The Book Club: Check Out SID CAESAR AND YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS (The Birth of the Television Sketch Comedy Series)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week I had the privilege of reviewing an advance copy of a new book (released on January 17, 2021) that I know will interest many of my readers here — it’s called Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows: The Birth of the Television Sketch Comedy Series, written by a friend of this blog, Karen J. Harvey. (Check it out on Amazon.)

I’m happy to say that after eagerly looking forward to this release for nearly three years now, I was not disappointed. The author was able to study every preserved script and surviving episode of this classic, influential comedy-variety series — Your Show Of Shows (1950-1954, NBC) — along with the earlier Admiral Broadway Revue (1949), to give us a comprehensive understanding of its history and, particularly, its comedy: the monologues, sketches, pantomimes, parodies, etc. For researchers and scholars like myself, the breakdown of each broadcast is an invaluable resource and worth the price of admission. However, I have to specifically recommend the essays discussing Caesar and his proficiency as both a physical comedian and comic actor, for Harvey astutely analyzes the very qualities that made him such a genius performer within an entire ensemble (Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris) of extraordinary talents, all of whom contributed considerably to the success of the show. Additionally, the chapter describing the dynamics in the series’ famed writer’s room, a legendary collection of some of the most brilliant minds in the business — Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Danny Simon, Neil Simon, Joe Stein, Tony Webster, along with Reiner, Caesar, and producer Max Liebman — is vital to any lover of comedy (television or otherwise — just look at Neil Simon!), because their careers were so collectively incredible that the show had bearing on more than just the variety genre, but mid-century American humor en masse. As a matter of fact — and as we’ve been exploring lately on this blog — many of our favorite sitcoms from the ’50s and ’60s were helmed by scribes who came from this sketch-based world. We talked recently about The Steve Allen Show, given its connection to Get Smart, as well as The Jackie Gleason Show, another important credit for Get Smart’s Leonard Stern — directly responsible for one of the 1950s’ best remembered sitcoms: The Honeymooners.

But Your Show Of Shows has a reputation for being the premier sketch comedy series of its era, elevating slapstick and parody to the ranks of art, courtesy of both its exceptional writing and playing. This, along with the fact that Reiner eventually created a series inspired by his time with Caesar, The Dick Van Dyke Show — the most realistic and character-driven sitcom of the 1960s — made me especially interested in learning more about Your Show Of Shows in the context of how it helped cultivate the situation comedy on television. And naturally, beyond Reiner, most of this crew indeed came to write for sitcoms — aside from Mel Brooks going on to co-create the show we’re currently spotlighting on Sitcom Tuesdays (Get Smart), Lucille Kallen and the Simon brothers hopped over to the brief Buddy Hackett/Carol Burnett vehicle Stanley, Tony Webster moved to Nat Hiken’s sphere and worked on both The Phil Silvers Show and Car 54, Where Are You?, and, among other things, head writer Mel Tolkin became a key scribe on another TV classic, Norman Lear’s All In The Family. As for Your Show Of Shows itself, it actually had a recurring sketch analogous to Gleason’s The “Honeymooners” — “The Hickenloopers,” a domestic husband/wife routine for Caesar and Coca that Harvey reveals was largely penned by Tolkin and Kallen, based on real-life squabbles that the writers, including Caesar, had at home. In fact, the author has a whole section on this feature, which was part of nearly every single episode from their debut during the second season in October 1950 to the finale in June 1954. Sadly, only 22 or so of these “Hickenloopers” sketches are available online or on home video as of this article’s publication — that’s less than 20% of the total that were broadcast — but the ones we do have come from every season and, per Harvey’s descriptions, can provide an accurate sampling of the sketch and its evolution. So, given that they’re the closest thing to a weekly situation comedy on Your Show Of Shows, I decided to review what I could find to determine, once and for all, how much credit we should give Caesar’s iconic series when analyzing the development of the sitcom genre, along with the corresponding idea-driven school of sitcommery that I’ve posited as being a pervasive counterbalance to the character-driven school.

For starters, I urge you to check out my essay from last year where I introduced this “rival schools” theory by comparing the character-forward I Love Lucy to the more idea-led The Phil Silvers Show, which I argued as being a better ambassador for this respective style because it reinforces its sketch-like origins without actually being derived from a sketch, like The Honeymooners. Similarly, when examining “The Hickenloopers” today, we don’t have an actual sitcom extrapolation, as we do with “The Honeymooners” on Gleason’s show, so a fairer comparison must involve only the sketches on their corresponding variety efforts. With that established, let’s start with their obvious differences — for one, “The Hickenloopers” debuted a whole year before “The Honeymooners,” the latter of which didn’t bow until October 1951 (the same month, incidentally, as I Love Lucy), and it was thus born before the notion of a husband/wife sketch became linked with “The Honeymooners.” Also, Caesar’s iteration was not just a showcase for its one star comic (or eventually the star and his male sidekick) but a showcase for the star and his leading lady equally (Caesar and Coca), which means we’d be just as likely to see Doris Hickenlooper screw up and be the goofball as her husband Charlie, for the comic burden was shared, unlike with the Kramdens: fallible Ralph and, once Audrey Meadows replaced the more caustic Pert Kelton in 1952, stoic, long-suffering Alice. And, lastly, the two couples were depicted as existing in different economic strata — the Kramdens were lower-middle class, or blue-collar, living in Brooklyn, while the Hickenloopers were more decidedly middle class, living in an “average” apartment in midtown Manhattan.

As for their histories, we know what eventually happened with “The Honeymooners,” but I should point out that their sketches started in 1951 at about five minutes, and grew by late 1953 to be regularly between 35 and 40 — that is, longer than an episode of an actual sitcom. In contrast, “The Hickenloopers” was pretty consistently between five and eight minutes, and it wasn’t until the last year-and-a-half of the program that they might be longer — although, even then, the longest I’ve seen is approximately twice that length (15-ish), or shorter than an episode of an actual sitcom. This difference is revealing because it illustrates the expansion of Gleason’s format to accommodate bigger narratives (which then had to be trimmed in sitcom form), while “The Hickenloopers” purposely remained brief, never having to put as much emphasis on plot, because a simple comic idea could sufficiently carry most sketches. Of course, much like the early fare on “The Honeymooners,” this wouldn’t have been enough to sustain a half-hour sitcom. To that point, there are some warranted comparisons between these two idea-led sketches, for with the exception of Ralph being the bombastic conflict-propeller and Doris & Charlie sharing the responsibilities as equal opportunity goofballs and arguers, the basic idea of marital tension is what fuels both of their concepts, and they’re both affiliated subliminally with the quintessential frame of reference for this archetype: The Bickersons, which started on radio in 1946 but made its debut as a recurring sketch on the short-lived variety show Star Time in October 1950, just a few weeks before “The Hickenloopers.” Now, Harvey doesn’t want us to compare “The Hickenloopers” to their famous battling counterparts (who lived only to bicker), but the truth is, many of these five to eight minute sketches are based on simple barb-filled arguments. Just like the early “Honeymooners.” It’s hard to separate them out from this template, which sort of insists that, in this era’s domestic comedy subgenre, husbands and wives are going to fight like cats and dogs, especially because the sketch design requires an easy-to-understand conflict that can be hashed out (or not) in just a few minutes.

However, this difference in length between “The Hickenloopers” throughout its run and the evolving “Honeymooners” is huge, for it’s also displayed via character. You see, when Ralph eventually has to exist in a 40-minute story, he’s naturally given more definition — flaws, perspectives, objectives — than Charlie, who only has to live, at most, in a 15-minute comic idea. In this regard, “The Hickenloopers” is less defined than “The Honeymooners,” which, as we’ve explored, isn’t exactly a paragon of character work either, with a tenuous link between its regulars and plot. (A “get rich quick” goal for Ralph begins to form by the time of the half-hour sitcom, but it’s broader and less forceful than Lucy Ricardo’s desire to break out of the home.) Specifically, the wives on “The Honeymooners” are colorless background support, and the men have exaggerated personalities that are merely extensions of their stars’ comic personas — rooted in some aspect of how they appear (which therefore supplies extra weight and seeming authenticity to their broadness). In contrast — and this is something Harvey aims to prove — Caesar was an excellent comic actor, a chameleon who could blend into a variety of roles but never liked playing himself, or even a variation of himself. Like Coca, he is totally committed to whatever amusing scenario is before him — he brings it to life, makes it believable, finds extra moments of humor only hinted at in the text (truly, he’s incredible) — but he never supplies the weight of an innate persona and the continuity that might come with it, helping to flesh out, like with Gleason’s Ralph, a characterization otherwise not there on the page. In other words, Charlie Hickenlooper isn’t hinged around our perception of Caesar, which means that when this sketch format inherently denies him the details he’d need to motivate story, there’s even less there than with Ralph Kramden, who’s at least grounded by part of Gleason’s own sensibility.

This may sound like I’m criticizing the series’ ability to write and perform character in relation to “The Honeymooners.” But I’m actually not doing that, for there are significantly different priorities at play. While “The Honeymooners” is meant to showcase part of the Gleason persona in an idea-driven lampoon of domesticity — hence the sarcastic title — “The Hickenloopers” wants to spotlight not a person, but its two stars’ comic dexterity, aided by down-to-earth scenarios that might seem slight, but are underpinned by an emotional realism imparted by writers who are consciously mining their real lives for material. As such, “The Hickenloopers” is more divorced from set circumstances (people, places, things), but it’s purer in its projection of ideas, free from a parodical intention that adds a high-concept veneer to a low-concept foundation. Also, it’s just as much a vehicle for Caesar and Coca — as they want it — as Gleason’s is for him, with an emphasis on their work (and the writers’ work), instead of them as characters/players. Speaking of which, the sketch’s low-concept use of truthful situations based on personal experiences indeed delineates it from “‘The Bickersons,” for it is more real. Even when generic situations are employed — wife wrecks the car, husband forgets a birthday, etc. — and the scripts may not display the individualities necessary for great characters, it’s still more supported by truth than its contemporaries, both in the text and in the performances. What’s more, there’s a clear link between this style of writing and Reiner’s understanding of the sitcom in 1961’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, for in that classic character-driven series — discussed here — Reiner found a way to use relatable situations to create believable regulars; all he had to do was treat them like real people, with small quirks that make them off-center, but not wildly. “The Hickenloopers” stops short of going this far with Doris and Charlie — mostly because it doesn’t need to rely on the larger story structures that would have required more help from well-defined characterizations and then pushed them into being.

That said, there was a time when a Caesar series would need more help from well-defined characterizations, which is to say that we actually have an even better reference point for this crew’s percolating sitcomming sensibilities, because when Your Show Of Shows ended in 1954 and Imogene Coca split off into her own 30-minute series, Caesar got the hour-long Caesar’s Hour, which ran from 1954-1957, replaced Coca with Nanette Fabray (and in the final year, Fabray with Janet Blair), and added a handful of other esteemed writers to its roster — among them, Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart (MASH), Sheldon Keller, Gary Belkin, Aaron Ruben (Andy Griffith), Phil Sharp, and Mike Stewart. On this show, which Harvey only briefly touches upon — I’m hoping for a second book on this subject, because it featured so much of the original cast and crew, and I know she would do the material justice — there was a NEW husband/wife sketch, “The Commuters,” which transported its central couple from Manhattan out into the suburbs, mirroring a trend that many New Yorkers were following in the mid-1950s. Almost every Caesar’s Hour episode enjoyed a “Commuters” sequence, but sadly, only ten are online and available to us right now. Fortunately, they’re still telling — outside of one early fall 1954 sketch, which is atypical because it doesn’t include Fabray at all and is sidetracked by highlighting the vocal talents of guest star Peggy Lee, they typically run between nine to 25 minutes, or the length of an actual sitcom. That is, they’re longer than “The Hickenloopers,” and therefore closer to the situation comedies we know and love. So, how do they stack up?

Well, the longer ones have to offer more story, which means the characters have to make choices to prolong the comic ideas, and in the process, it’s fair to say that they’re forced to become more believable. Also, the premise itself is more specific — these are characters who once lived in the city, but are now facing life in suburbia, with all their neighbors around them (the husbands were played by Reiner and Morris, who participated more in these sketches) — so there are more “givens” in “The Commuters” to inspire comic ideas. As a result, there are some really great ones, even in what we have, like a hysterical nine-minute skit about a new white rug that the neighbor ruins with his cheap wet socks. But, again, that works because it’s an amusing idea — not because it implies unique characterizations that are in conflict. This is maintained in the other sketches too, for, from what I’ve seen, “The Commuters” still remains, like its predecessor, more generic-for-the-sake-of-the-relatable-comic-idea than it should be, and it still feels less propelled by its characters — or any actual recurring possibilities in the premise — than even, say, a 15-minute “Honeymooners,” which at minimum has a caricatured Ralph and his structural relationships with Alice and Norton. To wit, even though the performers are again brilliant and the situations themselves are emotionally identifiable, the focus on individual ideas never turns to sustaining notions, like character, to connect the sketch from week to week in a way that all sitcoms build continuity, which, as we know, makes their comic ideas richer.

Ultimately, then, I’m not sure that we can sincerely look to Sid Caesar’s iconic variety shows for as much help in suggesting the genesis of TV’s sitcommery as we can with Gleason’s “Honeymooners,” which actually became a sitcom. But much like Steve Allen’s show was instrumental in shaping Get Smart, I would credit “The Hickenloopers” — and “The Commuters” — with giving Reiner a jumping off point for the massively influential The Dick Van Dyke Show. This is an association that can’t be understated, and it’s beautifully reinforced by Harvey’s study, which makes the case for Your Show Of Shows being the high-water mark for the comedy-variety genre in this era, with writing that was excellent across the board, even in these proto-sitcom sketches that maybe aren’t as forward-thinking when we look at them in the context of an evolutionary study, but nevertheless satisfy their basic comic objective and display both Harvey’s thesis about Caesar’s genius and his show’s excellent conception of relatable humor that would be utilized by the autobiographical Reiner and so many others in just a few short years. Accordingly, I want to share a clip that I think reiterates this connection. It’s actually a “Commuters” from Caesar’s Hour — because, again, it had longer sketches that needed a little more story and character. This one aired on May 09, 1955 — it’s over 18 minutes long (so, closer to a sitcom) and is a flashback, a device Reiner would frequently employ on Dick Van Dyke as a way to reveal things about the main characters. This one shows how/why the Commuters ended up moving from the city… Now, you won’t see the expert character work of Rob and Laura Petrie, but you’ll certainly witness some hilarious writing and playing, all within a narrative device and a corresponding understanding of situational comedy that’s very familiar.

And, lastly, because I also want to share a “Hickenloopers,” here’s an interesting seven-minute laugh-fest that aired on September 06, 1952 — it concerns a fight between Charlie and Doris over whether or not a joke is funny. If that premise sounds familiar, that’s because it was used a decade later as the basis for “The Joke,” a gem of an episode from Leonard Stern’s I’m Dickens, He’s Fenstera slapsticky buddy comedy that counted Your Show Of Shows’ Mel Tolkin as its story editor. Tolkin, unsurprisingly, penned “The Joke” (with Stern and Steve Allen’s Don Hinkley), which suggests an intermingling of all these various variety shows, along with their styles of comedy, and affirms that their principles/ideas could absolutely transfer and thrive in sitcom form — as long as they had a little more help from reliable continuity-yielding structures, like characters. “The Joke,” by the way, is one of the best sitcom episodes of the ’60s — it’s a terrific idea, imaginatively executed using its series’ particulars — so count this scene as an early version of that story, from Tolkin and the legendary staff from Your Show Of Shows, which deserves to be hailed, as Harvey’s book conclusively proves, among television’s early gems.

 

Please visit this YouTube page for the largest collection of Sid Caesar content currently online: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCaco274Tej4ZhYWflk4B6lw

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Get Smart! 

10 thoughts on “The Book Club: Check Out SID CAESAR AND YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS (The Birth of the Television Sketch Comedy Series)

  1. Just wanted to offer a few comments here (I’ve been continuing to read and greatly enjoy your posts despite not having offered any comments for quite a while, due solely to being so neurotically preoccupied by other things that I’ve not been commenting or participating to, really, any online community, including the spaces I created myself. . . ):

    First off, I’m absolutely delighted to see a (typically) thoughtful, well-considered post from you about Sid Caesar spurred by the publication of my friend’s book.

    Second, I think your analysis (as usual) is spot on. But I think it’s worth my trying to clarify– not that you ever said otherwise– that Karen’s Sid Caesar book was in no way trying to argue that Sid, or his writers, or Max Liebman, were pioneers in the establishment of TV *situation* comedy. I think her book (indicated by its title) argues that Sid et al were the pioneers of television *sketch* comedy. I deeply value your analysis and critiques of situation comedy specifically over the years, and understand fully why this is the angle you chose to take, but I also think it’s important to make absolutely clear that the new book doesn’t even attempt to argue that “Your Show of Shows” was a seminal/foundational force in the development of situation comedy on television.

    Lastly (for now at least :) ), I have to confess to being a bit puzzled by the complete lack of reference here to my Sid Caesar channel on YouTube, which has existed for over 5 years and which you can’t possibly be unaware of. . . ? This isn’t a matter of ego for me, really– it’s just. . . isn’t it true that anyone reading this article whose interest might be piqued into exploring more of Sid’s 1950 work would benefit from being made aware of the existence of a YT channel which has more of this material gathered in one place, including vast amounts of material never released on home video, than anywhere else?

    You know how much I appreciate your insights and all the cogent, intelligent analysis of the (academically) vastly neglected sitcom format over the years, so I very much hope that you will accept my comments in the friendly manner in which I mean to offer them. :) But it’s deeply, deeply important to me, on a personal level, both that (a) Karen’s *wonderful* new book not be misunderstood to be making an argument that it’s not making, and (b) that folks whose interest in Sid Caesar is peaked by your article are aware of the existence of a single, central place on YT where they can sample vast amount of Sid’s groundbreaking 1950s TV work.

    Above all, though, I want to say how delighted I was, truly, to see you devote a blog post to Sid on the basis of having read a truly excellent book written by a dear friend. :) All the best to you.

    • Hi, Wayne! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I think it’s already clear above what Harvey’s thesis is, and what mine is. I’m not arguing against hers.

      “Harvey’s study […] makes the case for Your Show Of Shows being the high-water mark for the comedy-variety genre in this era, with writing that was excellent across the board, even in these proto-sitcom sketches that maybe aren’t as forward-thinking when we look at them in the context of an evolutionary study, but nevertheless satisfy their basic comic objective and display both Harvey’s thesis about Caesar’s genius and his show’s excellent conception of relatable humor that would be utilized by the autobiographical Reiner and so many others in just a few short years.”

      Your YouTube channel is linked twice in my piece, but I will add a postscript to mention it specifically. Happy to do that.

      Hope you’re well!

      • Thanks for adding the more explicit link– I confess I *honestly* wasn’t aware that you’d already provided a couple of links to the Sid Caesar channel, which is my fault for not more carefully examining your post before replying. I totally, fully support your voluminous, yet amazingly still impressively incisive posts about sitcoms over the years.

        You’re a real mensch, as high a compliment as this non-religious could offer, but also a truly great analyst of a too-long neglected art form, television situation comedies. Thanks for hearing out my comments without taking them personally– cause on personal level, I simply think you’re great. :)

        • I appreciate your kind words and I’m grateful for all you’ve shared over the years, not just the Sid Caesar channel, but WHAT’S MY LINE?, BURNS & ALLEN, and so many others as well. Hope you’re enjoying your social media break and I’m glad to see you back here!

    • Hi, John! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Glad to hear it — I hope you’ll buy the book too; if you love the show and/or Sid Caesar, you won’t be disappointed!

  2. Thanks for this great article Jackson. I downloaded the Kindle version a few days ago. I think you’re exactly right about what the book’s strengths are: the stuff on the writers, on Caesar as a performer and the episode guide at the back. I very much enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone for those chapters alone.

    But I think you were overly generous about the 9 pg. Hickenloopers segment, which I have to tell the commenter above, does try to argue that the TV sitcom can be “traced back” to YSOS. That is not entirely true and as this article points out it wasn’t even the first domestic sketch in a variety show (as she says). I think Jackson is much fairer about The Hickenloopers and its claim on the sitcom format.

    But that’s not to detract from the book in its entirety or the fact that YSOS is definitely influential as a sketch comedy series……. none of which needs clarifying IMO because it’s never in doubt, certainly not in such a generous & agreeable review.

    My two cents. :)

    • Hi, Toby! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this book and my corresponding article. Although you’re right that the author wants to make a more tangible link between the sitcom’s genesis and YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS’ “Hickenlooper” sketches, it clearly wasn’t the focal point of her book, and so, if I was generous about that section, it’s only because, as Wayne noted, it wasn’t her thesis (with which I otherwise, and more broadly, agreed). I also didn’t think this needed clarifying here — she’s arguing in favor of the series’ comedy as a whole, and I’m digging into its relevance for the sitcom genre (which is this blog’s thesis) — but I’m a-okay with doing so!

  3. Apologies for being somewhat late to the show, but a belated thanks for this blog review! As for The Hickenloopers discussion (and it’s a worthy one), I think Jackson has put it well: his blog is concentrating on the relevance of The Hickenloopers to the sitcom genre and (as both he and Gary point out) I’m using it as one illustration of the whole, i.e. the comedy and the genres of sketches the show excelled in. I think it’s great that a 60+ year-old, seminal comedy sketch series can still generate interest and debate. In any event, I greatly appreciate the comments, interest, and thoughts!

    • Hi, Karen! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I thoroughly enjoyed your book and I know everyone else here will as well — I hope it’s a fabulous success!

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