Sunday, February 26, 2012

Boomer Comedy in the Beginning: Sid Caesar

Sid Caesar had a series of television comedy shows in the 1950s and 1960s. He's definitely an early baby boomer hero. He was an amazing comedian, a real connection between the then-fading worlds of vaudeville and stage comedy, and the world of television-dominated comedy he was helping to create.

Sid Caesar was a brilliant comedian in so many ways.  He was verbally adept--one of his most famous skills was the ability to "doubletalk" in foreign languages: to make what he said sound like Italian or French and also make it funny.  He was a physical comedy genius, who used his whole body, including his eyes and eyebrows.  One standard feature of his shows was the pantomime, in which he and a partner (Imogene Coca was the best) would do an entire scene without speaking. But he also used his voice as an aspect of physical comedy.  He was musical.  He had the timing that could turn parody into pathos and back again.
the famous "From Here to Eternity" parody

I was a child when Sid Caesar was a fixture on television, but I watched him whenever I could. I could stay up later on Saturday nights, but still, it might require me to be very quiet so my parents wouldn’t notice I was still up. I remember Your Show of Shows (1950-54), and the team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. I remember that she got her own show for awhile. But I more clearly remember Caesar’s Hour in the mid 50s, including individual sketches.

It's said that his brand of comedy began to fade when television outgrew New York and became national. His comedy was "too urban." But as a child I didn't see it that way. For instance, the foreign movie parodies he did, which Middle America wasn’t supposed to like because they never saw foreign films. We sure didn't have any in my small western Pennsylvania town. I didn’t see a foreign language film until college, but that didn’t stop me from seeing those parodies as funny. They were just funny, partly because they were strange. I’m sure knowing the movies made them funnier, but the level of satire wasn’t always that deep. They were just funny situations, and opportunities for Caesar to do his doubletalk, which doesn’t require knowing the language in question to appreciate it.

But some of what he did was relevant to where I lived--a new neighborhood just outside the small town limits, among other working class becoming middle class families-- and what I was seeing around me.. Caesar’s Hour had a regular segment called "the Commuters." The suburban flight that would transform New York and pretty much end New York theatre (leading to the Broadway for tourists of today) was introducing people to the new culture of suburbia. There were new manners, expected behaviors. These sketches—some lasting almost the entire hour—explored these in the Caesar way. For example, I clearly remember a moment in one from seeing it once as a child. The couples were out together at a restaurant. They were all sitting in a booth and talking. A waiter brought a salad bowl. Carl Reiner told Sid to “toss the salad, Bob.” Sid did one of his series of takes—he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. Carl kept talking to someone, only to say again, more insistently, “toss the salad!” So Sid tossed it up in the air, lettuce leaves falling on everyone.

Toss the salad” was a new concept to a city guy, probably from a poor immigrant family. It was part of middle class suburban manners. But it also happened to be a new concept to me. I was vaguely aware that the people on television were richer and more sophisticated than anyone I actually knew. So I saw it perhaps as something “ritzy” people said and did. But it also seemed possible that it was something I would need to know, or something I should know—something that adults knew.

When you’re a kid just about everything “adult” is strange-- tossing a salad as much as foreign movies. You spend a lot of time trying to imagine why adults do and say things, and what they mean. Sid Caesar’s humor was often based on exaggeration, and on taking something literally that wasn’t meant to be taken that way. It’s exactly the kind of humor that appeals to children, because we often make those mistakes, and we also often think adults are strange and don’t make much sense. Sid Caesar represented us.

Now the exaggeration in those sketches can also be appreciated for the variations, the lines of logic and the moments in which the logic jumps the tracks (the classic sketch "The Recital" is a good example.) But there’s still something wonderful about their kinship to the imagination of childhood. [continued in following posts]
Writers for Caesar's Hour: (from left, front row) Gary Belkin, Sheldon Keller, Michael Stewart and Mel Brooks; (from left, back) Neil Simon , Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. (pbs/file 1956)

Sid Caesar didn't do it all alone, of course.  There were his brillian costars, such as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner,  Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray.  And there were the writers--as brilliant a group of writers as ever wrote for one comedian's television shows.

Those writers, many of whom are individually famous (Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart) have also been immortalized on film (in My Favorite Year, which conflates Sid Caesar and Steve Allen) and especially on stage, in Neil Simon's play Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

I recently saw and wrote about a community theatre production, which led to research into the writers and their contribution to Sid Caesar history. The play is about a group of writers for a 1950s comedy-variety television show called the Max Prince Show, but it is based very loosely on the last year or so of Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar.

The play is set in the writers’ room of a weekly 90 minute comedy-variety series in 1953. The play’s characters are loosely based on the legendary writers who worked for Sid Caesar, but not all of them in the play worked on Your Show of Shows. Several joined later for its successor, Caesar’s Hour, a one hour show of mostly comedy that debuted in the fall of 1954.

The two characters in the play based most clearly on the real writers were the team that were there at the beginning of YSOS, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. “They set the tone for the whole show,” Carl Reiner said. They had written Caesar’s previous series, The Admiral Broadway Revue, which first teamed him with the now-legendary comedienne, Imogene Coca.

In the play, the character of Val Slotsky is based on Tolkin. Like Val, Tolkin was a Russian immigrant, by way of Canada. And like Val, he had a dour outlook, conditioned by pogroms in Russia. He trained as an accountant but entered show business through music. His first writing was composing songs and then bits to go with them. Larry Gelbart called him the “founding father” of YSOS, where he was head writer. Despite his years in North America, he had a heavy Eastern European accent, but he was highly literate, with a European sophistication and Old World manner.

The character of Carol Wyman is based slightly on Selma Diamond, who was on the staff of Caesar’s Hour and later became a brassy, gravel-voiced performer. But Carol is mostly based on Lucille Kallen, the only woman on the staff of YSOS. Kallen was famously allergic to the pervasive cigar smoke in the writers room. In the play, Carol complains that she has to keep her dresses in a humidor. Like Carol in the play, Kallen got pregnant during the run of the show, and the play has a kind of in-joke about that. Some reference is made to a writer being hired temporarily to replace Carol. Temporary replacements were in fact hired for Kallen—they happened to be Neil Simon and his older brother Danny Simon. By the time Kallen was ready to return, the show was over. (The play is narrated by “Lucas Brickman,” the Neil Simon stand-in. Brother Danny isn’t mentioned, and he would not follow Neil to Caesar’s Hour.)

Kallen had worked with Tolkin, first at a large Jewish resort in the Pocono Mountains, and then on the Admiral TV show. Kallen wrote especially for Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca as a couple, either in stand-alone sketches or for their regular segment, the Hickenloopers. She was a small woman in a room of large men, and sometimes had to stand on a couch and wave a red sweater to be heard. Reiner remembers her as very pretty, and concerned with preserving her femininity as a professional woman. She later wrote a novel with this theme, before becoming known to a different public as the author of the C.B. Greenfield mystery novels.
Mel Brooks, who had also written jokes for the Admiral show, was soon added to the YSOS staff. Like the play’s character Ira Stone, he would often arrive late and complain of some ailment. It later transpired, Reiner said, that he was in fact hypoglycemic, which was a source of some of his woes, perhaps including his insomnia.

The play tends to nail each character with a defining characteristic and elaborates on it, sort of like a comedy sketch. But except for a few scenes it doesn’t really deal with the process of writing this show, nor the characteristic contributions of these writers. So the play doesn’t have much to say about Mel Brooks as a writer.

In an archival interview Larry Gelbart described Brooks’ method as creating whole routines, whereas Gelbart was used to throwing in an appropriate line or joke. With Mel, he said, it wouldn’t be “why does the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.” Instead Mel “would become the chicken, then he’d play both sides of the road, and he’d cross himself, doing 18 choruses of something while he’s crossing it—nobody else does this. He’s the funniest writer—and chicken—in the business.”

One of Brooks’ specialties for Caesar was “the Professor”—an expert on something or other (sleep, archeology, etc.) being interviewed. Carl Reiner was first hired on the show as an actor to be the interviewer. Later the Professor would evolve into the 2000 Year Old Man, which Brooks himself did, with Reiner. It started Brooks’ performing career, which later contributed to the success of his movies.

Carl Reiner became one of the regular sketch actors on YSOS and informally one of the writers, especially for Caesar’s Hour. According to wikipedia, he was the prototype for the Milt Fields character in the play, but I’ve yet to see a reference to Reiner showing up for work in a matador’s cape and a French beret, as Milt does in the play.

As Larry Gelbart explains, comedy writing is based a great deal on improvisation, and Reiner was skilled and imaginative. He was also skilled at “doubletalk--” improvising dialogue in a foreign language with words that don’t necessarily mean anything but sound right, and also funny. Sid Caesar was the acknowledged master, but Reiner held his own in sketches like the satire on the Italian neorealist movie The Bicycle Thief, performed completely in fake Italian.

Reiner was probably with Sid Caesar the longest, and for a long while was identified with him. Though he’s had a career as a performer (most recently in the new Ocean’s Eleven series), he made his enduring mark with the Dick Van Dyke Show. It's remembered for introducing Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie, but Van Dyke as Rob Petrie worked on a comedy show based on the Sid Caesar shows. Rose Marie as Sally Rodgers was again based on Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond—though this time, more on the harsh voiced, one-of-the-guys Selma. Reiner also wrote and/or directed several of Steve Martin's early films, from the satiric (and Caesar-like) Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid to the classic romantic comedy All of Me.
Larry Gelbart himself joined the team in 1955, with Caesar’s Hour. He’s supposedly the model for Kenny Franks in the play. His experience had been as a joke writer, and Caesar’s Hour taught him sketch writing, with basic beginning-middle-end story construction. It was a stage in development that led to his first stage play, collaborating on A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, and later famous plays, movies and the television series M*A*S*H.

The character of Brian Doyle is based on Michael Stewart, who (like Brian) was Irish, and who would go on to write for the theatre. He was a writer for Caesar’s Hour, where he had the role of the one who actually wrote down what the group had come up with—a role previously filled by Lucille Kallen and Joseph Stein on YSOS.

Another character that appears in at least the TV movie version of Laughter on the 23rd Floor is Harry Prince, based on Dave Caesar, Sid’s brother who appeared on Caesar’s Hour. But he’s not in the play, at least the version I saw produced.

At the center of it all was Sid Caesar. However he was much more the Max Prince character during the run of Caesar’s Hour. YSOS was controlled more by its director, Max Liebman, and Caesar wasn’t even the star at first. But by Caesar’s Hour, he ran the show.

As a creative performer, Sid Caesar was a comic genius. That’s only implied in the play, though the Marlon Brando’s Julius Caesar movie excerpt suggests one of his particular kinds of mayhem. He was also mercurial, with a growing dependence on alcohol and pills, as Max Prince. Caesar later conquered these dependencies.

An aside: the production I saw sort of makes fun of Max Prince’s saxophone playing. In reality, Sid Caesar started out professionally as a saxophone player. In the funniest sketch on the Sid Caesar Collection Vol. 1 DVD is Caesar as a progressive jazzman Progress Hornsby being interviewed on "Ominous" (parody of the interview program Omnibus.) At the end of it Caesar actually plays jazz saxophone. (The Progress Hornsby sketch on YouTube is different and not nearly as good.)
Neil Simon
All of this adds texture to the differences between the Max Prince Show in Neil Simon's play and Your Show of Shows.

In the play the network wants to cut the Max Prince Show from 90 minutes to an hour, because it’s getting less popular. One reason is discussed: the television audience isn’t just New York anymore. The reach of television is growing—New York was its biggest audience, but new technologies enable broadcasters to reach farther into the Midwest and South. The urban-oriented humor wasn’t translating. There’s reference in the play to more popular shows being Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best.

But the play is set in 1953, and in fact these changes were a little further in the future, and didn't seem to influence the fate of the always popular Your Show of Shows. 39 original shows a year, each one live for 90 minutes, were broadcast from 1950 to the end of the 1954 season, on NBC every Saturday night from 9 p.m. to 10:30. Your Show of Shows ended partly because its stars wanted to do different shows. According to Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar himself wanted to do an hour show that concentrated on comedy, with less “jumping” as he called it, which meant dancing, or musical numbers in general. These were prominent on Your Show of Shows.

Nanette Fabray and Sid
At the same time, Imogene Coca—Caesar’s partner in many comedy pieces—had become a big star, and she was slated to have her own show on NBC. When YSOS ended, she got the 9 p.m. Saturday slot. Sid Caesar got Caesar’s Hour on Monday night. (In the play, the cutting back from 90 minutes meant a writer would have to be fired. But because Caesar's Hour had more comedy, the writing staff actually expanded.) Your Show of Shows ended in June 1954, and both of these shows started with the new TV season in September.

But The Imogene Coca Show never found a stable identity, changing from a sitcom to a comedy sketch show back to a sitcom with an entirely different premise, all in one season. It wasn’t renewed for a second. Caesar’s Hour prospered however, and in 1956 moved back to Saturday night.

It was a hit series for several years, but Caesar reportedly saw the writing on the wall when The Lawrence Welk Show (which started in 1955) started getting higher ratings. Caesar's Hour ended its run in May 1957 (before Leave It To Beaver had begun.)

After Caesar’s Hour went off the air, Sid Caesar had a couple of other shows. Sid Caesar Invites You ran for the first 5 months of 1958, reuniting Caesar and Imogene Coca, with Carl Reiner and several of the writers, including Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. There were three half hour specials in 1962 and 1963 called As Caesar Sees It, leading to The Sid Caesar Show in the 1963 season with a similar sketch comedy format but different regulars. It was for either the specials or the Sid Caesar Show—or probably both—that Woody Allen wrote (uncredited) for Sid Caesar, with (according to Allen) lasting influence on his style.

The Sid Caesar writers' room has become so legendary that the writers and the shows are routinely mismatched and remembered together. The play preserves some aspects, and neglects others. The physical set prescribed for this play is based on Neil Simon’s memory of the actual writers room for one of the Caesar series, which Sid Caesar praised for its accuracy on the original Broadway production’s opening night. The production I saw didn't attempt to mimic one of the actual room’s characteristics: the 39 or so pencils stuck in the acoustical tile ceiling, sent there by frustrated writers.

But the play doesn't fully give the flavor of what the experience might have been like for the writing staff. Just imagine the work week before each show aired on Saturday: Some of the show's regular features could be planned as early as the previous Friday, Lucille Kallen said, with writing started over the weekend. But basically the writing started on Monday, and had to be finished by Wednesday. For Caesar’s Hour, that meant four or five sketches.

Thursday the cast would get the show on its feet, and Friday they would do it for the director. Saturday was intense. The whole show would be done three times before air. The first time for blocking, the second a smooth rehearsal where cuts for time and changes were set, the third was full dress. Then it was done live for broadcast. Eventually it would be done once again, for broadcast to the West Coast. Then Sid Caesar would take everyone out, usually to a place called Danny’s Hideaway, for a Bacchanalian feast. Then they’d have Sunday with their families. But basically, the show was their life.

Carl Reiner based The Dick Van Dyke Show partly
on working for Sid Caesar 
The Sid Caesar writing staffs are legendary for a reason. Here is a partial list of titles (plays, movies, TV shows etc.) that entered American life for generations, generated by writers who worked for Sid Caesar: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Odd Couple, Blazing Saddles, Fiddler on the Roof, the Dick Van Dyke Show, Annie Hall, Get Smart, Barefoot in the Park, Bye, Bye Birdie, Tootsie, The Producers, The Jerk, All in the Family, City of Angels, Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H, Enter Laughing, Hello Dolly, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Sunshine Boys, Manhattan...and so many more...