by Jody Hirsh, Judaic Education Director at Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center
It was the early 50s. The Cold War was gaining in intensity. People were beginning to build personal fallout shelters to withstand the threat of nuclear war. Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy was intensifying the search for Communists in America. Writers and performers were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. But on Saturday nights, America tuned in to the phenomenally popular Your Show of Shows. America needed laughter, and on Saturday nights, we got what we needed.
The first commercial TV broadcasts began in 1947. Televisions were black and white only, and TV shows were broadcast live. From February 25, 1950, until June 5, 1954, Your Show of Shows was a live weekly 90-minute broadcast. Live. Memorized. Performed without cue cards or teleprompters. The show, produced by Max Liebman, featured the stellar comedy team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca (who had already proven themselves in Liebman’s Admiral Broadway Revue) augmented by the mercurial Carl Reiner and puckish Howard Morris. In the few years before Your Show of Shows, there were other variety shows, and other comedy sketches performed live on TV, but this monumental series is often credited with the invention of TV comedy. Those of us who viewed the show on Saturday nights will never forget some of the classic routines – The German Professor, Doris & Charlie Hickenlooper, the Cuckoo Clock, whole monologues spoken in fake foreign languages, movie parodies, and other legendary sketches.
And behind all of it were the writers. Liebman, the producer, assembled a team of comic geniuses who met in the celebrated Writers’ Room in the NBC-TV office building. Mel Brooks was specifically recruited by Caesar and gained the reputation as the most irritating, but also funniest, guy in the room. A young Woody Allen, too, wrote for Sid Caesar in Caesar’s next project, Caesar’s Hour. In a writer’s world of men, Caesar and Liebman had the vision specifically to include women, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond, among the male writers. A young Neil Simon began his career as one of the writers, and later based his 1993 play LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR on the extraordinary experience. The writers’ room in the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, written by Carl Reiner, was also based on the Your Show of Shows writers’ room.
It’s no accident that the writers were almost all Jewish, with the exception of Tony Webster. The show premiered five years after the Holocaust, at a time when the Hollywood Blacklist targeted, among others, Jewish writers and performers. Humor had always been a Jewish tool to combat tragedy and suffering. Even in the concentration camps of the Nazi Regime, Jews told jokes. A famous joke from the period is as follows:
It’s a little-known fact, that toward the end of Hitler’s power, he consulted a famous fortune teller, wanting to know the exact date when he would die. “Your death,” said the fortune teller, “will be on a Jewish holiday.” “Which one?” a terrified Hitler asked. The fortune teller replied, “Whatever day you die will be a Jewish holiday!”
Almost 40 years after the close of Your Show of Shows, Neil Simon, then an established playwright, penned LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR based on his own experience. While not being documentary theatre, the characters are inspired by the original writers of Your Show of Shows. The play even reenacts the creation of the famous parody of the 1953 film version of Shakespeare’s JULIUS CAESAR starring Marlon Brando as Mark Antony.
Kenny: What dost thou seekest in the constellations, Caesar?
Max: (Reads, doing Brando.) A clustuh a stahs in da heavens.
Brian: And by what name dost this cluster be called, oh, Caesar?
Max: It is called Stelluh … Stelluh! Stulluh for Stahlight! (Max smiles as Max.) That’s good. I like that… Good joke, Kenny.
The references in LAUGHTER are thinly veiled ones to the real creators of Your Show of Shows. And Simon’s writing is a tribute to the Jewish writers of early television. The writing is full of Yiddish words and archetypical Jewish irony. The background is the turmoil of the paradoxes of life of the 1950s. The comedy of Your Show of Shows, as it is in the fictional Max Prince Show, is never overtly political. LAUGHTER, however, captures the milieu. In a scene in which the Russian-born head of the writing team, Val Slotsky, announces the death of Stalin, he continues:
Val: There’s more news. The U.S. State Department just announced they have positive proof that Russia has the hydrogen bomb.
Lucas: Jesus! That is scary.
Val: Tell my children. Because they’re the ones who will inherit the devastation the focking politicians left them.
LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR captures a moment in history, written by an eye witness. It is a tribute to the pioneering beginnings of broadcast TV and a very funny reenactment of the legendary Writers’ Room of Your Show of Shows.