Sunday, February 23, 2014

This Day in History

On February 23, 1455...

...Johannes Gutenberg invented the Internet.

Well, of course he didn't! Look at the above picture. Think that's how they do things at Google? Why, they're not even sitting on bean bags!

However, you could argue that the Bible that first came off Gutenberg's newly invented printing press on this day in 1455 (according to tradition, i.e., no one has a clue) inevitably led to the Internet. No, God did not say "Let there be!" That link doesn't even bring you to the right place. It's not so much that it was a bible but a book. The first mass produced book, which meant that for the first time reading material wasn't just available to the wealthy few but the public at large. Of course, the public at large first had to learn how to read. That took time. Several centuries in fact. The few poor that did know how to read took to pamphleteering, thus becoming the first bloggers. Some people burned books. They were the first trolls.

Newspapers cropped up. Here's one from September 10, 1666:

Hard to read, I know. So I'll just quote what a London paper boy said that day: "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! We're on fire!"

Just as important, school books popped up. Several centuries later, when the powerful elite finally said, "We better educate the masses or how else are they going to read their eviction notices?", report cards were mass produced for the very first time (some of us have never forgiven Gutenberg for that.)

The more people read, the more widely information was disseminated. Scientific principles were discovered and passed about. Inventions were invented: the steam engine, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb, the internal-combustion engine, the airplane, radio (for some reason that doesn't sound right with a "the" in front of it), television (ditto), until, finally, and this I can qualify with a "the", the computer! Which of course led to Al Gore inven--proposing legislation signed into law creating the Internet. So popular has the Internet become we no longer need pamphlets, newspapers, or school books, finally freeing us to dismantle all those damn presses and sell the copper for top dollar, or bitcoin.

And just think, it all started with a Bible.

  No word on when the first hotel room was invented, or whether Gutenberg ever stayed there.

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.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Loose Lips Sinks Lollypops


BREAKING NEWS!!! I just got it from a reliable source that Shirley Temple was in actuality Herman Snipple, master of prebuscent female disguise, and J. Edgar Hoover's most trusted agent. Known  and envied throughout the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his uncanny kneecap tap dancing skills, Snipple infiltrated the Hollywood movie industry in the 1930s and '40s,  keeping a watchful eye on such possible threats to national security as Adolphe Menjou, Bill Robinson, Robert Young, Buddy Ebsen, Jack Oakie, Burt Lahr, Montey Woolley, and Ronald Reagan!

Only kidding, folks. I just happen to see the late Ms. Temple more in terms of film history--she brought a much-needed respite to the Great Depression and all that--than as a performer whose art remains timeless. Now, if you disagree with me, than she's obviously timeless for you. Feel free to say so.

I have to go now. I just got word from that same reliable source that Jane Withers may have been an enemy spy!

Sunday, February 9, 2014

This Day in History

On February 9, 1964...

...Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry might as well have been Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Oddly enough, Ed Sullivan stayed the same.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Quips and Quotations (21st Century Television Edition)

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”

--Mark Twain, who obviously never owned a set.