By Jim O’Neal
In the fall of 1949, inside a room on the 23rd floor of NBC’s Manhattan headquarters, an ensemble of comedy writers were preparing to give Americans a reason to stay home on Saturday nights, glued to their 10-inch televisions. Soon, their efforts would spread fear down Broadway, just as Hollywood was beginning to worry about the effects of television on box-office receipts.
But this seemed different. The sophisticated, rowdy and mainly 20-something staff was about to use the relatively new medium of television to create stay-at-home laughter that surpassed everything that came before. From its premiere on Feb. 25, 1950, the manic energy of Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, turned Saturday nights into a showcase for pure comedic genius.
Aside from launching legendary careers for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart, the 90-minute revue provided a beacon of hope and direction to a medium that needed both.
It had started when NBC’s television programming chief, Pat Weaver, pitched Your Show of Shows in 1949 to Max Liebman, a veteran producer. Since television’s debut in 1946, networks attracted advertisers by allowing sponsors to buy entire timeslots and produce their own shows. A prime example was the Texaco Star Theater featuring Milton Berle.
Weaver had an entirely different concept. His network would air its own shows and sell “spots” of airtime to multiple companies. Liebman had been the first to pair Caesar and Coca when he directed a sponsor-driven program, the Admiral Broadway Revue, and he agreed to produce this new NBC-owned show. He quickly decided to reunite Caesar and Coca and then form the writing team around them.
A dream team as it turned out. Sid Caesar described it best: “This writing staff was pure magic. We were all a little bit crazy, but it somehow produced terrific material.” All that talent converged in the smoke-filled “writers’ room.” It was where the 21-year-old Mel Brooks would punctuate his chronic lateness by screaming, “Lindy has landed!” – much to the open anger of the demanding Sid Caesar.
Lucille Kallen, the lone female writer, is quoted as saying the team literally lived Your Show of Shows, working seven days a week, 39 weeks a year from that office … and loving every minute.
In what would later be known as television’s Golden Age, the incomparable staff created a gallery of memorable sketches, brought to life by Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. There were movie parodies like From Here to Obscurity, Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man, and the extraordinary chemistry between Coca and Caesar, displayed in the saga of Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper’s floundering marriage. And, of course, Caesar’s portrayal of the “Professor.”
The show was so popular that Broadway movie and theater owners, after experiencing a dramatic box-office decline, pleaded with NBC executives to move the TV show to midweek. Even critics loved it. The notoriously harsh Larry Wolters of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Sid Caesar doesn’t steal jokes, he doesn’t borrow ideas or material. A gag is as useless to him as a fresh situation to Milton Berle.” Alfred Hitchcock said, “The young Mr. Caesar best approaches the great Chaplin of the early years.”
What effect did the show, running over five years, have on television? Consider this: When it debuted in 1950, there were 4 million sets in American households. When the final curtain fell on the Hickenloopers and company, over half of the nation’s 48 million homes had a television.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but it’s also a reminder of what television at its very best could be … before the “vast wasteland” encroached.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].