Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 312: Laughter on the 23rd Floor

We lost Sid Caesar this week. One of American television’s first comedy stars, he’s probably more responsible than anyone for the comedy that’s come out of that country for more than a generation.

Most modern audiences are unfamiliar with Caesar’s work, knowing him from reruns of movies like “Grease” and “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, neither of which reflect more than a shadow of his talents.

A veteran of sketch comedy and stand-up, beloved for his faux imitations of other languages (a talent he dubbed “Double-Talk”) Caesar was chosen by NBC in 1950 to host a 90 minute live Saturday night broadcast called “Your Show of Shows”.

That era’s version of SNL, it became an instant and massive hit, watched by upwards of 60 million viewers every week.

The secret to “Your Show of Shows” success was a writers room populated by an astonishing array of talent, writers who individually or collectively would be responsible for virtually every ground-breaking comedy produced on television, in movies or on the Broadway stage for decades.

Mel “Blazing Saddles” Brooks.

Neil “The Odd Couple” Simon.

Larry ““M*A*S*H*” Gelbart.

Michael “Bye Bye Birdie” Stewart.

Sheldon “The Dick Van Dyke Show” Keller.

And Mel “All In The Family” Tolkin.

Great writers aided and abetted by actor-director-writer hyphenates Carl Reiner and Woody Allen.

Those familiar with the room’s process described Caesar as “an inspired idea man who allowed his writers to take more risks than other TV shows”. And while that freedom allowed them to soar, according to Neil Simon, “Sid would make anything we wrote ten times funnier”.

Despite the talents he both nurtured and fed upon, the pressures of stardom not to mention creating and co-producing a weekly live broadcast for ten years eventually overwhelmed Caesar, forcing him into a self-imposed exile.

But his writers room went on to change American comedy. And  they never forgot the debt they owed to Sid Caesar, regularly teaming with him for evenings of public reminiscence of their time together on 30 Rock’s 11th and 12 floors, reminiscences immortalized in Neil Simon’s 1993 Broadway hit “Laughter on the 23rd Floor”.

A sampling of some of those moments follows, the love and respect all these people had for one another palpable a half century after the fact. It’s followed by one of Caesar’s inspired “Double-Talk” sketches, as funny now as it was to our parents and grandparents at the dawn of television.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

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