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Q & A

He Came, We Saw Him, He Conquered TV

September 18, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Feb. 25, 1950, NBC premiered a 90-minute live comedy series entitled "Your Show of Shows," starring a rising 27-year-old comic named Sid Caesar and produced by former Borscht Belt impresario Max Liebman. Television was never the same.

Over the next four years, half of all Americans who owned TV sets tuned in each week to watch the hysterical antics of Caesar and his cohorts-in-comedy Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. In 1954, NBC gave Caesar his own series, "Caesar's Hour," which also starred Reiner, Morris and Nanette Fabray.

Besides the incredible talent in front of the screen, both shows boasted some of the greatest writers ever assembled, including Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Mel Tolkin, Neil Simon and his brother Danny Simon, and Larry Gelbart.

The best of "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" is now available on video and DVD from Creative Light. The three-volume "The Sid Caesar Collection" features vintage sketches along with current interviews with Caesar, Fabray, Gelbart, Morris, Neil and Danny Simon, Brooks and Tolkin. The DVDs feature bonus sketches and interviews.

The original kinescopes of the show were transferred onto digital video, and each sketch has been digitally restored and enhanced frame by frame.

Among the sketches featured in the collection are the infamous spoof of "From Here to Eternity" called "From Here to Obscurity," Caesar's beloved "The Professor" character in "Board Rooms of Hollywood" and "This Is Your Story," the riotous spoof of the popular '50s show.

The multi-Emmy Award-winning Caesar, now 78, recently chatted about the golden age of television and "The Sid Caesar Collection."

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Question: The "This Is Your Life" spoof was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.

Answer: That wasn't rehearsed. We walked through it because you have to show the cameramen what you are going to do so they know where to pick you up and leave you off. [But] we never actually performed it [in rehearsal]. That was the first time we did it. Remember, that was the end of the show and that was an hour-and-a-half show. Times were a little different then, especially when you did it live.

Q: Did you like the live format?

A: When you do it live, you get a flow. You are not stopped every two minutes. They [the audience] are seeing it for the first time. They are seeing it like a Broadway show, and actually that was the way it was run. It was like doing a Broadway show, only you are doing a new one every week.

Q: Despite the fact that you had a brilliant group of writers and regulars on both "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour," wasn't it difficult to come up with sketches week in and week out?

A: Oh, believe me, it was not all fun and games. Saturday we did the show. Sunday we had to take off because you would have to recover, and then you would have to come back Monday morning and start right away [on the new show]. You are constantly on the lookout for something you can use--like if a great movie came out, we would all go and see it and see if we could do a satire.

Q: Did you ever run into trouble with the censors or get into hot water with politicians?

A: You didn't go after one politician. You could go after the generic politician, but to zero in on one personality--that you couldn't do and you didn't do it and it wasn't any of your business. The same thing with sex. We hinted that you like a girl, but you couldn't say things. "Pregnant" was a dirty word. You could say "she is with child" or "she is expecting."

Q: The comedy sketches haven't dated at all.

A: We did what happens to you day to day. That was the whole thing. We showed different aspects of life and that is where we connected to people because we weren't doing off-the-wall things.

Q: Why did NBC cancel "Your Show of Shows" and give you "Caesar's Hour"?

A: Well, what happened was that NBC saw they had a great hit with Imogene and myself with "Your Show of Shows," and they said, "That's taking up a lot of talent." So they said, "We will have three different shows--one for Max, one for Imogene and one for Sid."

Q: Is it true you never used cue cards?

A: There were no cue cards because I hated cue cards. You talk through your eyes, you act through your eyes, and if you are looking at a cue card and reading it, you are not touching the other person. You are not giving it the full performance. Everybody works off of each other.

Q: The image quality of the clips on the video is great.

A: They were cleaned up. They did a miracle with them. They digitalized them and they are like brand new. They worked on the sound. What they did is truly a miracle.

Q: Are more videos and DVDs scheduled for release?

A: We'll see how these go and then we'll bring out three more.

"The Sid Caesar Collection" will be available in stores on Tuesday or by calling (888) 292-9400 or by going to Caesar's Web site, http://www.sidvid.com.

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