Caesar's hour: Tales of TV's comedy Camelot


Sid Caesar knows television comedy. At 84, he's still got the battle scars from the era when television was an emerging platform and NBC's "Your Show of Shows" was 90 minutes of live comedy sketches and such on Saturday nights, 39 weeks a year with no repeats.

The energy Caesar put into each performance was nothing short of self-immolation. The proof is in the kinescope record of classic Caesar sketches: The hungry CEO who explodes in a boardroom meeting when his sandwich isn't delivered; the exasperated husband battling his ditzy wife; the absent-minded professor babbling on about nonsensical stuff in Caesar's peculiar brand of German-English. What was funny in the early 1950s is still funny in the mid-'00s.

So when Sid speaks, showrunners listen. Mitchell Hurwitz ("Arrested Development") and Larry Wilmore ("The Office") certainly did Wednesday night as the two conducted a Q and A with Caesar to kick off the Museum of Television and Radio's "Comedy Conversations" series. During the 70-minute session at the museum's Beverly Hills branch, Hurwitz noted Caesar's astonishing "commitment" to giving his all -- physically, emotionally, ego-lessly -- to every performance.

For Caesar, it wasn't so much about him but about them, namely the audience and their expectations. In the era of live TV, there was no such thing as sleepwalking through a show.

"Don't cheat on them," Caesar explained. "If you're not giving them the full (amount) of what you've got, they'll know. ... Oh, will they let you know."

Caesar was quick to credit his murderer's row of writers and producers -- including Max Liebman, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, Bill Persky, Lucille Kallen and Mel Tolkin -- and such onscreen partners as Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Reiner for the quality of the comedy dispensed on "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour."

As Caesar reeled off anecdotes about his comedy Camelot, Hurwitz and Wilmore had no shortage of questions. With all that talent around the table, were there fights among writers about what material to use? "It wouldn't be writing without a fight," Caesar replied. How did you pace the 90-minute show? "Some sketches you gotta keep straight," Caesar instructed. "You don't go for the laugh; you let the laugh come to you."

How strenuously did they rehearse? Not too much lest the bits become old to the performers by showtime. "You find it in the dress rehearsal," Caesar said. When was that, about two days before air? "No!" Caesar responded, incredulously. "It was that afternoon."

Did you really once hold Brooks out of a hotel window by his ankles? "Yes." After a hard slog in Chicago one evening when Caesar had done nine stage performances in a day. When they got back to their hotel, all Caesar wanted was a steak and a bottle of wine. All young Mr. Brooks wanted was a night on the town.

"I was about to take my first bite and Mel was hopping around saying, 'I want to go out, I want to go out,' " Caesar recalled with a grin. "I grabbed him by the back of his neck, put him upside down outside of the window and said, 'You want to go out a little further?' ... It really did happen. I'm not proud of it, but it happened."
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