Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is dedicated to the television series that set the standard for ALL future comedy variety shows — later inspiring plays (Laughter On The 23rd Floor), films (My Favorite Year), musicals (also My Favorite Year), and even sitcoms (The Dick Van Dyke Show). The star was Sid Caesar. The show was Your Show Of Shows (NBC, 1950-1954), which also featured Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Bill Hayes, Judy Johnson, The Hamilton Trio, and soprano Marguerite Piazza. For 90 minutes every Saturday evening, viewers were treated to LIVE excellence in sketch comedy, situation comedy (“The Hickenloopers”), musical acts, pantomimes, movie parodies, and more. Stemming from a brief live 1949 program entitled The Admiral Broadway Revue, Your Show Of Shows was produced and directed by Max Liebman, and boasted a writing staff that included: Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen, Carl Reiner, Danny Simon, Neil Simon, Joe Stein, Mel Tolkin, and Tony Webster.
Following Imogene Coca’s departure into her own series in 1954, Sid Caesar continued on with Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957, NBC), which shrunk in size and replaced Coca with Nanette Fabray. Semi-regulars included, in addition to Reiner and Morris, Bea Arthur, Janet Blair, and Milt Kamen. The writing staff included: Brooks, Reiner, the Simon brothers, Stein, Tolkin, Webster, Gary Belkin, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller, Aaron Ruben, and Mike Stewart. (Woody Allen did NOT write for this show. He wrote for Ceasar’s brief 1958 comeback, The Sid Caesar Show.)
Since these shows were broadcast live, only kinescopes survive — and many of them are incomplete or missing. In 1973, ten sketches from the first series (generally considered a bit superior to the later one) were released theatrically under the heading Ten From Your Show Of Shows. This has been released on VHS but not DVD. Additionally, various sketch compilations were seen in syndication for brief periods in both the ’80s and ’90s. In the past twenty years, nine volumes worth of sketches have been released on VHS and DVD as part of “The Sid Caesar Collection.” That’s where the clips from this post were taken. I have chosen ten bits — several of which are iconic and have been seen online before — that I really want to share with you. Six are from YSOS and four are from CH. Note that because I’ve only seen approximately 70 sketches from both series combined, this list can not truly represent my choices for the BEST.
01. YSOS: The Hickenloopers – “Auto Smash-Up” (Aired: 04/21/51)
Caesar and Coca played sparring couple Charlie and Doris Hickenlooper in this recurring “sitcom” that would set a template for other husband-and-wife comedy shows. (Like “The Honeymooners” sketches that premiered in October of 1951). In “Auto Smash-Up,” one of the best Hickenlooper bits, Coca attempts to tell Caesar that she’s wrecked the car: a classic (if unoriginal) premise that turns into pure magic by these two seasoned performers. This was included in the 1973 film.
02. YSOS: Pantomime – “Cocktail Party” (Aired: 02/07/53)
I suppose a lot of people consider pantomime a little too high brow for popular entertainment, but one gander at the comedic brilliance of Caesar and Coca should convince them otherwise. Not only is this a difficult skill to master, but the ease with which they perform is awe-inspiring. Of course, it’s also hilariously funny. They both — and Coca in particular here — do such remarkably hysterical things with their faces. Take a look.
03. YSOS: Sketch – “Four Englishmen” (Aired: 05/23/53)
This is a simple and comparatively short sketch that lacks the narrative cohesion of the above. But that’s precisely why I like it. Caesar, Coca, Reiner, and Morris play Englishmen who sit on a coach in awkward silence until it starts to rain and water leaks on their heads. Then they light cigarettes and pretend like nothing’s happened. That’s practically all that happens — and it’s hysterical. Watch them break character — Coca can hardly contain herself and neither can I.
04. YSOS: Sketch – “The Clock” (Aired: 09/26/53)
Once more, the performers’ precision makes this seemingly ordinary bit into a work of art. Not particularly hilarious in situation, the humor comes from our knowingness that the rigidity of the figures in the clock is going to be torn to shreds when the clock malfunctions. Indeed, the entire sketch waits for that moment when they speed up and run amuck. Such a clever and excellently rendered bit! This was in the 1973 film.
05. YSOS: The Hickenloopers – “Health Food Restaurant” (Aired: 11/21/53)
Yes, here’s another Hickenkloopers sketch — this one made memorable in its seemingly “ahead of its time” story about Doris dragging Charlie to a health food restaurant. Now more fitting than ever, Caesar is delightful in a string of excellent physical and verbal gags that still remain fresh today. The eating of the flowers, in particular, is not to be missed. The always snarky Caesar is right in his element here — and it’s a very funny element.
06. YSOS: Parody – “This Is Your Story” (Aired: 04/03/54)
I suppose this might be the most famous sketch that the series ever produced. (Have any of my readers not seen an episode of “This Is Your Life”? Essentially, this was a series that spotlighted a person’s life by introducing various people from his/her past and present. Normally they used average folks, but sometimes celebrities would come on too. Here‘s Bette Davis’.) This sketch is a wicked parody of that series with hysterical sobbing guests and wonderful overblown reunions. Take a look if you haven’t seen this one already. This was in the 1973 film.
07. CH: The Commuters – “The White Rug” (Aired: 09/26/54)
Caesar’s Hour’s answer to Your Show Of Shows‘ The Hickenloopers was The Commuters — another husband-and-wife recurring “sitcom” that was a little more traditional, a little less crass, and a little longer in length. With more emphasis on the guest stars than the interplay between Caesar and his wife — now the wondeful Nanette Fabray — the success of these sketches are more dependent on the premise. Here’s one of the funniest.
08. CH: Pantomime – “Argument To Beethoven’s 5th” (Aired: 12/27/54)
Another pantomime, Caesar is just as excellent here with Fabray as he was on the previous show with Coca. While the bits were probably better on the former show, this one is exceptional, though more a triumph of performance than humor. Once again — these performers are superb in their commitment to detail and their showmanship. This one has been put online before, but if you haven’t seen it, check this out. It’s brilliantly choreographed and played.
09. CH: Musical Number – “Shadow Waltz” (Aired: 02/14/55)
A staple of both series was their well-produced musical numbers. Coca and Fabray were both Broadway stars, so it was inevitable that they would participate. Fabray, who has a remarkable voice, shines in this number that you youngsters may recognize from the stage adaptation of 42nd Street, “Shadows On The Wall,” which is given a humorous twist by the upstaging Caesar. According to Fabray, this was a parody of Your Hit Parade.
10. CH: Parody – “Break Your Brains” (Aired: 04/16/57)
The longest clip in today’s post, this is an extraordinarily on-the-mark lampoon of the infamous quiz shows of the era — which would later come under fire in the notorious scandal that hit the press in 1958. Reiner is wonderful as the host, and Caesar is his usual clowning self. The parody is, like “This Is Your Story,” so perfectly rendered that even if the sketch wasn’t funny — and it is, screamingly — it would still be enjoyable. Take a look.
02/12/14 (16:16 EST) UPDATE: Rest in peace, Mr. Sid Caesar. Thank you for the laughs!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Hercules and Xena!