Judge Bill Gibron warns you young whippersnappers not to mistake this comedian for Cesar Romero or Cesar Chavez.
Television comedy's Big Bang
When anyone discusses the history of television, two names almost always come up in the influence-and-innovation determination. One is Milton Berle. "Uncle Miltie," as he was called by a nation of millions, brought old-fashioned Borscht Belt comedy—complete with vaudeville routines and nightclub standup—to the very small screen of the brand new broadcast showcase. Berle's Texaco Star Theater is still considered by many to be Ground Zero in the explosion of the immature entertainment medium.
But when it comes to the master, the teacher who taught everyone to rely more on their hearts and heads and less on seltzer water, Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows was—and still is—the foundation for an entire generational wave of funny. Utilizing the acting talents of then-unknowns like Carl Reiner (who would go on to create The Dick Van Dyke Show out of his recollections of working for Caesar), Howard Morris (Ernest T. Bass in The Andy Griffith Show), and Imogene Coca (the First Lady of TV comedy), and fielding a staff of writers unprecedented in the history of the genre (put it this way: there'd be no Odd Couple, Annie Hall, TV's M*A*S*H, or Blazing Saddles without the comic geniuses working for Caesar behind the typewriters), Caesar's efforts helped propel the upstart technology into the country's consciousness.
For years, fans have hoped for glimpses of the fabled shows and sketches of this era—material constantly referenced for its impact and effect on modern humor writing. New Video, as part of a much larger retrospective, has compiled several singular moments from Caesar's career and highlighted them on DVD. The Sid Caesar Collection: Buried Treasures, is one such anthology of ancient comic anarchy.
Divided over three DVDs, and featuring more than an hour of material on each disc, The Sid Caesar Collection: The Buried Treasures contains several heretofore unreleased sketches from both Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour. Intercut between each skit are brief interview segments, featuring comments and memories from the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris, and Caesar himself. They tie the substance together with insights and explanations. Individually we witness:
Disc One: The Impact of Sid Caesar
• "Nan Hires a Maid"
• "Professor on Sleep"
• "La Bicycletta"
• "Pantomime Cocktail Party"
• "Ominous with Progress Hornsby"
• "The Bellini Cup"
Disc Two: The Legend of Sid Caesar
• "The White Rug"
• "Bus Station"
• "Bullets Over Broadway"
• "German U-Boat 749"
• "Professor on Magic"
• "English Courtroom"
Disc Three: Shining Stars
• "At the Movies"
• "Grieg Piano Concerto"
• "Lé Honeré du Juellé"
• "Toy Band"
• "Health Food Restaurant"
• "Professor on Archeology"
• "Prison Walls"
While it may be hard for a modern audience to see it, or even accept it, Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour set the benchmark for the contemporary sketch comedy we see in the works of SCTV, Saturday Night Live, The Carol Burnett Show, and even Monty Python's Flying Circus. Before Sid Caesar and his talented crew of certified geniuses came along to shake up the format, skit-based humor was locked in the vaudeville / burlesque ideal of blackouts and broad over-simplification. Where Uncle Miltie (as stated before, Berle is considered the founding father of television) put on a dress and dragged up his proceedings with silly slapstick and manic mugging, the writers on Caesar's shows were sparring with an altogether unknown entity in the visual medium—verbal humor. Recalling the days of radio, when almost everything had to be spelled out in spoken images for either the comedy or drama to work, Caesar's TV shows tapped into the new language and lingo of the post-War years. The efforts of this famous staff (just between Allen, Gelbart, Simon, Brooks, and Reiner alone, there are more Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, and Grammys than in any other graduating class of broadcast scribes) in crafting perfectly executed, wonderfully complex premises and payoffs meant that, while other shows went for the cheap gag, Sid allowed the humor to grow naturally out of character and situation. Yes, there are still wild moments of visual shtick (sketches like "Bus Station," "At the Movies," and "Toy Band" are all based in physical, not psychological wit) on this set, but more times than not, the creative elements behind Sid showcase their ability to satirize specific genres and types.
Those looking for Your Show of Shows or Caesar's Hour classics—the opera parody of Pagliacci, the takeoff of From Here to Eternity, and so on—need to dig through the DVD catalog of their favorite retailer, online or otherwise, and pick up one of several other Caesar box sets out there. Indeed, Buried Treasures is part of a nine-disc, three-package presentation that looks at all aspects of the show, from favorite material to classic characters. To call this collection a mop job would be, perhaps, unfair, but one can hear the sound of a barrel bottom being scraped as some of these less-than-stellar skits play out. Of the items offered here, the two installments of "The Commuters" ("Nan Gets a Maid" and "The White Rug") have a nice, gentle sitcom feel—nothing groundbreaking or earth-shattering, just good set-ups with ripe payoffs. "Health Food Restaurant" has verbal volleys that must have confused the heck out of non-organic early '50s audiences (some of the references are obscure even by 2004 standards). And even the obvious slapstick ("At the Movies," "Grieg Piano Concerto") works some of the time.
Sadly, recognizable routines like the man-on-the-street "Professor" sketches are terribly dated. The concept of a mumble-mouthed foreigner malapropping his way through an interview died out with Bill Dana's deadly José Jimenez. The pantomime skits also stink of advanced age. After all, they do contain the concept of mime within each of their now-unfunny formats. Still, anytime Howard Morris is the center of a skit ("Bus Station," "The Bellini Cup"), there is the potential for some of his lunatic fringe finesse. And Coca is pure class. Overall, the performing and the polish of the cast are more amazing than the supposed humorous homeruns collected here. Most of this material is not classic, or even clever. It follows recognizable formulas and trades on traditional stereotypes. This is pretty non-PC stuff: women are harried homemakers, and men are boisterous bacon-and-bread-winning buffoons. For a series over 50 years old, some of the jokes hold up quite well. But ogling a busty maid, flitting around in faux French accents, or double-talking one's way through a careless courtroom creation, are not examples of timeless treats. The only accurate aspect of the subtitle to this DVD collection is the word "buried." That's where some of these underwhelming sketches should have stayed.
Thankfully, the addition of Q&A inserts almost makes up for the mediocre merriment. Most of the members of this entertainment elite remember their time of making television history vividly, and offer amusing and important insights into the shows. Carl Reiner is a little too hung up on Sid's ability with sense memory (he mentions it far too often), but as the second banana in most sketches, his discussions on timing and tempo are invaluable. Woody Allen describes how his own film career and acting have borrowed, outright, from his time as a writer and observer on Caesar's Hour. Mel Brooks provides most of the insane moments, while Neil Simon praises the work ethic he learned during his pre-Broadway stint with Sid. About the only odd (wo)man out here is Nanette Fabray. Viewed by most Caesar loyalists as Imogene Jr. and unable to hold a mug shot to Coca's archetypal ham, her comments seem more centered on self, and less on the other limelights in the show. Besides, from a quick glance of her work here, she had a nominal part in the overall impact of Caesar's comic convergence. While it would have been nice to hear from Imogene (even if it was through archival footage), and although a few non-famous faces barely make an appearance, the substantial—if far too short—recollections of these creative wizards help to fill in the gaps of glory that the Buried Treasures themselves fail to reveal.
In the area of technical specs, The Sid Caesar Collection: Buried Treasures is a mixed media bag. The interview material, shot on video in 2002 and 2003, looks amazing: lifelike and crystal clear. The crispness of the camera work makes you feel as if you're actually talking to Allen or Brooks. The broadcast material itself is kinescope and second-generation sketchy, however. Many of the 1.33:1 full screen images are pretty good, with nice clarity and excellent contrast. Others look squashed, wavy, and almost solarized with too-white brightness. Sound has the same bifurcated dilemmas. During the Q&A, the voices are perfectly understandable in their Dolby Digital Stereo security. But once the half-century old Mono track clicks in, distortion and dropout rule. Dialogue disappears, and there are times when audience / atmospheric elements drown out the conversations. There will be some who credit New Video for making these aged artifacts look even halfway presentable. And the original elements have a lot to do with the deterioration factors inherent here. But overall, this is only an acceptable looking transfer.
As for bonuses, we are treated to three extra sketches (one on each DVD) of which only "Chinese Food" is guaranteed to get a giggle (the other two are long-form lampoon fiascos of mixed mirth) and some additional interview footage that allows Simon and Fabray to toot their own horns a little more.
There is no denying the importance and position of Sid Caesar, his cast, and his creative crew in building the broadcast basics for television sketch comedy as we see it today. Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour stand the test of time because the material manufactured in the live studio setting of these shows still teaches us the essential ingredients for ingenuity and wit. Unfortunately, The Sid Caesar Collection: Buried Treasures has too much filler and not enough fireworks to convince you of the talented performer's legendary status. Other sets may highlight his humor heroics, but the majority of the material here is below average and borderline dull. There are better representations of this glorified group's immeasurable influence. Seek them out and avoid this treasureless trove.
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• Bonus Sketches: "Dancing Towers," "Chinese Food," and "Invitation to Murder"
• IMDb: Sid Caesar Collection: Buried Treasures -- Shining Stars
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