Tag Archives: Your Show of Shows

Sid Caesar & the Sight Gag that Got Away…Almost

Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen all wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50s1  .  When their writing and filmmaking careers were riding high in the early 70s, someone put together a ninety-minute film called Ten from Your Show of Shows. It was exactly as described: ten sketches from the legendary series that aired from 1950-54 and starred Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris2  .

(For the uninitiated, it’s very hard to describe the humor of Your Show of Shows. I could say something clever like “With one foot silent film comedy and another in zany cartoons, it’s all held together with a tight borscht belt,” but it’s best to see for yourself, which you’ll have a chance to do before this post is done. Oh, and there’s also YouTube.)

As a kid, I was a fan of Brooks, Simon and Allen, and my folks would frequently tell me about Your Show of Shows, so when this film aired on the local PBS in 1984, my VCR and I were eagerly waiting. And, man, my hopes were high; thinking of the combined laughs I got from those three guys made me giddy at the notion of what they would write collectively. (I was unaware that Allen and Simon did not have a hand in any of the sketches in this film.)

So I watched with very high expectations. The first two sketches have some incredibly funny bits, but there’s a sight gag in the third sketch (“The Recital”) that I gave me what might be the biggest laugh of my teen years. At least from watching something on TV. I remember I saw it late at night and am pretty sure my laughter woke up my folks a floor above me.

In 2001, nine DVDs-worth of material from Your Show of Show and Caesar’s subsequent show, Caesar’s Hour, were released. Almost all of the sketches from the 1973 compilation film made their way to these DVDs, but sadly “The Recital” wasn’t one of them.

And so it was time to drag out my 24-year-old VHS tape and pump this sketch into the computer. And here it is, all 4 minutes of it, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

Want to take a guess at the joke that did me in? (Hint: it gets one of the two biggest laughs from the audience. Another hint: it has “Mel Brooks” written all over it.)

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BACK TO POST 1There’s a longstanding myth that Woody Allen wrote for Your Show of Shows, which is not true. However, he did write for Sid Caesar in 1958, for a short-lived program called The Sid Caesar Show. On the other hand, in 2001 Allen gave on-camera interviews for some Sid Caesar DVDs and spoke lovingly about his time spent with Sid. As those who know how little Woody talks to cameras about anything, I think this is adequate proof that he is proud of his time spent under Caesar’s wing.


BACK TO POST 2Howard Morris makes a cameo in another of my posts.

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Filed under Comedy, Plucked from Obscurity

“You had to be there.”

As I said in a prior post, my Pop was the funniest man I ever met—and a great storyteller to boot. And my Mother’s got both those bases covered, too. So it’s in my blood to want to tell funny stories. My schooling at their hands, however, was brutal at times.

For example, when I was five or six years old, my stories would go on and on (and on), and since I hadn’t lived much of a life yet, my stories would typically be descriptions of TV shows, say, episodes of Gilligan’s Island. And at a certain point—the point when they felt my quorum on the dinnertime conversation had run its course—they’d do one of two things:

Portrait of the blogger as a young bore.

-Start buzzing and moving their heads in a circular gesture, imitating the annoying, dull drone of a bee.

-They’d start saying, “And then…and then…and then…and then…” to remind me that my library of segue words (i.e. however, therefore, suddenly, but, next) was very limited. My stories really were single sentences, such as: “And then Gilligan broke the coconut, and then the Skipper said, ‘Gilligan!’ and then the professor had to fix the cocoanut and then…”

Now, this kind of bitchslapping when you’re six whips you into shape, believe me. By the time I was eight, I was a mini Spalding Gray.

Before you go on thinking my folks were a pair of tools, I should be clear: I’m very grateful they did this (I expect to behave similarly towards my own son); and I’ve never met two more enthusiastic listeners. They were supportive and responsive—but they were also a tough crowd.

As I got older, my Pop added a new ripple to his reactions: “You had to be there.” If I told a joke or story that sank like a rock, his immediate reaction was to say that to me. And he wasn’t saying, “F U. You just wasted my time.” He was saying, “We’ve all been there. Better luck next time.”

Later on, in my teens, I noticed that if he told a joke that tanked, he’d be the first to say, “Well, you had to be there.” He was his own toughest audience, and that was the next lesson he imparted: at any point in telling a story, if you realize you’re wasting everyone’s time, jump ship ASAP and save face with a good-natured, “You had to be there.”

Sadly, I don’t have any recorded examples of my Pop saying that to me, but here’s a quick example that caught my eye. It’s from a DVD collection of sketches from Your Show of Shows. In an interview, comedian Howard Morris talks about jazz dancer Jack Cole. It’s a dead-end of a story and a few sentences he salvages it with the five magic words—and, when I saw this, I laughed out loud and thought, “Wow. He used ‘You had to be there’ as a punchline. Brilliant.” Maybe you’ll agree, or…maybe you had to be there.

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Filed under Comedy, Family