and address the camera, Annie Hall-style. The Annie Hall riffing continues with a sequence in which Maya and “Woody” have their thoughts spelled out in subtitles.
There’s also a widescreen, black & white montage sequence set to Allen-esuqe jazz in which Maya and fake Woody act out her favorite moments from the real Woody’s movies.
The funniest and most obscure joke is when the fake Woody Allen says “I haven’t heard screaming like that since I told Tony Roberts he couldn’t be in The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Tony Roberts probably did want to be in Cairo. I wonder how many people they expected would laugh at that joke? Even more obtusely, the episode revamps the show’s opening credit sequence to match those of Woody Allen movies — they switch to Allen’s preferred typeface, and even use his trademark title card:
Just Shoot Me was never a show I’d thought about much — I mostly know it from half-watched re-runs. I have to admit, though, I was fairly impressed. I did laugh at most of the jokes, but maybe I’m just biased towards this particular episode’s subject matter. The protagonists (Jack and Maya) were likable, and I enjoyed David Spade’s super-deadpan delivery.
When Allen was asked to appear on the episode, he requested a copy of the script first. His appearance, therefore, can be taken as implied approval, meaning he must have thought the episode was at least adequate. I’m happy to report that I agree with him.
- “My Dinner With Woody” originally aired November 18, 1997. It was the sixth episode of the show’s second season.
- This episode was written by Steven Levitan, the show’s creator.
- When Maya first meets the real Woody, she demands to know his real name. He responds “Allen Stuart Konigsberg.” That’s the real Woody Allen’s real birth name.
- After deciding to break up with him, Maya says “we need to talk.” Fake Woody responds by saying “That’s what the guys at Orion said when they showed me the grosses for Zelig.” At the risk of sounding like an insufferable know-it-all: Zelig was actually fairly successful. It was, in fact, the highest grossing of all his films with Orion other than Hannah and her Sisters.