Splitsider

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Analyzing the Legacy of Sid Caesar's Television Career

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

One of the big motives behind this series of articles is not so much to serve as a reminder of these shows from the past for the people who have seen them, but to hopefully expose people to things that they've never seen before. When you think about film, there is a definite canon of movies that are never going to go away. Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and Vertigo are going to be watched and studied and written about forever. As it stands right now, television seems to have a finite shelf life, with a couple of shows like Lucy and MASH that seem to be consistently shown along with the reruns of Home Improvement and King of Queens.

Sid Caesar's television career is an example of an area of television that is unjustly buried from the public consciousness. Before I even talk about the show, all I really need to tell you is who was on the writing staff for his two most important programs, Your Show of Shows (1950) and Caesar's Hour (1954). Writers for these shows included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Neil Simon among many other super talented people. That should be enough, right? Well, guess what. The stuff they wrote was super funny too.

The show that the most well known of Caesar's programs, Your Show of Shows, sprang out of was sponsored by Admiral televisions, and was named the Admiral Broadway Revue. This show only lasted a year, but it wasn't canceled because of poor ratings. Quite the opposite: the show was so effective in it's advertising that the company couldn't make TVs fast enough to meet demand, so needed to drop it's sponsorship in order to reinvest in it's product. In steps Pat Weaver (Sigourney's dad! [Yes, I'm going to do that in every article that I mention him]), NBC's programming chief. Your Show of Shows became the first program to not have a single sponsor, and would instead feature ads from many different products, the model that is used today.

In Jeff Kisseloff's oral history on the early days of television, The Box, he talks to a variety of people involved with the show, and they all have different ways of explaining what made Sid who he was. Howard Morris, one of Sid's co-stars, describes his style as "fucking ge-ne-ius… Jewish sarcasm and humor based on hostile reality." Writer for the show Joe Stein (who later wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof and Zorba) describes the man as "a postgraduate course in comedy." But a few people point to Sid's female counterpart on the show, Imogene Coca as the opposing force that his comedy needs. Co-head writer Lucille Kallen described Sid alone as "having a match without anything to strike it on." Audiences also recognized Imogene's talent, and before long, she was given her own show, much to her own chagrin.

There are kinescopes of a few of Caesar's shows out there, but many of the episodes were lost when NBC cleaned out their vaults. It's my understanding that all of the surviving episodes exist within the Paley Center's archives, but rather than play Russian roulette I decided to watch their panel discussion that they conducted in 1994 with Caesar, Coca, and a large chunk of the writing staff and crew. The moderator introduces them one by one, and they come out to applause, and then Sid introduces the clip package which spans the full length of Caesar's career which includes his start on the Admiral Broadway Revue until his later show that he did with Ernie Kovac's wife Edie Adams which was named, appropriately enough, The Sid Caesar Edie Adams Together Show.

The clip package showcases a wide variety of Caesar’s material and talents. It begins with a clip from the Admiral Broadway Revue in which Sid stands on stage alone and performs a frantic and incredibly impressive piece. He introduces it by telling us he’s going to show us what it was like to go out on a date in 1939. “I’ve got five dollars,” he sings. “And it’s burning a hole in my pocket.” He then continues, in rhyme, as he pantomimes picking up his girl, getting into a taxi, going to a French restaurant where he plays the garcon, back in the taxi, to Luigi’s restaurant (he plays Luigi too), then off to the movies. Everyone he encounters on the date seems desperate for the business, totally accommodating and completely appreciative. “A ten cent tip?!” Luigi says, staggering backwards. “My ship! She has finally come-a in!” Then he shows us the same date, as it would go in the present day. And the pace is manic. The taxis rush by him. He finally gets in one and the cabbie complains about the dollar tip. It’s a one-hour wait at the French restaurant. A two-hour wait at Luigi’s. They skip dinner and go to the movies. “What’s playing? What’s the difference?” The second half of the bit, set in their present day, is incredible. He goes through it so quickly that you can’t even catch every word, but it doesn’t matter because that’s exactly the point.

The package also includes one of the most famous sketches from Sid Caesar’s career; “The Clock.” In it, Sid, Imogene, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris play the animatronic figures of a clock, each of whom has their own job that they do to mark the hour. Sid strikes an an anvil, Reiner hits it with a mallet, Morris blows it with a bellows, Coca splashes a ladle of water on it. Suddenly the clock breaks, and with each passing hour the figures jobs get more and more twisted and convoluted, until finally it ends with Coca splashing ladle after ladle of water into Caesar’s face. I have no doubt in my mind that there is no way to do justice to this sketch by writing a description of it, so why don’t you just watch it?

There are several other great clips that are shown. Sid actually playing the saxophone (and doing an amazing solo), a Streetcar Named Desire parody in which Blanche is just paranoid and Stanley is completely hands off, a judo instructor is slowly put to sleep by the reporter’s hold that he’s supposed to break out of, a From Here to Eternity parody in which Imogene and Sid try to profess their love for one another on the beach, but are thwarted by wave after wave (getting splashed with water was really funny in the early fifties). We see Sid as an impressionist, a physical comic, a musician and first and foremost, a master entertainer.

The other aspect of the Sid Caesar show that I’ve alluded to is the writer’s room, and the antics that went on there, and more often than not, these revolve around Mel Brooks. During the panel, Mel tells one story of how his peskiness and Sid’s constant need to write and improve that week’s show created friction. They were working in Chicago, and Mel wanted to get outside and explore, but Sid wanted better, fresher jokes (and none were coming). So after hearing Mel’s desire to go outside one too many times, Sid picked Brooks up and hung him out of the window on the 18th floor. “In!” shouted Brooks. “In is better! I love in!”

But Mel ends this story by addressing Caesar directly. “Sydney, when I met you I loved you. I loved you all through the time we worked together, and believe it or not, I still love you. I would’ve been a [solo] comedian a long time ago, except he was so much better, and a great vehicle, that he was so much better.” And the panel seems to agree. His core writing staff stayed with him for, at a minimum, eight years. Considering the fact that many of these people would go on to become household names, and could clearly create material for themselves, the fact that they wanted to stay with Sid’s show says something about the man and the comedy he was capable of.

Today, unfortunately, we are limited to just a few commercially released best-ofs, and a couple of odds and ends on YouTube. But in the hearts of many red-blooded American TV viewers of the 1950s, the legacy of Sid Caesar is so much larger than just a few clips. His work was the comedic bedrock of a generation.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

Sponsored Content
  • Rich Tackenberg@facebook

    I was lucky enough to create some of the “commercially released best-ofs” mentioned above, by working very closely with Sid Caesar in picking his favorite sketches, crafting the order of each DVD as if it were a live episode, and digitally re-mastering the video and audio of the kinescopes. (I make no money anymore from the sales of those DVDs, but I highly recommend them. They include interviews with all the writers mentioned above.)

    Working with Sid was a true education in comedy. Sid refused to put in a great joke if it derailed the emotional through-line of the entire scene. Sid and the writers worked hard to lock the script (as best they could) on Wednesday, so the cast could learn the lines without needing cue cards on Saturday Night.

    If you get a chance to see any of the sketches (I highly recommend “This Is Your Story”), I think you’ll see the power that comes from live performances when the performers aren’t looking off to the side to read their lines.

    Some sketches only hold up as examples of the quality of writing/performing at the time, but don’t evolve enough for an audience that grew up on TV comedy. (I’d put “The Clock” sketch mentioned above in that category.”) Bu many of the sketches are, sixty years later, still laugh-out-loud funny.

    Great article, Ramsey. Always great to see Sid get some love.

  • Aubray Flounders@facebook

    My old man bought us a television set just so he could watch this. Ceasar did a regular turn as a be-bop musician with a soul patch– the last mention of American music on television. aside from the occasional Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard mis-booking, until Leonard Bernstein brought a bunch of tired old jazzmen on around 1956 or so. It was incredibly hip, and it was funny, and it was live, the best television ever. It was as if the 1950's had a lot of promise, and we didn't really have to go through all that shit that came after.

    It went away, and the next thing you saw was "I Love Lucy", which was a sad turn of events. Thanks for maintaining the memory on a corner of the internets.