Pioneering television comedian Sid Caesar died today at the age of 91. Below you’ll find a repost of my December 2011 review of “Caesar’s Writers,” a 1996 panel discussion featuring Caesar and nine scriptwriters (including the Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and the late Larry Gelbart) released on DVD. Obituaries for Caesar can be found at The New York Times and Variety. His three-hour interview with the Archive of American Television can be found here.
Almost 16 years ago, on January 24th, 1996, legendary comedian Sid Caeser was joined by nine of the writers who worked with him on his variety shows Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and Caeser’s Hour (1954-1957) for a panel discussion produced by the Writers Guild of America West. For nearly two hours, the group reminisced about their days as young television writers in New York City, sharing stories and laughing about the laughter. A one-hour PBS special was broadcast during the summer of 1996 (here‘s a contemporary review from The Los Angeles Times). It included clips from both shows and was hosted by Billy Crystal.
The full, uncut panel discussion–without clips or Billy Crystal–was offered as a pledge premium on VHS (currently offered at Amazon.com for between $29.95 and $103.32) but until now it was not available on DVD. That all changed earlier this month when the Caesar’s Writers website began offering “Caeser’s Writers” on DVD for $19.95 or at Amazon.com for $29.95. The nine writers who sat down with Sid Caesar were Mel Tolkin, Carl Reiner, Aaron Ruben, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Sheldon Keller and Gary Belkin. Of the group only Reiner, Brooks, Neil Simon and Caesar himself are still alive today.
Caeser and Tolkin worked together on The Admiral Broadway Revue, a live variety show broadcast on NBC and DuMont from January to July of 1949, when it was taken off the air because the sponsor, television manufacturer Admiral, could not handle the number of orders it was receiving for new sets (this is discussed in “Caesar’s Writers”). The Admiral Broadway Revue was produced by Max Liebman and featured Caesar, Imogene Coca, Marge Champion and Gower Champion. Caesar, Tolkin, Coca and Liebman soon reunited on Your Show of Shows. When that series ended in 1954, Coca was given her own sitcom (The Imogene Coca Show), Liebman began producing television specials, and Caesar transitioned to Caesar’s Hour.
For viewers used to traditional television documentaries/retrospectives, which typically include both narration, archival footage and clips from the program in question, a panel discussion like “Caesar’s Writers” may seem unusual. The panelists talk about specific skits and sketches but none are actually shown. Thankfully for those who may not be familiar with these sketches, or more broadly with Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour at all, the panelists do a terrific job reenacting a handful of sketches and not actually seeing them isn’t a problem at all. In fact, cutting to sketches from the two shows probably would have been a mistake.
It was moderated, by Bob Claster, but for the most part the panelists talked about whatever they wanted, shifting from topic to topic rapidly, then going back and sharing another story about something they had already discussed. They often interrupted one another to offer additional details or memories. Caesar, Tolkin, Reiner and Brooks did the bulk of the talking — with Brooks taking center stage much of the time — followed by Gelbart and Neil Simon, who opened up more as time passed. Ruben, Danny Simon, Keller and Belkin didn’t say much.
For fans of Sid Caesar’s comedy, “Caesar’s Writers” will be enjoyably simply for its focus on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour. And for students of comedy and aspiring comedy writers, it is an invaluable look into how some of the most legendary writers in television got their start. I heartily recommend anyone who falls into one of these groups, or even fans of classical television in general, take the time to watch “Caesar’s Writers.”
(Full Disclosure: I was sent a complimentary DVD copy of “Caesar’s Writers” but the decision to review it and the opinions expressed above are entirely my own.)