by David Cecsarini
Twenty-one years ago, as we were preparing our staged reading of Neil Simon’s LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR, I was introduced to the singular and colossal comedic genius, Sid Caesar. Simon was a rookie writer for Caesar in 1953, and his play is a loving tribute to the craziest writers’ room in television. I had some vague notion of who Sid Caesar was and that he did a 90-minute live comedy broadcast, Your Show of Shows, back in early TV. But the immersion course of specific study, as often happens in our business, brought Isaac Sidney Caesar into full focus, context and prominence within the pioneering world of television in the 1950s.
And as I have come to know him a bit better, I’ve fallen under his spell. Also, somehow, I felt as if I had met this man before.
CLOSE TO HOME
My dad, Harry Cecsarini, was educated as an engineer but a part of him retained a love for creative theatrical expression: singing, storytelling, voices and mimicry. When at his best, he enjoyed telling a good joke or story. The ones he told most required accents. And I think the accent he liked best was German. He loved the “shpitzes” and “dumkopfs” and that one crazy fighter plane punch-line that made no sense in German: “Fokkers? Ya, dem fokkers vas Messerschmitts!” I can remember us watching the 60’s TV comedy Hogan’s Heroes, with wonderful actors John Banner and Werner Klemperer taking it on the chin for the Luftwaffe. Harry also loved to play the German, French, Irish or British DJ, making cassette recordings for my two sisters, Linda at UW-Madison and Lois at U of Iowa.
Learning more about Caesar, it finally made sense: my dad must have taken great pleasure and inspiration from Sid Caesar and those early days of miraculous 1950’s television. My mom backs me up on this theory, as far as saying, “Oh yes, we watched Your Show of Shows religiously on Saturday nights.” Dad and Sid even shared the same birth year, 1922. So, here was a really funny guy on a brilliant comedy show, same age, similar look, doing things that Harry Cecsarini enjoyed doing naturally, in his own world. You might say that my connection to Sid Caesar was almost hereditary.
HE COULD DO ANYTHING
Sid Caesar was a tall, strapping, rubber-faced acting powerhouse whose bottomless comedic invention found expression through fluid movement and superb vocal acrobatics. Sifting through the many video recordings of Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour, the breadth and depth of his creative talents are simply astonishing. Though his natural Brooklyn accent colored many of Caesar’s characterizations, he was also a master of other accents, including the utterance of approximate foreign languages known as double talk. French, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese: he could carry on in the veneer of most any foreign language, adding in an occasional English word, phrase or reference for the punch-line.
Though Caesar was the franchise talent on the Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour teams, he was by no means a one-man band. Producer Max Liebman understood that Sid needed good writers and acting colleagues to supercharge his innovative skills and bring to life their collective ideas of what live TV comedy could be. Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howie Morris formed the tight-knit troupe who could support Sid in all the crazy sketches churned out from the writers’ room.
And what writers! Mel Brooks, Neil and brother Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Woody Allen, Selma Diamond (all would have great writing careers), Reiner and Caesar too: they formed a fiercely competitive, highly-pressurized comedy laboratory that produced 90 minutes of live material every week, for seven seasons. They wrote smart comedy, long sketches that could incorporate cliché and bombast along with subtlety and wit, always with an eye toward what Mel Tolkin called, “the human condition.” They competed with and against each other for their sketch ideas, for Caesar’s favor, for status in the room; but mostly, they competed together to do the best show possible, week in and week out. Above the fray, they were one crazy, comedy family.
Despite his tremendous talents and on-screen celebrity, Sid Caesar remained a humble, generous and grateful man who appreciated his colleagues, their talents, and their contributions to the work. He understood that his writers gave him an infinite array of platforms from which to launch brilliant journeys into unexplored comedic territory – they were his life blood.
IT’S ABOUT THE PEOPLE
Neil Simon’s LAUGHTER ON THE 23rd FLOOR is a celebration of this family of comedic crazies, as remembered from his very junior position in the writers’ room at NBC in the early 1950s. We catch them at a critical time, as TV tastes (according to the corporate big shots) are changing, and pressure is applied from on high to dilute their exquisite zaniness to run-of-the-mill humor that the “whole country” can understand. Through these trials, Simon’s Sid Caesar stand-in, Max Prince, stands up for the show and his team, to fight for what they all believe is good, and right. It’s a noble struggle, firmly rooted in the human condition, which is why Simon’s play is both very funny and deeply touching. And that’s why LAUGHTER has made it once again to the Next Act stage.
I’m pretty sure it’s a play that Harry Cecsarini would enjoy. I’m hoping you will too.
See you at the theatre.