Directed by: David Zieff
Written by: Matt Besser, Amy Poehler
Running time: 50min
George Bailey is forced to keep doing It’s a Wonderful Life for the next 50 years but wants to move on.
Whether it’s to avoid politicking with estranged uncles or because cinephilia is genetic, every family has its own holiday-movie tradition—and the largest share of that pre-Santa screentime likely belongs to It’s A Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s feel-good tale is an elder statesman of holiday cinema, but for years it was also truly inescapable: Republic Pictures famously neglected to renew its copyright in the 1970s, accidentally allowing the film to enter public domain. It’s A Wonderful Life aired annually on seemingly every major cable channel until a 1990s Supreme Court decision allowed Republic to regain its rights (and eventually strike a deal with NBC).
For a small group of comedy writers, however, their yearly viewing couldn’t be further from Bedford Falls. Instead, they gather ’round a never-aired 1996 Comedy Central special: Escape From It’s A Wonderful Life.
“My family watches it the way we used to watch *Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer *or A Charlie Brown Christmas,” says Jay Martel, a lead writer on the project (he’s currently showrunner and executive producer for Key & Peele). *“*Obviously there’s some topical references that don’t hold up, but it’s very silly, and silly plays well in every era.“
“Silly” only describes the film, though; the idea itself was genius. As Comedy Central President Kent Alterman tells it, Republic’s newly rekindled copyright only applied to the underlying story and soundtrack—not the visuals. So while other networks gave up their annual broadcast in light of the NBC agreement, the early Comedy Central team had an idea: what if they recut the film and added a new soundtrack?
“I think the Upright Citizens Brigade came in with a pitch that George Bailey was a pimp, and there were a lot of other ideas along those lines,” Martel recalls. “In my pitch, the one we ended up doing, he’s trying to escape from the movie because he’s sick of it. Kent liked it, he introduced me to UCB, and I hired them to help write it and do the voices.”
In Escape, George Bailey is a post-modern enigma, a man tired of being a “1990’s actor working on a 1940’s salary.” Bailey references Pulp Fiction, Independence Day, and 12 Monkeys, knowing that action and adventure is where the money’s at. So even though Bedford Falls relies on revenue from annual *It’s A Wonderful Life *productions, he wants out for something bigger. Suddenly, the star of the show starts going off-script, injecting drugs, guns, and sex into the storyline—and all the rest of the town cast can do is pray. (“Please Father, keep me from killing George Bailey when he starts ad-libbing in our big scene together.”)
“We came up with an outline that put things in a certain order for the story we wanted to tell, but once we got to that point we had to sit down with editors and work through each scene to match the dialogue to how people’s lips were moving,” Martel says. “We had a little latitude in terms of speeding up the lips or the sound, but that part was really painstaking to make the outlandish things we wanted people to say work with people’s mouths.”
Martel says everyone involved (Amy Poehler, Gilbert Gottfried, and Matt Walsh were all part of the cast) was thrilled. If you take the time to seek out *Escape *today—apparently some copies leaked out to people like Frank Rich, but there’s also a not so hidden Real Media version on the UCB’s website, and parts were mysteriously uploaded to YouTube last year—the film holds up. Not everyone may recognize the Right Said Fred references, but riffs on Robert Downey Jr. and Ted Turner are relevant all over again.
An Unlikely Future
Still, *Escape *remains an unaired experiment, and will likely never be part of the Christmas canon. It didn’t take a Potter-slumlord to sabotage things—only corporate bureaucracy. While Republic disagreed with Comedy Central’s copyright interpretation, *Escape *was never taken to court. First, the two sides discovered they were under the same umbrella—Viacom. “Papa Viacom may not want the kids suing each other,” a Comedy Central spokesperson told *The New York Daily News *at the time. “Comedy Central and Republic are talking ‘amicably.’” The film was put on ice at the eleventh hour, as evidenced by newspaper previews for a could’ve-been-December 18 airing.
“It was devastating,” Martel says. “We were doing the final sound recordings, so I was in the sound studio when we found out. At that point I knew it was really funny and I was proud of it. Every year in the fall, I kind of remind Kent, ‘Hey, maybe it’d be a good year to put that on the air,’ and he always gets really excited, but then I don’t know what happens to it. It may always be wrapped up in a lawyer’s fear of what may happen if it’s ever shown.”
As far as Martel knows, the film is as legally viable as it was nearly 20 years ago. But for now, there are no plans to air Escape or give it a VOD release. Even if the film never gets the audience it deserves, its legacy is undeniable: it was one of UCB’s first TV projects, and marked the first time the group worked with Martel. He ended up getting along so well with UCB’s Ian Roberts that the two went on to become longtime screenwriting partners (they share EP and showrunner duties on Key & Peele). So though the Martels and others skip Jimmy Stewart yearly, the original continues to hold a special place in the hearts of the *Escape *crew.
“I loved *It’s A Wonderful Life *before I started tearing it apart and putting it back together, but the process made me love it even more,” Martel says. “It’s like taking apart a beautifully constructed building or something, you find yourself saying ‘oh my gosh, this is really well made.’”