This month we take a peek into the past to a show that is still inspiring comedians today: Your Show of Shows.
From February 1950 through June 1954, this 90-minute variety show was on NBC weekly. While Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were the stars, the other cast members also became celebrities: Carl Reiner; Howard Morris; Bill Hayes; Judy Johnson; and singers Jack Russell, Marguerite Piazza, and The Hamilton Trio.
In 2002 the show, rarely seen now, was ranked #30 on the top fifty shows of all time and Entertainment Weekly gave it #10 on the top 100 greatest TV shows of all time in 2013. Saturday Night Live used the format as a rough idea for their new show.
Creator and producer Sylvester “Pat” Weaver and director Max Liebman ran the show and kept the performers in line. In 1949 Sid Caesar and Liebman met with Weaver, VP of television at NBC. The meeting resulted in the Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca. It was very successful, but Admiral could not keep up with the demand for new television sets, so it pulled the sponsorship and the show was canceled after 26 weeks.
The following year, the show was retooled and returned as Your Show of Shows. Imogene Coca explained why the show was such a success. “There was a special chemistry to Your Show of Shows, I think, because [producer-director] Max [Liebman] wasn’t afraid to throw out material at the last minute. And I think when you do live television — well, we stopped for nothing. We had no cue cards, no teleprompters, no ad-libbing on the air, because Max would have died if anybody had ad-libbed. It would have been utter disgrace, and you would have been drummed right out of the corps. … Nobody ever forgot a line, and that was the amazing part of it.”
The show also featured some amazing writers including Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Joseph Stein, Michael Stewart, Tony Webster, and Carl Reiner.
The show debuted from NBC’s first television-converted theater, The International, at 5 Columbus Circle. NBC installed a control room and four permanent RCA-TK30 camera chains. There were four cameras in use with one on a Houston Fearless Panoram dolly and one on the newly developed Saner crane. Two sound booms and two pedestal cameras were also part of the equipment. Commercials were only 70 seconds long, so full set changes had to be made quickly.
Author Ted Sennett described the show as a “series of superbly written sketches that poked fun at human foibles and pretensions. Alone onstage, Caesar would depict a befuddled Everyman trying to cope with life, or a blustering Germanic ‘professor’ being interviewed at an airport and vainly trying to conceal his abysmal stupidity. Alone onstage (or with a partner), Imogene Coca would make us laugh at a passion-ridden torch singer, or a daffy ballerina, or a sweet, wistful tramp. Together, Caesar and Coca would take us through the hilarious marital tribulations of Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper, or show us two strangers exchanging cliches when they meet for the first time.”
Two of viewers’ favorites regular skits were The Hickenloopers who were always fighting and the cast as live members of the Bavarian town Baverhoff’s clock that always broke when the hour was reached.
Many fans also mention the parodies of films similar to those on The Carol Burnette Show. From “Here to Obscurity” featured Caesar and Coca in the From Here to Eternity Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr roles on the beach but in this case, the tide keeps hitting the pair until they almost drown. Another parody was based on Brando’s On the Waterfront and featured the scene with the brothers that is famous for “I could’ve been a contender.”
There are also a lot of elaborate musical numbers in the show. Specifically designed sets like an Italian wine festival were created for a song.
By 1954 the ratings decreased from #4 to #19, so the network decided to break up the comedy team and give them their own shows.
The shows are hard to find today. Max Liebman kept the kinescopes. In 1973 a film was made Ten From Your Show of Shows. The Paley-Center for Media owns an almost complete set of the series.
In 2000, a group of original scripts was found in a closet in the room Liebman had in the City Center Building in New York. The find includes 137 scripts, with scribbling in the margins.
Despite the fact that these shows are not often on television for fans to view, the show has been lauded as an inspiration for many comedians. Both Coca and Caesar have been praised for their comic skills.
Actor Jamie Farr, best known for playing Klinger on M*A*S*H, said, “If you want good sketches, go pick up Sid Caesar. The best of Your Show of Shows. That’s the greatest sketch comedy you’ll ever see on television.”
Conan O’Brien tweeted in 2014 that he “saw this Sid Caesar sketch when I was a kid. It made me want to make people laugh.”
Actor Billy Crystal who got his start on Saturday Night Live remembered Sid Caesar as “the greatest sketch comedian of all time” and “my first comedy hero and inspiration.”
What more could I add? The show speaks for itself. It had an amazing producer and director, comic geniuses for stars, some of the best writers that ever were in the business, and a supporting team that made everyone better. It’s a show we should not forget. When someone relays “they don’t write them that way anymore,” this is one of the shows that proves they are right.