One of the pioneers of television comedy was Sid Caesar, who's still rockin' at 88. He was given his own ninety minute variety show in 1950 on Saturday nights called Your Show of Shows, which ran until 1954 and was then followed by an hour long sketch show called Caesar's Hour, which ran until 1957.
What made these two series special was, apart from their obvious influence on the younger generation of writers and performers watching at home, the amount of talent that worked for Sid Caesar.
The cast of players included Carl Reiner, Nanette Fabray, Howard Morris, Bea Arthur and the talented Imogene Coca.
Amongst the dozens of writers that worked for Sid Caesar throughout the years included some of the greatest TV writers, screenwriters and playwrights before branching out on their own included Carl Reiner (father of Rob and creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was inspired by Your Show of Shows), Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Larry Gelbart (creator of M*A*S*H the TV show), Mel Tolkin (story editor for All in the Family), Mel Brooks and a fresh out of high school Woody Allen.
What makes these shows amazing to watch compared with the show on the small screen nowadays is that these were filmed completely live, in front of a theatre full of people (who might not even laugh) and without any form of cue cards. Did I mention that these were live shows, done every week and without any form of tape delay or film segments to allow for costume changes. This kind of entertainment will never happen again.
As for the availability of the series, as with most episodes of forties and fifties television shows, (except for I Love Lucy) they were recorded on kinescope and most of these were quickly discarded by the network, without regard for posterity for this new medium. The episodes and sketches that survived are in the UCLA archives and in Sid Caesar's own private collection.
A DVD set of sketches from Mr. Caesar's collection is available on Region 1 and features interviews with the surviving writers and cast members talking about the show and how they came up with the sketches and is most illuminating to watch. Of course, a lot of the sketches are available Region Free on YouTube or your friendly neighbour pirate bay.
This is Sid Caesar's first appearance on network television in 1949 performing a sketch called Five Dollar Date, which he used to perform eight times a week in revues!
Because these were variety shows, they have musical numbers. Here are Jack Cole and Chita Rivera performing "Beale Street Blues" and introduced by Sid Caesar as the character Progress Hornsby, who offers the best explanation of Jazz that I've ever heard.
The cast were famous for performing what they called "double-talk", where they would perform a long or short sketch in gibberish that sounded like a real language, but with the odd English or Yiddish word thrown in so that the audience would understand. I still have no idea how they managed to do it. This is their parody of Pagliacci, complete with operatic singing in double-talk Italian.
They would also parody the entertainment trends of the day. One of the most famous sketches is The Three Haircuts, a pop vocal group.
This is probably the most famous sketch and the best example to show how important timing is to a live show:
"Big Business" is the first Sid Caesar sketch I ever saw when I was about four or five years old and you know that even sixty years on, this is still going on in board rooms around the world:
Sid Caesar and his writers would also parody the popular films and TV shows of the day. If you go to YouTube, you can watch "From Here to Obscurity" in two parts, but the audio goes off in the second part. Here is the fantastically hilarious parody of This is Your Life called "This is Your Story" with Howard Morris playing Uncle Goopy.
This is my favourite sketch:
There are some more sketches available on YouTube, but you really ought to rent or "download" The Sid Caesar Collection for a truly hilarious Saturday night.