Sid Caesar died this week at 91. If you read any of the various obituaries, I'm sure you came across the names Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbert, and Woody Allen, considered to be some of the greatest comedy writers of all time. If in that same obituary it said they all worked on Your Show of Shows, well, then, the obit writer didn't do their homework. Only Brooks and Simon wrote for Shows. Well, Reiner is said to have hung around the writers table, contributing ideas every now and then, but he was never credited on-screen for doing so. Most likely he just soaked up the atmosphere, which he then put to good use a decade later when he wrote and produced The Dick Van Dyke Show, whose main character was a comedy writer. Reiner did receive credit for that.
Though it's remembered today solely for its comedy sketches, Your Show of Shows was in fact a 90 minute variety show, with as many musical numbers as there were comedy bits, at least at the outset. When co-star Imogene Coco left to do her own show, the musical numbers were removed, and the whole thing was paired down to sixty minutes, becoming Caesar's Hour. That's when former Bob Hope gag writer Larry Gelbart came aboard. When that show ran its course, Caesar did a series of specials, and that's where Woody Allen finally comes in. It's much easier, though, to say all those fellows wrote for Your Show of Shows, resulting in the most sophisticated sketch comedy program of all time. But was it really? I wasn't around for its initial run, so I have to take a backwards look.
Thirty-some years later, I happen to catch Ten from Your Show of Shows on some cable channel. As the title suggests, it was a collection of sketches from Shows. Other than snippets on documentaries about the Golden Age of Television, this was the first time I'd watch these sketches in more than three decades. Though I found them funny enough, and the talents of Coco and Morris still shown through, something seemed amiss . In the intervening years I had read whatever I could about the show--I read a lot about pop culture anyway--and words such as "sophisticated", "intellectual", "cerebral", and "highbrow" kept popping up. However, with the exception of one or two skits, I didn't find it any more sophisticated than the bits and pieces I'd seen from other sketch shows of that era, such as those starring the comparatively lowbrow Jackie Gleason or the-brow-so-low-it-might-as-well-be-an-eyelash Milton Berle. If Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen really are, or were, some of the greatest comedy writers of all time, and I do agree that they are, or were, it's more because of where they ended up (Blazing Saddles, The Odd Couple, The Dick Van Dyke Show, MASH, Annie Hall) than where they got their start.
Where does this reputation for sophistication come from? One reason commonly cited is the many parodies of foreign films, which gave Sid Caesar a chance to talk in Italian-, French-, or Japanese-accented gibberish, making viewers believe he really could speak those languages (in reality, he only knew English.) Some have even speculated, without much supporting evidence, that these parodies alienated uncultured Midwesterners who never watched such movies, eventually driving Your Show of Shows off the air. I don't buy it. As an uncultured, Midwestern 14-year old in 1976, I laughed at those sketches without knowing what exactly was being spoofed. Or that anything beyond the foreign languages themselves was being spoofed. I got them without getting them.
The mere act of watching a foreign film doesn't make one sophisticated or intellectual. It's how one relates to such films that does. If the only reaction that Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner had to a Kurosawa film was, "Boy, won't Sid look funny in a kimono!" then, no, they weren't a couple of highbrows, at least not back then. Much of the satire on Your Show of Shows never went beyond the old vaudeville principle that Foreign is Funny. Certainly, an uncultured Midwesterner could get that, even if they hadn't seen the movie. Remember, the 1950s was a very xenophobic time. Your Show of Shows reflected the xenophobia of that era more than fans of the program would care to admit.
I don't wish to sound like a politically correct prig here. I have no problem with ethnic humor as long as it's not specifically designed to keep historically oppressed people in there place. That's why it's not a good idea for a comedian to wear blackface. But nothing like that ever occurred on Shows. Nobody was kept down when Sid Caesar talked in a German accent. He wasn't George S. Patton. I just think that Your Show of Shows has been oversold, and not by the people involved with it, as intellectual fare. And it needn't have. If you ever watch Shows on DVD or whatever, don't feel you have to break out the wine and cheese. It goes down just as well with Bud and Cheetos.
I can't do anything about that, so instead I'd like to show you something close to the era he's associated with, but a bit before Your Show of Shows. In 1949 he and Imogene Coco starred on a short-lived show called Admiral Broadway Revue. It was here that a nationwide audience saw for the first time "The Five Dollar Date." It didn't originate there, however. Caesar had done it in his nightclub act. So it wasn't written by Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, or Woody Allen. Sid Caesar came up with it all by himself.
Adjusted for inflation, it's still relevant.