The “Simon says” character is Lucas (played by Evan Needham), who narrates as well as participates. Milt (Scott Osborn) wears outlandish costumes to work (a bullfighter’s cape with a French beret) because it gets him noticed in a competitive arena. Carol (Darcy Brown) is the only woman on the staff, and the only one who seems to pay attention to the outside world.
Kenny (Dave Fuller) is less ham than wry, and Ira (Ellsworth Pence) is the house hypochondriac, as well as a comic anarchist. Val (Anders Carlson) is a brooding paranoid Russian, while Irishman Brian (Clayton Cook), the only non-Jewish writer, has swallowed the show biz blarney stone. Helen (Kelly Hughes) is the perky secretary.
There are brushes with sentiment, passes at seriousness and stabs at theories of humor. “All humor is based on hostility—isn’t that right, Kenny?” “Absolutely. That’s why World War II was so funny.”
The writers don’t seem to write anything, though the one sketch being developed is a highlight—a parody of Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar (Hamilton nails it.) But plot, context and philosophy are all secondary to laughs, and the high jinks and jokes in this 1993 play come faster than in anything Simon had written since his earliest plays.
The whole cast is funny, but I was especially impressed by how Anders Carlson played his character with precise economy, and how Darcy Brown (formerly Darcy Daughtry) vocally and physically created an instantly believable 1950s character. And David Hamilton plays the mercurial shades of Max Prince with comic moves that kept surprising and delighting the opening night audience.
Articulation and timing should even improve as the actors find new moments to play. Though this is a sanitized version of the 50s and this group, Calder Johnson designed a suitably tawdry writers room, and director David Moore keeps the actors and action moving in this single set. Costumes (including the outrageous ones) are designed by Lauren Wieland.
The hypochondriac Ira is based on the hyperglycemic Mel Brooks, and Milt and Kenny are even more vaguely based on Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart (creator of TV’s M*A*S*H). the two closest parallels are Val, based on Russian immigrant Mel Tolkin, and Carol, who is a little of Selma Diamond but mostly Lucille Kallen (also famously allergic to the pervasive cigar smoke. In the play she claims she has to keep her dresses in a humidor.)
These legendary writers’ rooms also inspired a film, My Favorite Year, which combined Sid Caesar with Steve Allen. It shows a shy writer whispering his jokes to another writer. That’s Neil Simon whispering to Carl Reiner. Reiner also drew on his Caesar experience for the classic sitcom he created, the Dick Van Dyke Show.
But no play or movie or TV show has come close to suggesting the unique comic genius of Sid Caesar, or the inspired mayhem of his TV shows. I saw them as a child and remember some of the sketches to this day. There are a few on YouTube, and more on various DVDs.
Exit Laughing: The Real Sid Caesar Shows
The play is set in the writers’ room of a weekly 90 minute comedy-variety series in 1953. The play’s characters are loosely based on the legendary writers who worked for Sid Caesar, but not all of them in the play worked on Your Show of Shows. Several joined later for its successor, Caesar’s Hour, a one hour show of mostly comedy that debuted in the fall of 1954.
The two characters in the play based most clearly on the real writers were the team that were there at the beginning of YSOS, Mel Tolkin and Lucille Kallen. “They set the tone for the whole show,” Carl Reiner said. They had written Caesar’s previous series, The Admiral Broadway Revue, which first teamed him with the now-legendary comedienne, Imogene Coca (pictured above.)