Your Show of Shows

 Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca

Your Show of Shows was a live 90-minute variety show that was broadcast weekly in the United States on NBC from the winter of 1950 through the summer of 1954, featuring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Other featured performers included comedian Carl Reiner, actor Howard Morris, singer and actor Bill Hayes, baritone singer Jack Russell, pop singer Judy Johnson, jazz band The Hamilton Trio, and the soprano Marguerite Piazza. Actor José Ferrer made several guest appearances on the series.

Writers for the series included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Joseph Stein, Michael Stewart, Tony Webster (the only Gentile among the show’s writers), and Carl Reiner who, though a cast member, also worked with the writers. (Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen joined the writing staff for later Caesar ventures.) The series is historically significant for the evolution of the variety genre by incorporating situation comedies (sitcoms) such as the running sketch ‘The Hickenloopers’; this added a narrative element to the traditional multi-act structure.

The 90-minute live series was produced by Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver and directed by Max Liebman, who had been producing musical revues at the Tamiment resort in the Pocono Mountains for many years prior. Caesar, Coca, and Liebman had worked on ‘Admiral Broadway Revue’ in 1949. The series originated as the second half of a two-hour umbrella show, ‘Saturday Night Review,’ with the first portion hosted by comedian Jack Carter in Chicago and the remainder telecast from the since-demolished International Theatre (also known as the Park Theatre) at Columbus Circle in Manhattan. The Chicago portion was dropped at the end of the 1950-51 season, and the series became the ’90-minute Your Show of Shows.’

As author Ted Sennett described, stars Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris: ‘…appeared in a series of superbly written sketches that poked fun at human foibles and pretensions. Alone onstage, Caesar would depict a befuddled Everyman trying to cope with life, or a blustering Germanic ‘professor’ being interviewed at an airport and vainly trying to conceal his abysmal stupidity. Alone onstage (or with a partner), Imogene Coca would make us laugh at a passion-ridden torch singer, or a daffy ballerina, or a sweet, wistful tramp. Together, Caesar and Coca would take us through the hilarious marital tribulations of Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper, or show us two strangers exchanging cliches when they meet for the first time.

Coca recalled: ‘There was a special chemistry to ‘Your Show of Shows,’ I think, because [producer-director] Max [Liebman] wasn’t afraid to throw out material at the last minute. And I think when you do live television — well, we stopped for nothing. We had no cue cards, no TelePrompTers, and no ad-libbing on the air, because Max would have died if anybody had ad-libbed. It would have been utter disgrace, and you would have been drummed right out of the corps. … Nobody ever forgot a line, and that was the amazing part of it.’

A common misconception is that Larry Gelbart, who would go on to create M*A*S*H, wrote for ‘Your Show of Shows’; in fact, he wrote for its successor program, ‘Caesar’s Hour,’ which was broadcast from 1954 to 1957. Likewise, Woody Allen did not write for ‘Your Show of Shows,’ as he only worked on several Sid Caesar TV series and specials from 1958 forward.

Carl Reiner has stated that the time he spent on ‘Your Show of Shows’ was the inspiration for ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ ‘Your Show of Shows’ also inspired the 1982 movie ‘My Favorite Year,’ produced by Mel Brooks, and the 1993 play ‘Laughter on the 23rd Floor’ written by Neil Simon.

By the 1953-1954 season, although the ratings had slipped a little, ‘Your Show of Shows’ remained extremely popular with viewers. However, in the spring of 1954, it was decided to break up the comedy team of Caesar and Coca and, beginning in the fall of 1954, sign them to star in their own individual variety series on NBC. At the end of the final episode, NBC president Pat Weaver came out at the curtain call to congratulate the cast on their four-year-four-month run and personally to wish Caesar and Coca great success in their future endeavors. After the program ended Imogene Coca starred in her own one-year NBC comedy and variety show, ‘The Imogene Coca Show.’ Thereafter, Sid Caesar changed his format and initiated ‘Caesar’s Hour.’

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One Comment to “Your Show of Shows”

  1. Classic!!

    So many great scenes!

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