Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Neil Simon
All of this adds texture to the differences between the Max Prince Show in Neil Simon's play and Your Show of Shows.

In the play it’s 1953 and the network wants to cut the Max Prince Show from 90 minutes to an hour, because it’s getting less popular. One reason is discussed: the television audience isn’t just New York anymore. The reach of television is growing—New York was its biggest audience, but new technologies enable broadcasters to reach farther into the Midwest and South. The urban-oriented humor wasn’t translating. There’s reference in the play to more popular shows being Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best. 

But the play is set in 1953, and in fact these changes were a little further in the future, and didn't seem to influence the fate of the always popular Your Show of Shows.  39 original shows a year, each one live for 90 minutes, were broadcast from 1950 to the end of the 1954 season, on NBC every Saturday night from 9 p.m. to 10:30.  Your Show of Shows ended partly because its stars wanted to do different shows. According to Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar himself wanted to do an hour show that concentrated on comedy, with less “jumping” as he called it, which meant dancing, or musical numbers in general. These were prominent on Your Show of Shows.
Nanette Fabray, probably the best known of
Sid's "wives" on Caesar's Hour

At the same time, Imogene Coca—Caesar’s partner in many comedy pieces—had become a big star, and she was slated to have her own show on NBC. When YSOS ended, she got the 9 p.m. Saturday slot. Sid Caesar got Caesar’s Hour on Monday night. (In the play, the cutting back from 90 minutes meant a writer would have to be fired.  But because Caesar's Hour had more comedy, the writing staff actually expanded.)  Your Show of Shows ended in June 1954, and both of these shows started with the new TV season in September.

But The Imogene Coca Show never found a stable identity, changing from a sitcom to a comedy sketch show back to a sitcom with an entirely different premise, all in one season. It wasn’t renewed for a second. Caesar’s Hour prospered however, and in 1956 moved back to Saturday night.

It was a hit series for several years, but Caesar reportedly saw the writing on the wall when The Lawrence Welk Show (which started in 1955) started getting higher ratings.  Caesar's Hour ended its run in May 1957 (before Leave It To Beaver had begun.)    

After Caesar’s Hour went off the air, Sid Caesar had a couple of other shows. Sid Caesar Invites You ran for the first 5 months of 1958, reuniting Caesar and Imogene Coca, with Carl Reiner and several of the writers, including Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. There were three half hour specials in 1962 and 1963 called As Caesar Sees It, leading to The Sid Caesar Show in the 1963 season with a similar sketch comedy format but different regulars. It was for either the specials or the Sid Caesar Show—or probably both—that Woody Allen wrote (uncredited) for Sid Caesar, with (according to Allen) lasting influence on his style.

The Sid Caesar writers' room has become so legendary that the writers and the shows are routinely mismatched and remembered together.  The play preserves some aspects, and neglects others. The physical set prescribed for this play is based on Neil Simon’s memory of the actual writers room for one of the Caesar series, which Sid Caesar praised for its accuracy on the original Broadway production’s opening night. The NCRT is a slight variation of the usual set. It doesn’t attempt to mimic one of the actual room’s characteristics: the 39 or so pencils stuck in the acoustical tile ceiling, sent there by frustrated writers.

But the play doesn't fully give the flavor of what the experience might have been like for the writing staff.  Just imagine the work week before each show aired on Saturday: Some of the show's regular features could be planned as early as the previous Friday, Lucille Kallen said, with writing started over the weekend. But basically the writing started on Monday, and had to be finished by Wednesday. For Caesar’s Hour, that meant four or five sketches.

Thursday the cast would get the show on its feet, and Friday they would do it for the director. Saturday was intense. The whole show would be done three times before air. The first time for blocking, the second a smooth rehearsal where cuts for time and changes were set, the third was full dress. Then it was done live for broadcast.  Eventually it would be done once again, for broadcast to the West Coast. Then Sid Caesar would take everyone out, usually to a place called Danny’s Hideaway, for a Bacchanalian feast. Then they’d have Sunday with their families. But basically, the show was their life.

The Sid Caesar writing staffs are legendary for a reason.  Here is a partial list of titles (plays, movies, TV shows etc.) that entered American life for generations, generated by writers who worked for Sid Caesar: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Odd Couple, Blazing Saddles, Fiddler on the Roof, the Dick Van Dyke Show, Annie Hall, Get Smart, Barefoot in the Park, Bye, Bye Birdie, Tootsie, The Producers, The Jerk, All in the Family, City of Angels, Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H, Enter Laughing, Hello Dolly, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Sunshine Boys, Manhattan...and so many more...

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