Sid Caesar's live, uproarious variety shows were staples of 1950s television. Unfortunately, he's not as familiar to today's TV viewers as Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason, because his shows have not been widely seen in syndication. I hope this and other DVD releases can remedy that just a bit.
One great thing about these comedy sketches is that, unlike today, these writers and performers created wonderfully inventive comedy that all ages could enjoy, without resorting to off-color material. That is why some of the modern material on this DVD set is uncalled for. One of the extras on Disc 1 consists of part of a Friar's Club roast for Sid Caesar. In his speech, writer Hal Kanter uses a few four-letter words that have absolutely no place in this collection, and this is the reason I'm giving the set 4 stars rather than 5. During the interview segments, when they talk about the sketch that spoofs FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (called "From Here to Obscurity"), they refer to the original movie's passionate beach scene in less-than-modest ways. (The sketch itself is non-offensive and funny.) When watching this collection with your kids, use discretion.
As for the interviews as a whole, they are entertaining and informative. Performers Sid Caesar, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner offer their reminiscences of working on the programs, and so do several of the writers, including Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and others. (Woody Allen didn't write for Sid until 1958, which means he wrote none of the material in this collection.)
The main attraction here is the sketches themselves, taken from ADMIRAL BROADWAY REVUE (1949), YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS (1950-1954), and CAESAR'S HOUR (1954-1957). In the earliest clip, from 1949, Sid does a great monologue ("Five-Dollar Date") comparing how it was to go out on the town in 1939 versus 1949. Sid could be entertaining all by himself -- other clips have him doing a one-man pantomime bit about a boy at his first dance, and also parodying airplane movies.
Then there are the sketches with the stock company, which include Imogene Coca in the YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS clips, and Nanette Fabray on CAESAR'S HOUR. Carl Reiner and Howard Morris round out the regular stock company. This is classic comedy at its finest. Sid Caesar's talent for foreign accent "double-talk" is shown in such skits as "The German General" and "The Cobbler's Daughter." (The other players are pretty good at it, too!) Movie skits include "From Here to Obscurity" and "Aggravation Boulevard," the latter with Caesar as a silent-movie star whose voice, to say the LEAST, is not quite appropriate for the transition to talkies! (According to the writers, this was based on a not-really-true legend that claims that John Gilbert had the same trouble.) Also: Caesar, Reiner and Morris portray "The Haircuts" -- a wacky singing group parody.
There is a wonderful bit about a Bavarian clock, whose miniature figures begin to malfunction -- with delightful results. "The Hickenloopers" were recurring characters, and in the example shown here, Sid tries to get to sleep with the help of Imogene. On CAESAR'S HOUR, a recurring skit was called "The Commuters," of which there are 3 examples here. Sid and Nanette play married couple Bob and Nan, and Reiner and Morris play their married friends. This is described as an upscale version of Gleason's "The Honeymooners." Two of the skits even have some Gleason-esque pathos to them. Singer Judy Tyler (Princess Summerfall Winterspring from HOWDY DOODY) and comedian Henny Youngman are seen in one of the "Commuters" sketches, a bonus on disc 2.
Probably the funniest sketch in this collection is "This Is Your Story," a takeoff on THIS IS YOUR LIFE in which Sid plays the befuddled honored guest. Host Carl Reiner introduces him to various people from his past, who overdo the affection to a side-splitting extent -- including Howard Morris (as "Uncle Goopy") and Louis Nye (as kindly fireman "Mr. Torch").
Also included are some musical numbers -- Chita Rivera and Jack Cole perform a number, and Sid gets to play saxophone with Benny Goodman! A nice bonus on one of the discs is an original printed program that the audience received when they went to see a CAESAR'S HOUR broadcast in person. It would have been nice if they included a hard copy of this as part of the set.
There are only two things that are wanting in this collection. One, it is too short. A 3-DVD set could hold more material than is available here. The programs are each approximately 65 to 75 minutes, with bonus sketches and bonus interviews, and writer and cast biographies. Also, I would have liked to have seen more of the rubber-faced Imogene Coca, who was one of the top TV comediennes of the day. She is a delight to watch.
Thanks to kinescopes -- filmed records of these skits shot from in front of a TV monitor -- these live TV moments were preserved for posterity, and happily are now available to be seen again.