It was a great time to be alive, they all said. We would get up in the morning and look out at an America safe once again from the threat of fascism. Emma and me, we'd get dressed and head out, to see what this new industrial nation was like. We both grew up in the Dust Bowl, you know, a couple of starving kids from Oklahoma who thought we'd be farming that same old land like our fathers and grandfathers before us. Then the winds came and blew, a gray cloud of topsoil and dreams. They told us that Mr. Roosevelt was going to save us all, but before I knew it I was going off to fight in Africa and Europe and Emma was headed to the factory.
I saved all my nickels and dimes and when I came home, Emma was still waiting for me. We bought a house in the city and a bunch of new clothes and a big television set. And every day was a new day, in a new America, full of hopes and dreams. Everyone had enough food on their plate and it seemed everyone was having kids, and Emma and I were talking about it, too.
The first clown prince of television
When someone mentions the birth of television, and those early golden years, Sid Caesar is one of the first names that pops up. He was the host of one of the "can't miss" television series in the earliest days of American television and yet he is nearly forgotten today.
Sid Caesar was born on September 8, 1922, to a restaurant owner in Yonkers, New York. His childhood in the suburbs of New York City exposed him to a wide variety of cultures and accents, which would prove to be rich material for his later comedic acts. Yet, his earliest passion was music, and he was a rather exceptional talent. He attended Juilliard where he studied the saxophone, and by 1940 he was playing in nationally touring orchestras, bouncing from Charlie Spivak and Claude Thornhill to Shep Fields and Art Mooney.
When the war started, Caesar was drafted and assigned as a musician in the act Tars and Spars, which toured to entertain the troops. The producer of Tars and Spars, Max Liebman, saw Sid regularly entertaining the band with impromptu comedy bits and eventually switched over to the "comedy" portion of the Tars and Spars act. Even though he had been assigned to the troupe due to his skill at the saxophone, he became well known for his comedy skills in the act, which was later filmed for theatrical release in 1946.
After the war, Liebman realized that Caesar was an exceptionally talented individual and got Sid involved in a number of theatrical reviews that were taking the place of the dying embers of vaudeville. The shows were actually much like the old vaudeville acts, mixing comedy and musical bits in a rapid-fire mix, a perfect atmosphere for a multi-talented individual like Sid.
Sid spent 1946 and 1947 as a part of a number of such vaudeville-esque revues, until his big break came in early 1948: Max Liebman had cast Sid in a review that was to play on Broadway entitled Make Mine Manhattan. This was to be his big shot at stardom, and he nailed it.
Going To Television
Make Mine Manhattan was a smash on Broadway, and the name on everyone's lips from the show was Sid Caesar, who performed primarily in a comedic role, but stunned the audience later with his musical talent. He was even invited to appear on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater, the first widely watched television series, which ruled the airwaves on Tuesday nights on the NBC network. Sid was a hit there as well, and NBC hoped to catch lightning in a bottle again and signed Sid up to be part of a variety show that would air simultaneously on the NBC and DuMont television networks in the fall of 1949.
The Admiral Broadway Review debuted on the NBC and DuMont networks in the fall of 1949 on Friday evenings. The show starred Caesar alongside comedienne Imogene Coca (who was already a television veteran, appearing on programming as early as 1939), alongside a large cast of supporting players. Max Liebman was the producer, and he tried to make the show much like his Broadway hit Make Mine Manhattan, relying heavily on guest stars to attract an audience. Unfortunately, many of the guests that Liebman selected were big names on Broadway and the theatre circuit, but were widely unknown to most of America. The show was, to put it lightly, a flop. The only successful part of the show was the pairing of Sid and Imogene, whose respective talents had great chemistry.
The folks at NBC saw this and believed that a show with Sid and Imogene as the focus could be a huge hit. They had learned a lesson from Uncle Miltie: television audiences want familiar people that they can relate to on a regular basis. So, in the fall of 1950, NBC debuted a new program focused on Sid and Imogene: Your Show of Shows.
Your Show of Shows
To describe Your Show of Shows as a hit would be a terrible understatement. Debuting in 1950 and running until 1954, this show dominated Saturday night television programming for the NBC network, often drawing as high as an 80 share (meaning that 80% of people with televisions on were tuned into Sid and Imogene, a number that is inconceivable today). Along with Uncle Miltie, this was the television program to see as the 1950s began.
The writing staff for Your Show of Shows would go on to be the backbone of American television writing for the next several decades: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin (All in the Family), Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Joe Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), Mike Stewart (Hello, Dolly; Bye, Bye Birdie), and, it is rumored, Woody Allen; all of these people were regular writers for the show.
How do you ensure good writing from so many talented people, especially with Sid as a comic genius at the top of the pyramid? Everyone was divided up into small writing teams to write their own skits, and then they had to pitch them to Sid and Imogene. The key to the whole thing was to get Sid to laugh; if you could do that, then your skit would likely be a part of that week's show.
The result of this is that Your Show of Shows had a very distinct flavor and often reflected Sid's sense of humor. It would mix highbrow and lowbrow elements, moving from parodies of foreign cinema to utter slapstick in the blink of an eye. It was Sid, though, that tied everything together: he had this quality about him that made him inherently likable and watchable.
The show often ran an hour and a half in length, and given that the show was live, sketches would often fall short or overrun the amount of time alloted to them. Again, Sid's talents saved the day; he was skilled at all sorts of comedy, from mime to dialects and everywhere in between, and would often go off on impromptu bits to help the show get back on schedule. He wasn't so much a fast-paced joke teller like his contemporary Milton Berle, but instead he could use other methods of making people laugh, and thus was often compared to silent flim stars like Charlie Chaplin.
During the show's final season, the ratings were better than ever, and the producers of the show wanted to split up Sid and Imogene in order to spread out the ratings bonanza. The plan was to continue with Sid's show, retitled Caesar's Hour, on Saturdays, and create a new show with Imogene Coca on Monday nights.
Later Television Shows
In the fall of 1954, Caesar's Hour debuted on NBC on Saturday nights in (most of) Your Show of Shows' old timeslot. The show was a success, but it did not live up to the ratings monster of the earlier series. There were several problems with this: first, the chemistry between Sid and Imogene was gone; second, the writing and production staff was split up among several shows, leaving Sid with only a portion of his original writers; and third, other networks were beginning to run television programming on every night, meaning that the show had more competition than before.
Still, this show aired until 1958 on Saturday nights and was still the ratings leader in its timeslot. By then, however, television was beginning to move from the "variety show" to the half hour sitcom, led by the success of I Love Lucy and other early sitcoms, and the hourlong drama. To bring some life back into the old show, NBC reunited Sid and Imogene on a program for the fall of 1958, entitled Sid Caesar Invites You. This time, though, the show had none of the original Your Show of Shows writers, and NBC placed it in a timeslot directly opposite CBS' Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke turned out to be the runaway hit of the 1958-1959 season, and Sid's show was quietly cancelled.
Sid's career at this point was in a shambles, as the talent that had taken him to the top was no longer popular. He became an alcoholic and largely disappeared for several years, with his only output being a few published songs that were minor hits (I Wrote This Song for Your Birthday and Was That You? were both minor hits circa 1960). He began a short-lived comeback in 1963, appearing in the film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World alongside many of his former cast members and writers and also on Broadway in Little Me. He also tried a short-lived television comeback, As Caesar Sees It, which was a flop in syndication.
During his later years, he made small appearances in a huge number of movies, including many of Mel Brooks' earlier films (Silent Movie and History of the World, Part I). There was also something of a Sid Caesar mini-revival in 1972, when Esquire magazine wrote a nostalgic article about Your Show of Shows. The original NBC film of the show was lost then, as live television generally used and re-used the same tape; however, the DuMont network also aired the show, and many of their broadcasts were still around on kinetoscope. Max Liebman acquired an archive of these old kinetoscopes and compiled a selection of skits from the show, releasing it in 1973 to theaters as Ten From Your Show of Shows. By 1976, most of the existing skits were rescued and reordered into a series of syndicated television specials; I seem to remember seeing a few of these as a young child.
Sid himself never recaptured the glory days. He made minor appearances on television, film, and stage until the mid-1980s. The role that most people today recognize him for was the brief comedic role of Coach Calhoun in 1978's Grease.
It's hard to gauge Sid Caesar's impact on today's popular culture. He was a key star in the early days of television and is part of that handful of people that bridged the gap between vaudeville and modern film and television, alongside Milton Berle, Fred Allen, and the Three Stooges.
And perhaps that's how we should best remember him, in old clips of Your Show of Shows, crossing a bridge from the earlier days of vaudeville to the modern era of filmed comedy.
On Saturday nights, me and Emma and the kids, we'd gather around the television set and watch Sid and Imogene and those other characters, and we'd laugh and laugh. We could look into this box and see a funnyman in New York City doing his little song and dance for us, and tell us some jokes, and it seemed like some kind of miracle. It really did.