Here's pure gold, and with a silver lining: "Caesar's Writers," a historical and hysterical hour that reunites the squabbling scribes who worked on "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour," the two great Sid Caesar variety shows of the '50s. Happily, hale Caesar is there himself.
The program, produced by the Writers Guild of America West and taped earlier this year in Beverly Hills, airs on KCET-TV Channel 28 tonight. Many a blue moon will shine before public TV has another show with this much life to it.
Some of the assembled writers have long since become household names: Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner. Others went on to less visible success: Aaron Ruben, Mel Tolkin, Danny Simon (Neil's brother), Sheldon Keller and Gary Belkin. Michael Stewart, who later wrote the book for "Hello, Dolly!" has died. A couple of other contributors were not available.
But those who participated in the gabby reunion, seated on a stage in a small theater, seem to have had a great time and certainly gave one. Just to see Brooks and Simon in the same shot is something of a thrill. There are too many writers to call this a comedy Mt. Rushmore; it's more like a comedy Last Supper.
Gelbart says that being one of Caesar's writers was like playing for the Yankees or with Duke Ellington's band. Reiner says they were all moths fluttering around Caesar's flame. Caesar says, jokingly, that they all kept going on a diet of "electricity--and hate."
This isn't just an hour of mirth. You learn how much it cost to produce each edition of "Your Show of Shows" ($64,000). You learn why producer Max Liebman threw lighted cigars at Brooks (he hated him). And you learn why Admiral, Caesar's first sponsor, dropped out: Caesar was selling TV sets faster than Admiral could make them.
You'll also learn:
Why Brooks arrived at work each morning--late--with a Wall Street Journal and a bagel.
Why Caesar sat on a "golden throne" at story meetings.
How Ruben could get Caesar to butt out for 15 minutes by saying, "Sid, is that a spot on your shoe?"
Why 32 is a funnier number than 24.
And oh, so much more.
"All right, let's hear the brilliance," Caesar would bark as he entered the conference room each morning. Brooks at first made only $40 a week and lived, Caesar says, "underneath a hovel." Neil and Danny Simon's first office was "the landing of a staircase." Neil remembers that "walking down the street with Mel Brooks, you just knew something terrible was going to happen."
As a Writers Guild notice states in the opening credits, "The laughter heard during this program emanates solely from an audience whose members were alive, present and exercising their own independent judgment when the jokes were told."
That's the way it was in Television Land of long ago, back during the reign of Caesar--which is officially extended by one more hour for this wonderful show.
* "Caesar's Writers" airs at 7:30 and 10:15 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.