How Your Show Of Shows invented American TV comedy

How Your Show Of Shows invented American TV comedy

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

The idea of the Golden Age of television has come to be accepted mostly on faith. There are programs that exist from TV’s earliest era, even really good shows like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and The Phil Silvers Show, but for the most part, the great TV of the era was performed live, before a studio audience. It was the era of arts programming, of anthology dramas (often written by future greats like Rod Serling who broke in by writing standalone teleplays), of sketch comedies that gave birth to some of TV’s earliest major stars. It was also the era of Your Show Of Shows, the foundational document of most American TV comedy. And yet Your Show Of Shows is almost completely lost to the average viewer now, existing via a limited DVD collection, assorted sketches that have made their way to YouTube, and episodes preserved in various broadcasting museums. Like most of the live TV of its time, it was lost, thanks to thoughtless networks that didn’t realize the value of what they were putting on their airwaves until it was too late.

Your Show Of Shows wasn’t the first TV comedy/variety series, or even the first successful comedy/variety series. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was TV’s first major hit program, and it essentially invented the sketch/variety format that series copied well into the modern era. There would be occasional musical numbers. There would be comedic sketches (though the ones in that era tended to be slightly longer than our modern sketches—usually in the five-to-10 minute range). The star of the program would turn to some of his most popular shtick—in Berle’s case, appearing in drag—and everybody would go home happy. The format was an uneasy mixture of a live stage play, a vaudeville performance, and the radio comedy that had been so popular in the ’30s and ’40s. This strange combination of elements shouldn’t have worked, yet it’s become one of TV’s least changed formats. To watch an episode of Texaco Star Theater is to see the seeds being planted for Saturday Night Live or even Key And Peele before your very eyes.

Berle pioneered that format, but it took the other pioneers of the ’50s to turn it into something instantly recognizable and iconic, people like George Burns and Gracie Allen (who quickly shifted their show into more of a sitcom with occasional, disconnected comedic routines the two had perfected onstage). It took people like Red Skelton and Jack Benny. And most notably, it would take Sid Caesar.

In an interview with the Academy Of Television Arts And Science’s “TV Legends” series, Caesar says that the impetus behind Your Show Of Shows was simple: It was late 1949, and NBC wanted to fill up its Saturday nights with comedy. It didn’t particularly care how this was accomplished, nor did it exercise much network interference, at least at the outset. What it knew was that Caesar was a burgeoning star, thanks to an appearance on Berle’s program and his work in the hit Admiral Broadway Revue, a show only killed because its sponsor ultimately pulled out of the program (a common occurrence to even hit shows in the early days of TV). With Caesar and producer Max Liebman (who had produced the earlier program) at the helm, NBC could expect, at the very least, an hour and a half of quality comedy delivered live every Saturday night. The two were given a budget of $64,000 per week—a considerable sum at that time but also a pittance in the face of some of the bigger programs on the air in that era—and essentially turned loose. They would redefine television.

Most pieces on Your Show Of Shows begin with the series’ writers’ room, and though it’s rapidly becoming cliché to simply list the people who worked for Caesar and Liebman, it’s astonishing to consider the level of talent the two were able to recruit. They brought in Carl Reiner—who would later base the workplace scenes of The Dick Van Dyke Show on his experiences on Your Show Of Shows—to be one of their sketch players, then quickly realized he had a similar talent for writing sketches. The head writer was Mel Tolkin, one of the great TV writers of all time and an unsung hero of many seasons of All In The Family in the ’70s. Most of the rest of the writers need little introduction. Mel Brooks. Neil Simon. Danny Simon (Neil’s brother). (The writers Caesar brought onto his Show Of Shows follow-up, Caesar’s Hour, included Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart and similarly spoke to his eye for emerging talent.) 

What’s more, Caesar and Liebman hired funny women to work in their writers’ rooms as well, an unusual occurrence at the time. Lucille Kallen would be the basis for Dick Van Dyke’s Sally. Selma Diamond went on to have a long career, culminating in her work on Night Court in the ’80s. Your Show Of Shows was so overstuffed with talent that one of the main directors, Nat Hiken, was just as strong of a writer and talent in his own right, and would later create The Phil Silvers Show. In the “TV Legends” interview, Caesar even points out that the man “on typewriter” (meaning the guy tasked with catching all of the jokes flying around the writers’ room and getting them on paper before they dissipated) was Michael Stewart, who would later go on to be a highly successful playwright and musical librettist, responsible for such shows as Bye Bye Birdie and Hello, Dolly! The show’s writers argued over the pettiest of things, intent on making sure each and every line—right down to the numbers mentioned in said line—was as funny as it could be.

None of this would have worked without a game cast. Caesar was a willing clown, able to play straight man or ridiculous goof depending on the situation. Reiner and fellow supporting player Howard Morris were highly capable of making even the smallest of bit parts hilarious. And then there was Caesar’s partner-in-crime, a woman so important to the program that Liebman would suggest her name be given equal billing to Caesar’s in the first few weeks of the show, something Caesar immediately and heartily agreed to. Her name was Imogene Coca, and she was the original funny lady of TV comedy. What’s more, she and Caesar codified a male-female dynamic that has come to serve American TV comedy well: a little bit sexy, a little bit sophisticated, and always very, very silly. For an example of how the two worked so beautifully together, watch the sketch where they play percussionists performing Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” waiting for their big moment, then having to race all over to toll bells, bang chimes, and set off cannons. The sketch is wordless but so, so precise, the duo’s skill with pantomime evident in even the slightest reaction shot.

In his autobiography Caesar’s Hours (written with Eddy Friedfeld), Caesar states that he and Coca’s chemistry was so palpable that audiences, not yet accustomed to the kind of familiarity television breeds between audience and actor, simply assumed the two were married. (Each was, but to different people.) Even now, to watch them work together is to see two people who can constantly feel out just what the other will do in any given moment, a necessity in live television. Indeed, many sketches were based around Caesar falling into a kind of instant, kinetic love with a character played by Coca, then being doomed by it. In these sketches, the two played the connection for laughs, but it was ever-present.

Caesar writes:

“For two people who could not have been more different, Imogene and I were creative and instinctively connected. Immy anticipated me. She gave me the ability to think, and the ability to put more into the sketches. … Immy and I did not talk much offstage [something Carl Reiner attributes to both being naturally shy people – ed.], but when we hit that stage it was as if we were one person. Working with her was like working with somebody you’d known your entire life from moment one. There was a genuineness and an authenticity that was built on an emotional foundation. We protected each other.”

A trained dancer who had also worked on the Admiral Broadway Revue, Coca brought her natural grace to even the silliest bits of business. She was enormously gifted at slapstick and physical comedy, but she was also adept at undercutting broader, sillier moments with a quick one-liner or more sophisticated quip. Though the shows were heavily written, the fact that they were performed live meant that all of the actors had to be gifted improvisers, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice if somebody dropped a line or forgot what was happening, or if some other mishap befell the production. (In the “TV Legends” interview, Caesar recalls a time when he accidentally ended up onstage in a pair of gold lamé boots, and Reiner had to find a way to incorporate it into the sketch the two were performing in.) Coca and Caesar’s superb, instinctive connection provided the foundation everything else was built upon. So long as it existed, Your Show Of Shows would be fine.

NBC knew it would get a baseline of quality with Caesar, Coca, and Liebman. What it might not have known was just how far that writers’ room would push what TV sketch comedy could possibly achieve. (Caesar’s Hours contains several lengthy passages in which Caesar talks at length about the difficulty—and absolute necessity—of turning comedic sketches into miniature stories, with their own internal logic and character development. That may not seem like a big deal now, but in the ’50s, it was.) In the recurring series of sketches based around a family called the Hickenloopers, the series would invent the earliest example of what ended up breaking free from its sketch-comedy confines and evolving into the American sitcom. In its many recurring characters and types, the series took very broad things that Benny and Berle were doing and made them hyper-specific to particular characters played by certain players. Though it wasn’t the first sketch program to offer up parodies of then-popular movies (Benny’s show would do that), it found a way to avoid the lawsuits that bedeviled Benny by simply coming up with its own jokes to mock the other properties for things that were stupid about them. (The parody of This Is Your Life from the later Caesar’s Hour is a supreme bit of silliness.) And in many of its sketches, the comedy was laced with a kind of sophisticated satire, a discussion of the political world in which these people lived, buried under a façade of jokes.

Take, for instance, “The Clock.”

On its surface, this is just a silly bit of physical comedy, with the show’s four main players acting out a cuckoo clock that gets more and more out of whack with every hour it tolls. But then consider the sketch’s setting—a peaceful little town in what sure seems to be Germany, a peaceful little town that’s proud of its cultural output and its perfectly engineered clock. Then consider that the four people performing this sketch are three Jewish men and a Hispanic woman. (Also consider how many of the show’s writers were Jewish themselves.) Viewed in that light—and in the light of the world war that wasn’t even yet five years gone when the show began in February of 1950—“The Clock” begins to take on added layers of meaning. Chaos is introduced to the idyllic setting. The townspeople try to fix their clock, try to make it run properly, but it keeps coming apart at the seams. Ridiculous Germans, usually played by Caesar, are all over Your Show Of Shows, and it’s not hard to read the implications.

Long after the series and its follow-up had ended, Neil Simon wrote a play called Laughter On The 23rd Floor, one of many roman à clefs to emerge from the Show Of Shows writers’ room about what it was like to work in such a storied place. One of the central conflicts in the play came from a nervous network wondering just how far the series could push its comedy and still have the audience follow. In that relationship, Simon captures a growing concern from television executives of the period: The medium was highly monetizable via advertising, but the mass audience was often drawn to broader and dumber programming. Indeed, with each year on the air, Your Show Of Shows slumped in the ratings. It never stopped being a hit, but it fell out of the Nielsen top 10, replaced by Westerns and game shows and other programs that might have been good but weren’t the gold standard of TV sophistication that Show Of Shows had been.

Eventually, the old gang split up. Coca went on to her own program after Show Of Shows’ fourth season and 160 episodes, so Caesar recruited Nanette Fabray (an able comedian in her own right) to play his female foil and turned the series into Caesar’s Hour, which would run for another three seasons. In the “TV Legends” interview, Caesar points to 1957 as a turning point for the whole industry. Even though NBC surely knew Caesar and his crew after seven years of working with them, the network wanted to get out of the live television business and move everything over to tape. Tape couldn’t capture what Caesar and his crew were best at, however. It removed the spontaneity and adrenaline of live television, but it did give the network ultimate control. Caesar’s Hour ended. The writing staff went on to great things, while Morris went on to The Andy Griffith Show. Yet Caesar and Coca would never have as impressive a showcase or as versatile a place to show off their talents. 

They reunited time and again, as long-beloved television casts are wont to do. But the more they came together, the more Your Show Of Shows became a mythological legend rather than something people could sample. Some episodes were saved, and 10 sketches were edited together into the 1974 theatrical release Ten From Your Show Of Shows, but NBC’s disposal of the kinescopes that contained the old episodes meant that the show’s legacy mostly lived on as a hushed whisper passed among comedy writers, a show that inspired so many people but became a kind of secret document of television’s foundation, as if the Declaration Of Independence had been destroyed, and all we had left to reconstruct it were fragments.

Your Show Of Shows mostly lives on through reputation now. The sketches that last are still surprisingly funny for something that just passed its 60th birthday, but they come almost in isolation now. It’s well nigh impossible to find a complete episode of the show. Yet maybe it’s better that way: Maybe the show works better as a myth, a kind of comedy Camelot that can never be returned to. It’s a beautiful dream, something for all other sketch shows to aspire to, an ideal so perfect it had to be lost to the mists of time.

Next time: Brandon Nowalk looks at Star Trek: Voyager.

More 100 Episodes