Being less than 60 years old, I'm not exactly what you would call the "target audience" for The Sid Caesar Collection, a compilation of select sketches from NBC's "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour." These were the shows my
grandparents watched when they were my age: live, unedited, and without cue cards. It was a different time, then; "I Love Lucy" was on the air, "The Honeymooners" would debut a few years later, and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" not long after that. To today's audiences, these shows tend to appear sort of quaint and a little broad, much more hit-and-miss than they were when they first aired. The Sid Caesar Collection has some sketches like that. You know that they must have been hilarious at the time, because, well, they're on a DVD collection that spans eight years of comedy (1950-1957), so someone must have liked them enough to include them.
The good news, though, is that those are fewer and farther between than I expected. Although some completely fail (anything with The Haircuts is especially awful today, and a lot of the doubletalk sketches fall a little flat), the majority of sketches here are just as funny as they were 50 years ago, like "Five Dollar Date" (Sid's take on dating in the '30s versus the '50s), "Seven Dwarves Bet" (Sid's pride depends on whether he knows who the seventh dwarf is or not), and "Aggravation Boulevard" (a silent actor tries to make the transition to talking pictures... and fails miserably).
It's also interesting how different these shows are compared to today's sketch comedy, like
"Saturday Night Live" or "Mad TV." For one, these sketches all have a beginning, middle, and end, with multiple jokes throughout – unlike a lot of the stuff on today that exploits one gag repeatedly over the course of the entire skit and then just sort of falls off without any kind of resolution or final pay-off. (Some of these older routines even span multiple acts, almost like mini-TV episodes in and of themselves.) For another, the shows aren't only comprised of
sketches, but also include several musical numbers (there's a really fantastic one with
Sid Caesar and Benny Goodman) and experimental comedy ("Argument to Beethoven's Fifth," for instance). As I watched, I couldn't help but notice that the shows seem to more closely resemble underground comedy of today (which has a lot of variety and experimentation) than the stuff on TV. The formula was less refined then, but I think it was better off for it.
There were also an incredible number of talented people involved in these shows, something else that today's shows seem to lack. Besides the cast (Caesar, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Nanette Fabray), the writers included Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan), Mel Brooks (The Producers, Blazing Saddles), and Neil Simon (Barefoot in the Park, Fools). (Oy vey!) Obviously New Video went all out on this set, since most of the people involved appear on camera before and after each bit to talk about their memories of the show, how they came up with their ideas, and what it was like working for Sid in the "good old days."
For those familiar with the original shows, here's the list of performances on the three discs:
• The Commuters in "Seven Dwarves Bet"
• The Professor in "Boardrooms of Hollywood"
• Five Dollar Date
• Sid Plays Sax with Benny Goodman
• The Clock
• A Fella Needs a Girl
• The Haircuts in "So Rare" and "Flippin'"
• This is Your Story
• The Hickenloopers in "The Sleep Sketch"
• Boy at First Dance
• The German General
• Chita Rivera and Jack Cole Perform "What is Jazz?"
• Aggravation Boulevard
• The Commuters in "The Fur Coat"
• The Cobbler's Daughter
• Argument to Beethoven's Fifth
• Progress Hornsby in "People to People"
• From Here to Obscurity
These are 50-year-old shows, so they're not going to look fantastic, but New Video has done
a pretty good job restoring the worst of the footage by cleaning up scratches and dust. Some of it, especially the older stuff, still looks pretty rough, though. The interview footage produced for the DVD release looks fine.
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. Voices are consistently clear; I never had a problem understanding what the actors or interviewees said.
Most of the "extras" that are spread out over these three discs are additional sketches that simply lack commentary, but every disc includes writer and cast biographies.
Disc one: The main extra on the first disc is Sid Caesar's 1999 Friar's Club Roast. Writer Hal Kanter gives an absolutely hilarious speech here, followed by some of Sid's castmates. There's also another great performance by Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, an
amusing comedy routine by Sid called "Airplane Movies," an interview with actor/writer Carl Reiner about the bet that cost him a week's salary, and a side-by-side comparison of the
Disc two: Two sketches are the main draw here: the slightly strange "The Four
Englishmen" and one of my favorites on the set, a two-act skit called "Nan's Birthday." There's also an original Playbill in PDF format
and a random recollection by Mel Brooks.
Disc three: A sketch with Charlton Heston, of all people! "A Rich Man's Joke" is hilariously cruel. There's also another (mercifully short) Haircuts sketch ("Going Crazy"), the original script to "Progress Hornsby" in PDF format, and an interview with Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.
A lot of care obviously went into putting together The Sid Caesar Collection – it's a nice set. Interviews with the writers and cast, plenty of extras, and a good variety of sketches make this fun for fans of the original shows. Recommended.