It is ironic some of the best comics of US Televisionís 'Golden Age' of the 1950ís are not recognized for the work they have done. I think the major reason is exposure. Most of us have grown up with reruns of 'I Love Lucy', 'The Honeymooners' and 'The Phil Silvers Show'. But those were filmed series, allowing us to cherish the tremendous talents of Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers in reruns. By contrast, many of the comics who toiled on live television are preserved only on kinescopes--essentially, grainy films taken from a television screen. And those kinescopes are not seen regularly on television, except in 'retrospectives' or tributes to those performers. That is probably why for many people of a certain age, the name Sid Caesar does not immediately come to mind, compared with Lucy or
Gleason. But speaking for those of us who are slightly older, I not only refuse to bury Caesar; I praise him.
Caesar was one of the first comics to use television for observational comedy--humor based on everyday situations. I have been lucky to see kinescopes of Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner performing on the classic 'Your Show Of Shows' and its
successor, 'Caesarís Hour'. (I also have a classic kinescope of a 1954 'Caesars Hour' in my collection, complete with commercials.) But donít take my word for it. Tom Shales, the television critic for 'The Washington Post' writes;
"It is time, in fact it is high time, that people stop merely talking about how wonderful Sid Caesar and his cronies were and start offering up the evidence. Plenty of it exists."
Fellow critic Howard Rosenberg with the 'Los Angeles Times' chimes in:
"Caesar would be on any short list of nominees for the most creative comic artist ever to work on TV."
Fortunately, with a new video collection and the May 2001 broadcast of a documentary of Caesar on the US pay cable network Showtime, itís Caesarís Hour all over again.
Sid Caesar was born in Yonkers, New York on September 8th, 1922. As a young boy, he entertained audiences in the resorts of the Catskill Mountains with his saxophone performances, and he eventually played with several big bands of the era, including Benny Goodmanís. He served World War Two in the US Coast Guard, putting together a military band and performing in various shows. He also had a knack for making the other musicians laugh, which caught the eye of a producer named Max Liebman. With Liebmanís help, Caesar began performing on stage, and after the war, did well in nightclubs. A 1946 film called 'Tars And Spars' gave Caesar national recognition. But his career really took off three years later in the new medium of television.
On January 28th, 1949, Caesar starred in a new variety show called 'The Admiral
Broadway Revue', teaming up with a gifted young comedienne named Imogene Coca. Produced by Liebman, and 'live from New York' it was one of the first TV shows to air at the same time over two networks. (It was broadcast on NBC and the now-defunct DuMont; but most people in the industry considered 'Broadway Revue' to be an NBC show). Although the programme was well-received, it was cancelled in June. (The reason: Admiral, which made appliances and television sets, could not keep up with demand for its products. So instead of boosting production, the company ended its sponsorship of 'Broadway Revue'. Caesar, Coca and Liebman would not be unemployed long. In February 1950, NBC
hired the team as part of a new 90-minute variety program that would air on Saturday nights.
On the surface, 'Your Show Of Shows' was a typical live program with singers and dancers. But it was the skits and comedy sketches that made 'Your Show Of Shows' a must-see for viewers in the early 1950ís. Caesarís sharp timing, facial expressions and dialects made him a strong anchor of the comedy bits, helped by Cocaís gift for physical comedy. (Their most famous sketch was 'The Hickenloopers', stories about a battling husband and wife not unlike that of radioís 'The Bickersons' or Jackie Gleasonís emerging 'Honeymooners'). Caesar and Coca were aided and assisted by cast members Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. Reiner was the perfect straight man for Caesar, while Morrisí small stature and physical ability made him the butt of
many sketches. Liebman was the glue that held the entire show together--39 live episodes a year.
Just as talented as Liebman and the four ensemble players were the writing staff, now considered the equivalent of an all-star sports team. Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Mel Brooks, Selma Diamond, Mel Tolken--all would go on to various degrees of success in the years ahead. But they had to deal with Caesar, who had a reputation for terrorizing the writing staff. As Caesar once told 'TV Guide' magazine: "Sure, I used to start things. I did it on purpose to get them thinking, to
get myself thinking." And it worked, with such parodies of movies such as 'From Here To Eternity' and the sentimental reunion TV show 'This Is Your Life'. Years before Carol Burnett and 'Saturday Night Live', Caesar and company were poking fun at popular culture. Watching the 'Eternity' skit, with Caesar and Coca getting drenched while making out on the ocean shore, is still a classic routine even in black and white.
Writing for Sid Caesar left a strong impression on some of those involved. Carl Reiner says he created 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' based on his years with Caesar. Neil Simon used his experience to write the play 'Laughter On The 23rd Floor'. And the very funny 1982 film 'My Favorite Year' was set in 1954, with a live variety program (likely based in part on 'Your Show Of Shows') as its springboard. 'Your Show Of Shows' won Emmy awards for Best
Variety Series in 1951 and 1952; Caesar and Coca also won Emmies in 1951.
But 1954 turned out to be the last hurrah for 'Your Show Of Shows'. Ratings were falling and the show had become very expensive to produce. NBCís gifted president, Sylvester 'Pat' Weaver, talked the cast into splitting up and starting new projects. Liebman produced a series of regularly scheduled 'spectaculars'--live musicals and specials--which ran on NBC until 1957. Coca would star in a short-lived situation comedy. Caesar, along with Morris and Reiner, moved on to a new hour-long variety show.
'Caesarís Hour' made its debut in the fall of 1954. It was basically 'Your Show Of Shows' without Coca, and it was nearly as good as the original. As in 'Your Show Of Shows', there was a regular sketch on the series, this one called 'The Commuters', featuring Caesar, Morris and Reiner as regular passengers on a daily commuter train. All three also appeared in a takeoff of the rock
and roll groups of the era called 'The Three Haircuts.'
regulars appeared on 'Caesarís Hour', including Beatrice Arthur, Janet Blair and Pat Carroll. The best-known of the distaff players was the very talented Nanette Fabray. She won two Emmies for her work on 'Caesarís Hour'. (The show also won an Emmy in 1956, as did Caesar, Carroll and Reiner.) But the television landscape had changed dramatically by 1957, and 'Pat' Weaver was no longer in power at NBC. After two years of marginal ratings on Monday nights, 'Caesarís Hour' was moved to Saturdays, following the very popular 'Perry Como Show'. But Caesar could not hold on to the Como audience, and
'Caesarís Hour' was beaten in the ratings by a modest bandleader on rival ABC--Lawrence Welk. (By 1957, more middle-class homes had television, and those viewers tended to embrace formula filmed series and situation comedies.)
The humour of 'Caesarís Hour' was still the best at the time, but the show appealed to a more intelligent, affluent audience. In todayís world of demographics, that fact alone would have helped keep 'Caesarís Hour' on the air. But in the 1950ís, networks and advertisers wanted as many people watching as possible; they generally did not care who was watching. According to the book 'Watching Television', NBC wanted Caesar to drop the series and concentrate on occasional specials. Caesar said no, and NBC cancelled both the comic and his show.
Caesar would make two comeback attempts without success. In January 1958, he re-teamed with Imogene Coca (and Carl Reiner) in a new weekly series for ABC. 'Sid Caesar Invites You' was similar to 'Your Show Of Shows' and 'Caesarís Hour', featuring skits, parodies of movies and TV, and writing from Neil Simon and Mel Brooks among others. But the Sunday night half-hour did not do well on the third-rated network, and vanished by May. ABC tried again in 1963 with
'The Sid Caesar Show', which alternated on Thursday nights with a variety show starring singer Edie Adams (the widow of comic Ernie Kovacs). Caesarís new show featured comedian Joey Foreman and singer Gisele McKenzie as regulars, along with talented head writer Goodman Ace and producer Greg Garrison, who helmed Milton Berleís shows in the 1950ís. But again, low ratings did 'The Sid Caesar Show' in; the last episode was broadcast in March 1964. Max Liebman (who died in 1981) did something unusual in 1973: He strung together some of the best skits from Caesar, Coca and company and released a film called 'Ten From Your Show Of Shows'. It won critical acclaim and an audience that realized, once again, how great the show was--and what a wonderful comic TV had in Caesar.
Caesar kept working on the stage, along with occasional appearances on TV and in movies such as 'Itís A Mad Mad Mad Mad World', 'Grease' and Mel Brooks' 'Silent Movie'. But in an interview
with The Associated Press, Caesar admitted that "I never believed in myself, even at the height of my success." That self-doubt may have triggered a long-time addiction to alcohol and barbiturates, which he finally kicked in the late 1970ís. Today the 78-year-old comic walks with a cane, but the famed Caesar wit remains as sharp as ever. He credits his wife of more than 50 years, Florence, with sticking by him through the good and bad years.
Even better news for Caesar fans, many of those bits from 'Show Of Shows' and 'Caesarís Hour' have been digitally-remastered and released on video and DVD as 'The Sid Caesar Collection'. (www.sidvid.com) And once again, we can cherish the talents of one of early US televisionís brightest stars. As Tom Shales put it,
"The best way to evoke Caesar is with Caesar, the greatest tributes are the laughs that he and his colleagues can still
generate all these decades later -- whether from the generation that enjoyed it then or from young people who still recognize true wit when they see it."
Final Note: Just after this article was completed, Imogene Coca died June 2nd, 2001, at her home in Westport, Connecticut. She was 92. In a statement, Sid Caesar wrote:
"All the wonderful times we shared together meant the world to me. It was a pleasure to work with her. I will miss her dearly."
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