A great comedian's choicest work — 60 years old and still brilliantly fresh
Comedy is hard. And when it comes to the best TV work of the late Sid Caesar, it can also be hard to find. The 2001 Sid Caesar Collection, comprising about six hours of skits and reminiscences, is not immediately available on Amazon, though it can be ordered from the Fandom store. So we cheer the video scavengers who have posted sketches from Caesar’s first TV exposure on the 1949 Admiral Broadway Revue and from his two magnificent series, Max Liebman’s Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-58).
Flanked by his clever cohorts Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris — with Nanette Fabray gamely replacing Coca on Caesar’s Hour — and performing material written by such comedy giants as Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and (toward the end) Woody Allen, Caesar demonstrated his power and range as TV’s preeminent clown. Here are 10 favorite sketches, chosen by someone who as a kid found them ingeniously funny and who, 60 years later, can’t stop laughing.
1. “Five Dollar Date”; November 26, 1949, Admiral Broadway Revue
Caesar boils down one of the skits he performed, and he and Liebman wrote, for the 1948 Broadway revue Make Mine Manhattan. At the start, Sid, standing in front of the curtain, looks disheveled; his collar curls in and his jacket looks too large, as if he had already sweated down several sizes before coming on stage. Well, he knew what he was in for.
The skit describes a young man on two dates: one in 1939, when everything is inexpensive and idyllic and he ends the evening with change from his $5; the other a decade later, when inflation and bad manners dominate. On each date he hails a cab, picks up his girl, puts her in a second cab, takes her to a French cafe, a third cab, an Italian restaurant, a fourth cab, a movie and show, a hansom cab ride through the park and home. Sid plays the young man, the girl, the French and Italian restaurateurs, a movie usher and all five cab drivers. Twice. In six minutes. And it all rhymes. This magnif tour de farce is a showcase for Caesar’s reckless, almost rapacious comic energy. To watch it is a wearying treat.
Danny and Neil Simon wrote this wordless skit for the four leads, who play mechanical figures who appear each hour on a large clock in the German village of Bauerhof. Sid hits the anvil, Carl hits Sid’s hammer, Howie pumps the billows as Imogene cools the hammer with water. By the third hour the springs have sprung and Sid keeps getting Coca’s water in his face. As chaos increases, so does the quartet’s, er, clockwork precision.
3. “The German General”; September 26, 1954, Caesar’s Hour
Simple: Howie, as a German military aide, dresses his superior, Sid, in the uniform of a German officer. Howie breathes heavily on his boss’ monocle (“Das monocle ist geschmutzik!”) a little too hard, until it’s “schlippery from schaliva!” He takes off the General’s robe and scarf, slips a tunic on him, buttons it and polishes the buttons, clips his collar too tightly (“Du hasta klipt der shkin!”), flicks the strands of epaulets (“Epaulets flicken!”), attaches the braids (“Ba-raid rest!”), slips a glove on each of the General’s hands, proceeds with “brushin’ der Prussian” (“Du hasta jinglen der medalen?”), attaches the sword belt with some difficulty, moves on to the “perfume spritzen” and puts on the cap.
Now the General is “der schlickest one of all” and ready for work — a poignant capper, which I won’t spoil here except to note it’s borrowed from F.W. Murnau’s silent film The Last Laugh. Each of the 16 applications has its own lovely gag, beautifully played and spoken, in ersatz German, by the imperious Caesar and the efficient, loving Howie. After studying it a dozen times, I proclaim it the most cannily conceived and handsomely performed nine minutes in skitcom history.
In mime, a man (Sid) and a woman (Nanette) have a fight that nearly ends their marriage, all precisely orchestrated to the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. A few words can be lip-read (He: “Your mother!” She: “My mother?” and later a flurry of no’s and yesses), but most of the story is inferred from a masterly series of gestures, Sid humphing, Nanette fluttering. She finds a(n invisible) hair on his lapel; it’s not hers. Get Out! She retreats to the solace of the family pet. Stroking the animal, she realizes it was the hair of the dog that bit her. He returns, and they reconcile in a climactic hug. It sings!
5. “The Haircuts: ‘So Rare’ and ‘Flippin’ Over You’”; April 25, 1955, Caesar’s Hour
In the early days, hip TV types didn’t know how to treat rock ‘n roll, except with contempt. But Sid, Carl and Howie couldn’t help bringing their goofy energy to this musical parody. The Haircuts are a blend of two kinds of pop vocal groups: white (the Crewcuts) and black (the Treniers). Their first number, a power ballad that Caesar and writer Mel Tolkin composed in less than a minute (it took that long?), features Sid’s Johnny Ray-style screamin’ bridge. The uptempo “Flippin’” had three terrific dance turns, with Howie dervishing in circles on his back, Carl making wild windmills as his jacket straitjackets his arms, and Sid practically stomping through the floor with elephantine grace.
6. “Gallipacci”; October 10, 1955, Caesar’s Hour
The Pagliacci story rendered as a 20-min. musical: eight songs (including “Begin the Beguine,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and, why not?, “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”), all in fake-Italian, with an enormous cast. Sid is the clown Gallipacci, Nanette his duplicitous beloved Rosa; at the end he sings “Yellow Rosa Texas.” The highlight is Sid’s Italianate aria, to “Just One of Those Things,” as he applies a tear to his right cheek with a mascara pencil. But on the air the pencil tip broke, making a long line on his cheek instead of a rounded tear. So, while singing — and remaining in character — Sid picked up a brush, drew another vertical line, then two horizontal ones, creating a tic-tac-toe grid. He applied a few x’s and o’s, finally drawing a line through three x’s just as he completed the song. This was ad-libbing at its most admirable, sure comedic grace under live-TV pressure.
7. “Progress Hornsby on ‘People to People’”; September 25, 1957, Caesar’s Hour
Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks had created the 2000 Year Old Man as an improvised interrogation at parties. With Reiner as the interviewer and Brooks as the aged tummeler, the bit became a hit record and launched Brooks’ career as a public showman. Before that, Reiner had often played straight man to Caesar in the roles of a nonsense-spouting Professor (not far from the standup comic Irwin Corey) and, splendidly, as super-cool jazzman Progress Hornsby.
A combination of Dizzy Gillespie, Ernie Kovacs’ Percy Dovetonsils, Marlon Brando and probably several people I don’t know, Progress had been seen in an earlier skit asking the musical question, What is jazz? (“Jazz is a pencil sharpener. Jazz is a frying pan… Jazz is a beautiful woman whose older brother is a policeman.”) This parody of Edward R. Murrow’s weekly interview show Person to Person, with Progress quizzed by Reiner’s Ted Burrows, has some of the sharpest writing in the series. Let’s listen:
Ted: “You have a most unusual hairstyle.” Progress: “Yes, it does have a touch of the Ming Dynasty, doesn’t it?” Ted: “Progress, how do you get your barber to cut your hair?” Progress: “I insult him. And this is his revenge.” Ted asks what Progress does with his old hair. Progress: “I’m wearin’ it. This suit is me. You’ve heard of mohair? This is me- hair.” Ted asks Progress to list his favorite musicians, and Progress speaks of the legendary Fats Fidelio. Progress: “Fats blew a high M.” Ted: “An M? I thought the scale stopped at G.” Progress: “Not for the brave, sir.” He introduces his band. One fellow’s instrument is “radar.” Ted: “Radar?” Progress: “Très necessaire, sir. Whenever we play, we must be warned in case we approach the melody.”