Thursday, May 01, 2008

Hail Caesar!

So a few weeks ago, Nerve & IFC teamed up for a list of the 50 greatest comedy sketches ever, and whenever I've had a free moment or just need a pick-me-up, I head on over there to watch one.

Much of the list is of relatively recent vintage, but there's quite a bit of Monty Python (especially near the top), plus Abbott and Costello, Ernie Kovacs and, to my great pleasure, Sid Caesar, about whom I'll have more to say after the jump.

Caesar's stuff -- from "Your Show of Shows" and then "Caesar's Hour" -- goes back practically to the dawn of television, but where the work of a guy like Milton Berle seems corny and antiquated today, the best of Caesar holds up remarkably well almost 60 years later, because Caesar was both smart and lucky enough to hire a writing staff that included, at various points, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and Mel Tolkin.

The thing you have to understand about Caesar, other than his genius at recognizing talent, was that he and Imogene Coca and Howard Morris and Reiner and the rest of the cast and crew had to put together 90 minutes of live comedy -- with no cue cards or digital shorts or cartoons or any other cheats to help them get through it -- 39 weeks a year. They were hard-core and rarely messed up while the cameras rolled.

The Nerve list had a couple of great Caesar sketches, but it didn't have my absolute favorite, "This Is Your Story." And when I saw Linda Holmes had embedded one of the other sketches, I went on a YouTube hunt for "This Is Your Story," and in the process came across a treasure trove of classic Caesar -- much of it on there to promote the Caesar-on-DVD sets. And what fun would it be to find this stuff if I couldn't share it? So, for your comedy (and procrastination) pleasure, enjoy any or all of the following:
  • The German General, featuring the most famous example of Caesar's double-talk foreign languages
  • Caesar and Nanette Fabray have an argument timed, perfectly, toBeethoven's Fifth
  • This Is Your Story Part 1, and Part 2 -- a spoof, obviously, of "This Is Your Life," with Caesar and Morris taking advantage of the live format as best as they could (part 2 is the classic part, but you need part 1 for the set-up)
  • The Clock -- high-concept, meticulous physical comedy
  • One of the things that set "Your Show of Shows" apart, and helped influence the likes of "SNL," were their elaborate movie parodies, the most famous of which was "From Here to Obscurity," a nearly 20-minute riff on "From Here to Eternity. It's in two parts -- here and here -- and if you don't have time for it all, the legendary part comes around the 4:20 mark of part 2. It's amazing how Caesar keeps a straight face throughout, even though Imogene Coca has to keep hiding her head behind Caesar


David J. Loehr said...

I think all of those sketches were in the "Ten From Your Show of Shows" movie compilation that came out in 1973. I first saw it on HBO ages ago, and of course fell in love.

When our six yr old son starts bouncing off the walls, we call him Uncle Goopy, which means we'll have to explain that someday. (He's already a Jack Benny fan, so that's something.)

The other sketch I love--for no apparent reason--is from Caesar's Hour, a spoof of "The King and I," which I saw a clip of on a PBS show gathering the writing staff, I think it was called "Caesar's Writers." Wonderful stuff.

Anonymous said...

Cowbell only cracks in at #50? I mean, it's not the best, but I'd say Top 20.

Anonymous said...

"Who's on First?" should have been at the top of the list

Anonymous said...

"I gotta fevah, and the only prescription is more cowbell!"

It never gets old.

Unknown said...


yes it does.

Anonymous said...

The list dissapointed me because it did not include Chris Farley vying against Patrick Swayze for a spot on the Chippendales dance floor. Barney vs. Adrian was arguably one of the greatest SNL skits ever.

As to the classics, Alan, you might also want to look around for Ernie Kovaks work. He was pretty much the first one to use television as more than just a way to broadcast little plays/sketches. He used the new technology to redefine the art. PLus he was f'ing hilarious.

Anonymous said...

^Now I'm itching for some Nairobi Trio.

I believe Kovacs also pioneered some FX techniques, but I could be misrembering the old PBS special I saw about him when I was a kid.

Matthew said...

"Who's on First?" should have been at the top of the list

Very possibly.
But it's not like it was #30. It was #2. And it was only beaten by the Dead Parrot sketch, which does also have a legitimate claim for top place.

A few years ago, my church used to have a regular New Years Eve concert, and my friend and I took to performing classic comedy sketches - mostly Python, but a few others. One year, we decided to do Who's On First, but we made that decision with less than a week to go. Damn, that is a difficult sketch to learn (especially with a limited time to learn it), but a lot of fun to perform.

aj said...

i am SO happy Ass Pennies made it. HELL YEAH! What about some of the musical sketches from Mr Show?

Human Giant should be cracking that list in the future.