Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows last aired on June 5, 1954, but its comedic effects are still felt and seen on TV today. If there ever was a program that deserves accolades this is it. Your Show of Shows broke the mold in a variety of ways and I spend as much time as I can watching DVD sets of this and its successor, Caesar’s Hour, which basically means I’m spoiled to comedic perfection.
By many accounts, Sid Caesar was a difficult man to work with, but his talent as a comedian and performer was extraordinary. Caesar was an innovator and television pioneer and because of his influence and legacy, I dedicate this post to him – and to the troupe of players that still astound.
By the time television was born, Sid Caesar was a veteran entertainer. He had been in films, performed as a stand-up comedian across the country, played the saxophone in Benny Goodman’s band, and was a musical theater star on Broadway.
In 1948 Caesar guest-starred on Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle. That spot lead to Caesar’s own series, The Admiral Broadway Revue, a comedy-sketch show, which was shown on both Dumont and NBC Networks from January to June 1949. That show came about when producer Max Liebman, a friend of Sid Caesar’s, called him one day and said he’d set up a lunch meeting with the VP in charge of television at NBC, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver. Caesar was making an astronomical $3,500 a week working at the Roxy and the Copacabana, but he was willing to take a pay cut to be on television. According to Sid Caesar himself the exchange took less than a minute and he had his own show. Although he held little hope it would be a success because no one he knew owned a television set.
The Admiral Broadway Revue was sponsored by the Admiral Corporation, an appliance company hoping to increase sales of its TVs. Sid Caesar had no need to worry. The Admiral Broadway Revue was a huge success. In fact, it was so popular that it was cancelled after 19 weeks. As it turns out Admiral’s factories could not keep up with the demand. Consumers were lining up to buy 10,000 Admiral sets a week as opposed to 500 a week before the show’s premiere. The only way to solve the problem was to cancel the show.
The following sketch is from Admiral Broadway Revue:
The cancellation of The Admiral Broadway Revue made little sense. After all, how hard could it have been to make more appliances? Still, Sid Caesar wasn’t out of work for long because his new show, Your Show of Shows premiered the following year. And it probably sold more TV sets than the Admiral Show.
“The corpse of ‘The Admiral Broadway Revue’ wasn’t cold and Max Liebman and Pat Weaver were planning our return to television.” – Sid Caesar.
Your Show of Shows premiered on Saturday February 25, 1950 with a dream cast to perform the work of inspired writers. Howard Morris was cast as Sid Caesar’s comic sidekick, Carl Reiner became the show’s straight man and back – because Sid loved working with her on the Admiral show – was Imogene Coca, the female jack-of-all-trades. That group of people who came together by what I can only describe as a miracle remains unequaled.
The performers appeared live every week bringing to life long, complicated sketches in a variety show that set the stage for many popular comedy variety shows that followed. Anyone who takes a look at the work of that group of geniuses can easily see that its collective dedication to entertainment has not been bettered. Proof of this, by the way, comes by way of my students who are rarely impressed with “old stuff,” but are blown away by these people every semester. Not only is it impressive to think that each episode of Your Show of Shows was broadcast live for an hour and a half, but that each season ran thirty-nine weeks compared to an average of what, twenty-two or so now-a-days? Also, each half-hour show in those days demanded 26 or so minutes of entertainment after commercials as opposed to about nineteen minutes today. In other words these people worked their talented asses off.
Your Show of Shows was performed live every Saturday night in an hour-and-a-half format. The show lasted four years and never matched Berle’s ratings but, to me, Caesar’s was the superior program – and much funnier show thanks in large part to the writers, several of whom would become legends in their own right.
At the onset of Your Show of Shows Caesar’s friend and producer Max Liebman co-wrote the show with Sid Caesar and Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen who’d also worked on the Admiral Broadway Revue. Caesar’s friend Mel Brooks would submit ideas without being an official staff member at first and later joined the writing staff along with an impressive list of names that would change television forever. Other notables on the writing staff included Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Carl Reiner. I get chills just thinking about this. To be in that writing room must have been magical.
By the way, I’d originally thought that Woody Allen was also a writer on one of Sid Caesar’s shows, specifically Caesar’s Hour, but he wasn’t. Allen’s only collaboration on a Sid Caesar show was for a special, The Chevy Show with Sid Caesar in 1959.
To continue – Sid Caesar was known for running Your Show of Shows with an iron hand, demanding perfection every week. I’ve never been anywhere near show biz and have heard horror stories, including a story told by Mel Brooks (I believe) where he was hung out of the window during a particularly difficult week. Whatever the difficulties were, however, man what a treasure trove of outstanding material these people created.
Your Show of Shows ended on June 5, 1954. As had happened with The Admiral Broadway Revue NBC decided it was too popular. This time, however, the decision had nothing to do with the sponsor. Instead the network thought it could increase its wealth by taking advantage of the popularity of Caesar, Coca and the producing/directing genius of Max Liebman individually by splitting them into three hit shows instead of one. Max Liebman went on to produce more shows, without missing a beat Sid Caesar premiered Caesar’s Hour that September sans Imogene Coca. Caesar managed to put together a terrific show with even longer, more elaborate skits. As the female lead in the show Caesar hired Nanette Fabray who was completely different from Coca, but a fantastic performer in her own right. Lasting only two seasons Fabray was later replaced by Janet Blair for the last season of Caesar’s Hour.
I should mention that Nanette Fabray had a particularly outstanding talent for crying, which influenced the likes of Mary Tyler Moore who developed her own distinctive cry when her career was in bloom. Moore was a big fan of Fabray’s and was thrilled when the two were presented the opportunity to cried together on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Fabray played Mary Richards’ mother. Gotta love that combination as well!
Following are a few skits I love from Sid Caesar’s shows that I know you’ll enjoy. These are snippets of genius from what I believe is the greatest assemblage of raw talent to ever appear on television in a weekly program. On their own each skit is entertaining, but when you think about Your Show of Shows the fact that it has direct and indirect links to the best shows to ever appear on TV then the gathering of these people is truly amazing. While watching any number of sketches of the show numerous films and later TV shows come to mind. One in particular is worthy of mention. It is the only TV show that has – to my mind – approached the level of greatness following Caesar’s shows. That is The Carol Burnett Show, which followed the same formula and also showcased top-notch talent. Although subsequent variety programs have not reached that level of perfection, the creative tentacles of Your Show of Shows are visible well beyond the two decades for which Caesar’s shows “set the comic agenda for American mass culture.” (NYTimes) This is the best TV has ever offered.
“Health Food Restaurant”
“The Three Haircuts”
“At the Movies”
“This is Your Story” (read a terrific piece on this skit, considered Caesar’s finest, in The New Yorker here)
“Argument to Beethoven’s 5th”