Sunday, February 16, 2014

Comic Exaggeration

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.

All the way back to 1976. That's when the local NBC affiliate here in Cleveland ran an edited (meaning no musical numbers) version of Your Show of Shows at 1:AM Sunday mornings, for all practical purposes Saturday night. Saturday night? If you know your networks, then, yes, it ran right after Saturday Night Live, back when it still had its original cast, though I believe Chevy Chase was about to be replaced by Bill Murray. At the time I was a huge fan of SNL and so was wide awake when the old Shows repeats came on. If they didn't quite make me forget Emily Litella, the Land Shark, the Samurai whatever, or the Coneheads, I did find the old black-and-white kinescopes funny enough, laughing at the antics of the multi-faux-lingual Caesar, straight man Carl Reiner, manic second (or perhaps third or fourth) banana Howard Morris, who would go on to immortalize the stammering hillbilly vandel Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show, and rubber-faced comedienne Imogene Coco, who, like Carol Burnett and Gilda Radner, could play comic characters that were either homely or attractive (sometime both at once!) A full night of sketch comedy, new and old.

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.

OK, enough with the nitpicking already. For some odd reason, I felt I had to bury Caesar before I could praise him. It was always the performers more than the writers--future resumes not withstanding--that put Your Show of Shows a couple of notches above similar fare offered by Jackie Gleason or Milton Berle. They were among the best in the business, and Sid Caesar was the best of the best. He was an extraordinarily talented comedian, and I think it's a shame that he's tied to just one particular TV era. If show biz was fair, we'd have decades of his work, in all kinds of media, to talk about and enjoy. It's not like his talent suddenly dried up. I always found him funny when he occasionally popped up on TV in the 1970s and '80s. When hosting Saturday Night Live during the Eddie Murphy era, he even received an award on stage making him an honorary cast member. Yet those appearances were sporadic. He was no longer in demand. Probably just as much our loss as his.

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.


  1. Always liked Imogene Coco the best.
    I think tastes changed with the years.
    It seemed all the "Borscht Belt " comedians who did live shows ended up on early TV doing Variety Shows or Family Comedy Shows. When we changed our comedy viewing.
    The Lenny Bruce"s type of satirical and political comedy was in vogue. Today so many comedians think cursing and slamming women like daniel tosh and his rape jokes is so funny.
    Somehow I think I would rather watch Sid Caesar or The Muppets.
    Nice review.

    cheers, parsnip

  2. That's right, parsnip. Sid Caesar and Milton Berle were both "Borscht Belt" comedians.

    For those of you reading who don't know what that term means, it refers to summer resorts in New York state's Catskill Mountains that catered to Jews at a time when they were excluded from those with a Gentile clientele. They were popular from the 1920s into the 1960s. The movie Dirty Dancing took place at a Catskill resort. Once laws were passed banning the banning of Jews, such places either closed or took on a more ethnically and religiously pluristic character. Before that happened, though, just about every Jewish comedian who appeared in movies, or on the radio, or on TV--about 95% of the standup comedian population, period--played such resorts when they were first starting out. This had a huge (and, I would argue, wonderfully subversive) impact on mainstream comedy in that era.

    Lenny Bruce was Jewish but he was no Borsht Belt comic. He was part of a kind of quasi-intellectual comedy movement in the 1950s, one centering around jazz clubs and coffee houses, that included Dick Gregory, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, Woody Allen and--believe it or not--Jonathan Winters. As you said, some of them were political and satirical, but others, like Newhart and Winters, were more novel than anything, eschewing typical one-liners for routines that were more conceptual in nature.

    But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Back in the 1970s, I remember thinking there was a huge gulf between The Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live. But was there really? Was Carol all that different from Gilda Radner, Harvey Korman from Dan Ackroyd, or Tim Conway from Chevy Chase?

    Sorry for going on so long in my reply to your comment, parsnip, but show biz and pop culture history is something that really interests me.

  3. Yes I know you are I
    That is what makes your blog so very interesting to read !

    I must admit that I did like Carol Burnett Show to see them try to crack each other up.
    And Land Shark is a running joke in my family. Usually having to do with thehamish.
    Loved Jonathan Winters and Newhart explaining baseball is funny.
    Not much of a gulf as the meanness quota. Shock become mundane and you have to cross the next line. I remember from my childhood the Polish jokes. How many polacks does it take to .... they were everywhere.
    I rarely watched Letterman who was so cool to all the urban types. If you watched his show before this heart attack he was mean just plain mean. He has mellowed.
    I remember Jack Parr and loved Johnny Carson.
    I liked Jay Leno, had friends that got us in for the show and I loved his live shows.
    But with all things comedy is very subjective.

    cheers, parsnip