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Friday, November 9th, 2012

Television's First Comedy Hit Says Goodbye: The Final 'Your Show of Shows'

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.)

For no good reason, all through November "From the Archives" will be looking at some of the most infrequently seen finales in television history. We begin this week with one of the more important, and unusual sign-offs, in comedy history.

Earlier this year we looked at the legacy of Sid Caesar through a panel discussion featuring much of the cast and the super team of writers, featuring Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Neil Simon and others. In it we learned that Your Show of Shows came about after Caesar and his co-star Imogene Coca's first show was cancelled, not due to performance, but because it was so popular that its sponsor had to drop out because they no longer had any more product to sell.

The same "problem" plagued Your Show of Shows. After five years on the air, Sid and Imogene had become two of the biggest stars in all of television. "So," thought the executives at NBC, "if we have two huge stars, why should we waste them both on one program?" So, the plan was set in motion: the 90 minute variety program Your Show of Shows was cancelled. Sid Caesar would continue on his own 60 minute program called Caesar's Hour. Meanwhile, Imogene would stay on Saturdays with her half-hour program called The Imogene Coca Show. But more on those later…

On Saturday, June 5th, 1954, the final YSoS aired live from New York City. The show opens with an enormous production of the theme song, "Stars Over Broadway," which was written by the aforementioned Mel Tolkin. As the credits roll, a large cast of singers and dancers take the stage and perform, giving way to a demonstration of the sponsor Hazel Bishop's long lasting nail polish and lipsticks.

Finally Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca appear and introduce that evenings hostess. It's clear that this is an emotional night for the two of them as it could be, potentially, their last time performing together after years of developing a rhythm and comedic style. They both sound uncharacteristically serious and choked up and struggle to tell the audience that this evening they'll be performing a series of their favorite pieces they've done from over the years, before introducing their host, Faye Emerson, a TV and film actress of the time that Wikipedia refers to as "The First Lady of Television."

One of the main elements, from my standpoint, that contributed to Your Show of Shows' success was the variety in styles of humor that was utilized on the program. Whether it was physical, wordplay, satire, you name it, there were laughs to be found for all tastes in the audience and all ages. As we look through these sketches, I'll be sure to highlight examples of these.

The first sketch of the evening features Caesar and Coca's newlywed couple, Charles and Doris Hickenlooper. These characters were among the first recurring characters in the variety show genre, which also enabled audiences to watch an unfolding story as they looked in from week to week. In this particular sketch, Doris serves Charles their first home-cooked meal since getting married, and of course, things don't go so well. The first course is presented and Charles isn't exactly sure what to make of it. His wife tells him that it's a grapefruit, and suddenly it's clear: we're looking at a full grapefruit on a plate, peel and all. Charles tries his best to spin things positively. "Isn't this just lovely? Isn't this table beautiful? Isn't this supposed to be cut in half?" He takes a bite out of it as she watches, approvingly. "I've never eaten grapefruit like this before!" She goes to get the next course, the soup, and leaves him to finish it, and once she's out of the room, he throws it out the window. And so we have our pattern for the sketch. The soup: vegetable soup. ("Don't you see, dear? Bananas, pears, avocados…") The rolls: burnt to a crisp. The meatloaf: a disgusting, oatmeal-like sludge. When it's clear he doesn't like it, she bursts into tears, until she tries a bite and make some huge, comic faces, expressing her disgust. "Why don't we go out for dinner," she suggests.

The next sketch, a parody of post-WWII French films, is entitled "Au Revoir Ma Cherie," or "Toot Toot Tootsie, So Long." In it we get to see Caesar's famous "double-talk," in which he speaks in gibberish that to the English-speaking person, sounds like a perfect facsimile of the French language. In the sketch, Coca plays Madelyn, a young French maiden who is saying goodbye to Jacques, played by Caesar, her soldier fiancé, who is heading off to war. Caesar asks for "un souvenir por le front" and she obliges by producing a pair of scissors and chopping off a large section of her hair. He wants another souvenir, and asks for one of her tears. She states, in French, that she doesn't need to cry. He brushes her arm, "Cry, Madelyn." He continues, with his brushes against the arm becoming full-on punches, at which point he produces a vial with which to capture a tear. Finally he says "au revoir," and another soldier enters, played by Carl Reiner who embraces Madelyn with equal passion. He also wants some souvenirs for the front. She cuts off another section of her hair, which he places on top of his head. They embrace, when Jacques steps back in and confronts them. "Qu'est-ce se?" says Reiner. "Qu'est-ce what do you say?!" replies Caesar. They begin to fight and in the process realize that they are both engaged to her. They both immediately swear off women, (until a well-dressed one catches his eye a few seconds later) and they march off to the front.

The following sketch takes a much different form in which Caesar and Coca act completely in pantomime as they play the percussion in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. As the orchestra tunes, they mime playing their instruments as the actual orchestra plays and fills in their actions. The stand at the ready as the slow intro begins. The mime turning a page in their sheet music. They sit down. The rest of the sketch proceeds with the two percussionists growing bored with the lack of percussion in the song. They flip ahead in their sheet music to learn that it's going to be a while until they're needed and begin playing a game of rummy, which is briefly interrupted by a cymbal crash. Imogene wins the rummy game, and when Sid refuses to pay her, their argument knocks over their music stands. They try to determine what page they're on just in time for the big finish which includes, cymbals, playing bags, loading and firing cannons, and finally shooting machine guns into the air.

Next we get a parody of silent films in the form of "The Sewing Machine Girl." The scene takes place inside a textile factory with Caesar and Coca working side by side, flirting with one another as they perform perfect renditions of the silent film style of over-acting. Enter Carl Reiner as the cigar-chomping boss who tries to seduce Cocoa, leaning over her sewing machine, inadvertently waggling his butt in Caesar's face, which is then stuck with a needle. The boss demands an intense pace for their work and suddenly, Imogene begins making her dramatic funny faces, does a little dance around the room and then falls down in the middle of the floor. The boss takes her from Caesar's arms, and brings her into his office, which has a small cot inside. She comes to and resists his advances, and when Caesar enters to fight for her honor, the excitement is too much for her, and she falls down dead. The rest of the workers come in and accuse the boss of killing her. At which point she is hoisted up out of the bed, angel wings and all. She shakes Sid's hand, amicably, before being brought up to heaven. It's easy to say now from my perspective, but maybe not a great idea to put two silent scenes back to back? (That's right. I'm giving notes to an almost sixty-year-old sketch show.)

The final scene of the night features Howard Morris, Caesar, Coca and Reiner perform their recurring "English Sketch" playing four stuffy upper-class English characters who attend a formal soiree one stormy night and are soaked by the numerous leaks in their hostess's roof. They enter, greet each other and sit on the same sofa. When they speak it's with a very upper class, nasally accent. Mining the comedy of long, awkward silences, they sit years before it became a staple of modern comedy, the four stare forward at the camera without saying a word for a full 30 seconds, when suddenly there is a flash of lightning. Small trickles of water fall lightly on to each of their heads, until it builds steadily and finally it's a constant downpour over each of their heads. They decide to smoke, and as they are drenched try to light their cigars and they all speak over one another making pointless small talk. They try to relight their cigars, but are suddenly unable to in the rain. A joke is told and as they lean back to laugh, Sid catches a mouthful of water.

This being a vintage variety show, peppered between the sketches are a number of surprisingly elaborate musical and dance numbers, performed on large, specifically constructed sets, including an Italian wine festival scene, and a large two story house facade. I don't have much to say about these performances on a comedy blog, but you can read my recap of them at our sister dance blog, Splits-sider. (I'm very sorry.)

The show's theme song is again performed by the full cast one final time, and then everyone comes out for a curtain call. Sid and Imogene come out and thank one another and the audience before introducing the president of NBC, Pat Weaver (Sigourney's dad!), who reveals to the audience the plan for Sid and Imogene's new shows.

Caesar's Hour would go on for three more years continuing the sketch comedy of its predecessor, experimenting with the form, and maintaining its popularity. The Imogene Coca Show, however, would not be as fortunate. The first two episodes of the program were 30 Rock-esque in their centering around the difficulties of being a television star starting a new series. In the third episode, though, the show switched back to the familiar variety show format, only to be cancelled at the end of its first season. In later interviews, Imogene was never happy about being split away from Caesar. After hearing the decision she says, "I made a fool of myself, crying and carrying on," and refers to her time on Your Show of Shows as "the most fulfilling time of my life." Though Sid would continue to find success on his own, the finale of Your Shows led to the dissolution of one of the finest comedy duos in history. It may not have had as long a run as it could have if left alone by meddling executives, but it's legacy lives on long after.

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

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