The Sid Caesar Collection

The perishability of humor is on display in The Sid Caesar Collection, a PBS presentation that features seven skits by the famed comedian. Often humor is based upon a topical reference that gives the audience a sense of knowledge and participation. In today’s world of instant communication, comedians rely heavily upon current affairs for their humor because they know their audience is already aware of the subjects they use for their comedy. Caesar’s comic sketches of fifty years ago reveal a gradual change in television comedy, as it progresses from routines that could be enjoyed by anyone anywhere, to routines that are topical. Television, still in its infancy, was already changing from being a traditional, theater-based medium to developing its own confident use of topical references that would be understood by a mass audience.

An early skit from 1949 (“Five Dollar Date”) demonstrates Caesar’s roots in Borscht Belt comedy. Using body movement to characterize part of the action, he impersonates several people in a story that contrasts the past with the present. The comedy is traditional and appeals to an older audience’s sense of superiority: things were much better when we were younger. Most of the clips are drawn from the popular program Your Show of Shows, covering the years 1952 to 1956. Writers and performers from the shows are shown in brief interview segments. It is a who’s who of American comedy: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon.

The comedy seems innocent by today’s standards, even if it involves such perennial subjects as envy, ego, and lust. Two segments require knowledge of the subject being spoofed in order to be enjoyed fully (a parody of This is Your Life, the 50s equivalent of reality television, and a satire about silent films that refers both to Sunset Boulevard and Singing in the Rain, films recently released at that time). Several of the skits involve ethnic stereotypes and display Caesar’s gift with accents. Probably the funniest routine in the program is a skit from 1954 called “The General” in which Caesar is being dressed in his uniform by an aide. The unexpected ending, an O. Henry twist, is very funny.

The interview excerpts emphasize that these skits were played before a live audience without cue cards. The performers were required to know their script and to keep going by ad libbing if they forgot their lines. The seamless performances are a tribute to the skill of the actors, who, besides Caesar, included Imogene Coca, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. This trip down memory lane is bound to be enjoyed most by those who remember seeing the programs when they were first broadcast.

– Larry Campbell