Judge Joe Armenio crankily asserts that sketch comedy ain't what it used to be.
The magic of live TV still holds.
Your Show of Shows (1949-1954) and Caesar's Hour (1954-1956), live sketch-comedy shows, are interesting programs for a number of reasons, both aesthetic and historical; first of all, they serve as a terrific vehicle for Caesar himself (born 1922), a comedian whose improvisational style combined brashness and intelligence in influential ways. They also were a training ground for a number of notable writers, including Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon, and are a fascinating glimpse at a road not taken in the history of television: the brash, loose, caustic, and allusive style of Caesar's shows was extinct on TV by the mid-1950s, deemed too dangerously "Jewish" for Middle America and replaced by the bland and wholesome fare which most viewers remember as characteristic of TV comedy of the period (Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, for just two examples).
Facts of the Case
The Sid Caesar Collection: 50th Anniversary Edition (50th anniversary of what, exactly?) contains 18 sketches from Caesar's shows, spread over three discs. Six other sketches are also included as "bonuses," but it's unclear why; they differ neither in presentation nor quality from the main program. The individual sketches are a bit longer than 21st-century viewers are used to: they run on average about 15 minutes, with the longest ("Aggravation Boulevard," the saga of a funny-voiced actor who can't make the transition to talkies) clocking in at 28 minutes. Several characters and formats recur; there are a series of skits featuring the sitcom-ish adventures of a married couple, the Hickenloopers, played by Caesar and Nanette Fabray. We see several parodies of foreign movies, with Caesar and Reiner using their skill at "doubletalk" (a gibberish that assumes the rhythm of a foreign language, with strategically inserted English phrases to indicate meaning). The set also features several virtuoso rapid-fire Caesar monologues, in which he creates a comedic narrative (a boy attending his first dance, a movie about military pilots) through accents and vocal effects.
Fans of modern-day sketch comedy will be amazed (pleasantly, I think) at the patience with which some of the best skits here develop; a piece like "Aggravation Boulevard" or "Nan's Birthday," both of which are over 20 minutes long, develops like a good sitcom episode, exploring a comic plot rather than simply rushing headlong from joke to joke. These skits also strike a rare balance between the comic and the affecting. "Nan's Birthday" is built around a song that Caesar has composed for the title event and is afraid to perform; when he finally does sing, it's not a joke but a sweet and heartfelt piece. "Aggravation Boulevard" even gives a certain pathos to the plight of Rex Handsome, the silent-film heartthrob whose ludicrous voice ruins his career.
Other highlights include "This Is Your Story," a parody of "This Is Your Life" which becomes an anarchic, nearly wordless melee as Caesar and his relatives are so overcome with emotion that they can't keep their hands off each other, and "The Clock," a classic bit of exquisitely- timed physical comedy in which Caesar, Reiner, Fabray, and Howard Morris portray the mechanical figures in a German clock gone awry. "From Here To Obscurity" is a famous From Here To Eternity parody that is rather tepid for much of its running time, but features the great sequence in which Caesar and Imogene Coca are doused with water while attempting to romance each other on the beach.
Not all of the skits work as well; the "doubletalk" pieces require virtuosic talent, to be sure, but they seem funnier in theory than practice, coming off as overlong and tedious. Several of the Hickenloopers sketches are mild to the point of innocuousness and feature Caesar at his least appealing, hamming it up as the frustrated husband like a poor man's Jackie Gleason. He is, with a few exceptions, least funny when playing a character relatively straight, and at his best when allowed to indulge in physical humor and play with sound effects and accents. His supporting cast remains remarkably stable, featuring Reiner and Howard Morris (amusingly small and frazzled) as his primary male associates. Imogene Coca is usually remembered as Caesar's female co-star, but Nanette Fabray actually is featured in far more sketches here; she was a capable deliverer of jokes, if not naturally funny, and her delicate prettiness made her a natural as the suburban housewife in the Hickenloopers skits.
New Video delivers all of this material in an unnecessarily bulky three-disc set; each disc is packaged in its own case, and protected by a cardboard slipcover. The presentation of the material is also a little unwieldy, as extras are spread out across the three discs, and interview footage with the performers and writers is included between the skits. These interviews are usually well-edited, as the interviewees comment on the skits which just ended or are about to begin, but I still would have preferred that this material be included as a separate feature, and that the viewer have the option to watch the sketches without interruption. I was also annoyed by the tinny and period-inappropriate pop/funk/jazz soundtrack which simmers under the interviews, and is allowed to meander over the closing credits of each disc, sounding like something you'd hear in a particularly hip dentist's office.
The interview footage on each disc is built around a particular theme: Disc One is "The Magic of Live TV," Disc Two is "Inside the Writers' Room," and Disc Three is "Creating the Comedy," which traces day-by-day the process by which the show was prepared. Caesar and Reiner feature most prominently in these interviews, along with Morris, Simon, Fabray, Allen, and Brooks. Several interview segments are included, rather pointlessly, as "extras," even though they could easily have fit into the main program. The most substantial of the other extras is a 21-minute selection of highlights from Caesar's 1999 Friars' Club Roast. If you've ever seen a Friars' Club Roast, you know pretty well what this is like: it features a lot of old showbiz types making shopworn jokes about how old other showbiz types are, and then summing things up with some "but seriously, folks" sentimentality.
Also included as an extra is a "restoration demonstration" which shows us how these images have been cleaned up. The material does look substantially better now, even though it's far from pristine, of course; anyone who sits down to watch TV footage that's pushing 60 years old and expects to see perfectly clean images is suffering from an incurable idealism. The 2.0 stereo mix is serviceable, although it doesn't always make up for the occasional wobbliness of the original sound; it would have been nice if subtitles had been provided for the few murky patches, but no such luck. Most of the dialogue, however, comes through fine.
Here's a funny story from one of Woody Allen's interviews that I couldn't find room for anywhere else: Woody and Larry Gelbart were summoned to Sid Caesar's house to write on a rare day when the boss didn't feel like coming in to the office; when they arrived, they were told to Woody's horror that they were going to be writing in the sauna. Woody refused to go in, claiming he couldn't be funny while nude, and spent the next few hours outside writing jokes while Caesar and Gelbart composed in the altogether.
Sid Caesar was guilty of being ahead of his time; New Video is guilty of one count of encouraging the Friars' Club.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
• Exclusive Footage From Sid's 1999 Friar's Club Roast
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