Caesar promo
“Your Show of Shows” was a 90-minute, comedy/variety program that ran on NBC from 1950 to 1954 and featured Isaac Sidney Caesar—Sid, to you and me—as its star. Caesar was an intimidating, strong-shouldered force who could also be a face-contorting wiseass. He often barreled through sketches with a bull-in-a-china-shop ferociousness. Working with invaluable co-stars and comic supporting actors Imogene Coca and Howard Morris as well as an alpha team of writers including future comedy legends Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and fellow sketch player Carl Reiner (Larry Gelbart and a young, nebbishy fellow named Woody Allen would later write for Caesar on the truncated “Caesar’s Hour”), Caesar was the aggressively clownish captain of a usually madcap operation.
One of my favorite sketches from “Shows” was a sketch I actually discovered when I was nine. It was a parody of that old docu-series “This Is Your Life” called “This Is Your Story.” Reiner played a host who approaches Caesar, sitting in the audience as a man named Al, and tells him that’s it’s his life that the show will be chronicling on this evening. At first, he passes out from shock. Then, he tries to escape from Reiner’s grip when he attempts to get him onstage. Once he escapes, he tries to make a run for the exit, only to be chased and tackled by ushers and ultimately carried onto the stage.

It gets only more hysterical from there. Morris shows up as his “Uncle Goopy,” blubbering into Caesar’s arms as they both wail and refuse to let each other go for several minutes. More family members appear and follow suit, all falling over each other. Then, a beautiful blonde shows up. Who is she? Caesar doesn’t know, but he’s gonna smother her with kisses anyway. (She’s supposed to do the show next week.) Finally, Caesar’s old bandmates the New Jersey Drum and Bugle Call start marching and blaring all around the stage, as an emotionally wrecked Caesar is in the middle of it all. It’s still eleven minutes of the most chaotic sketch comedy I’ve ever witnessed.

While I’m too young to have seen Caesar in his “Shows” prime, watching old Kinescope clips of “Shows” and other programs of its ilk throughout the years reminds me how television back then was, at times, entertainingly anarchic. It’s not anarchic in the sense that these shows came up with their material on the spot. (“Shows” producer Max Liebman was notorious for reprimanding those who dared stray from the script and ad-libbed—“you would have been drummed out of the corps,” Coca once said.) But there was this feeling of unbridled unpredictability, as these shows constantly threw stuff out there to see what stuck.

“Shows” did that with aggression, mostly because the writers were all backstage stampeding over each other in order to get their jokes and skits on the air. In his 1975 Playboy interview, Mel Brooks compared the writers’ room to “rats in a cage,” filled with desperate, competitive jesters who lived only to appease the king. “Everybody hated everybody,” Brooks said. “The pitch sessions were lethal. In that room, you had to fight to stay alive.”

The desperation also seeped its way on-screen, mostly through Caesar. In the same Playboy interview, Brooks noted that his boss “had this terrific anger in him; he was angry at the world.” Audiences at home could sense it too. Even when he was being his most lovable and/or ridiculous, the fear that he might just blow a gasket and go off always lingered. In the book of essays “Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows,” the late novelist Barry Hannah recalled his younger years watching “Shows” and seeing Caesar—“the clown so hard-put in a gray flannel suit,” Hannah called him – put in serious work just to get a laugh:

“I recall Caesar sweating, cross-eyed, sputtering. He was a damned fool over and over again, in any role—a pirate, a businessman, an emperor in the East with a way big-assed sword. He was just not getting the hang of it.”

Nevertheless, Hannah took a shine to Caesar, as he and Coca (whom Hannah praises for being “perfect, drab and scrawny and simply overcome”) mugged and contorted for our viewing pleasure. “The black and white of that show seemed so grainy and raw,” Hannah wrote, “Caesar and Coca appeared to be wrestling with the medium itself.”    

Decades later, that insanity would be the inspiration behind the movie “My Favorite Year,” where Peter O’Toole played a swashbuckling, alcoholic movie star who inflicts madness on an already disorganized variety show (Joseph Bologna played the Caesar stand-in as a blustery softie) and the play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (written by former caged rat Neil Simon), whose original Broadway run had Nathan Lane as a pill-popping TV star often going for the throats, literally, of his neurotic writing staff.

Caesar’s recent passing at the age of 91 only reminds us he’s the last of the damned fools—Allen, Berle, Gleason, Kovacs—who became TV’s earliest innovators. These go-for-broke funnymen made figuring out what would entertain TV audiences for generations to come a weekly chore—televised trial by fire. “Shows,” a weekly revue that was as manic and uproarious as it was smart and clever, quietly invented the sketch-comedy show, leading the way for “Saturday Night Live” and all its offspring.

However, even after all these years, “Shows” and those variety shows of yesteryear still exhibit a loose energy that “SNL” (and even most of television today) is often too stiff and rigid to indulge in. Everything seems too prepared these days. But as prepared as those shows might have been back in the day, there was still a feeling of anything-goes anticipation. As these programs were broadcast live from coast-to-coast, everybody involved, from the people watching the show to the people putting on the show, were going on a ride. And there was Sid, insuring us that the ride would be fun—and a little bit dangerous.

Craig D. Lindsey used to be somebody. Now, he's a freelancer. You can read all his latest articles over at his blog. He also does a podcast called Muhf***as I Know.

By the way, if Helen Mirren or Christina Hendricks is reading this, get at me, ladies!