"Sid Caesar invented sketch," said comedy legend Carl Reiner in an interview with Phil Rosenthal (creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond") at the opening night of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival on May 1, which was in honor of Reiner and in memory of Caesar, who died in February. "Sid performed it in such a way that it was never the same after."
As the evening stretched on, the 92-year-old Reiner used his memories of time served on "Your Show of Shows," "The Dick Van Dyck Show" and others to bring the crowd to laughter and applause. Of course, we were there to laugh, and had been warmed up considerably by the film that preceded the conversation: "Ten From 'Your Show of Shows'," a 1973 compilation film by Max Liebman of ten sketches from the show's 1950-1954 run. Although the sketches were first performed 60 years ago, the actors' commitments to character and relationship made the bits are relatable today as they were when first they aired.
Ten seems like a good round number. A one and a zero to please the mathematicians. Passover's plagues. Sinai's commandments. So I understand why "Ten From 'Your Show of Shows'" focused on the number 10.
In that spirit, here are 10 things I learned from Carl Reiner at tonight's event:
2. He was devoted to his wife Estelle ("she's gone now, but she's always with me"), but as a young man pined for a particular woman named Lois, who inspired his army-era poem, "Ode to the Buttocks Bountiful."
3. While he wanted to give everyone in the audience a copy of his new book, he said it was too expensive. "If I were Oprah, I would do it."
4. "The 2,000 Year Old Man" started with Mel Brooks doing a Jewish pirate character who complained about the high costs of piracy, claiming that he "couldn't afford to pillage and rape anymore." (Worth noting: "raping" was played for laughs many times during the Reiner/Brooks comedy bits, with Brooks always making the rape statements. Today, this would never fly.)
5. During the time that Reiner and Brooks developed the "2,000 Year Old Man" concept, they mostly performed the bit at parties. After the war, Reiner explained, "the Jewish accent was persona non grata" and the pair couldn't believe anyone would be interested in it as a comedy album. But both George Burns and Steve Allen encouraged them to record the bit; while Allen gave them the studio, Burns gave them additional inspiration, claiming that if the pair didn't record the bit, he would steal it from them. (You can argue that there's an echo of that in the Oh God! movies...)
6. One more thing about the 2,000 Year Old Man (indulge me): Reiner and Brooks originally termed the prospective audience as "Jews and non-anti-Semitic Gentiles."
7. Reiner called fellow writer Neil Simon a "genius," but noted that Simon "had the voice of a turtle...but I was his voice."
8. Reiner was awed by the "double talk" series of sketches, wherein Caesar spoke masterfully with foreign accents (an example, also included in the movie, was "The German General"). Reiner said he used to do those kinds of sketches and then saw Caesar do it. "I'm not doing that anymore."
9. On writing every day: "Every time I walk around the block, something pops. Like popcorn."
10. One of Reiner's secrets to staying sharp? "Talk to yourself: if you're smart, you might get a good answer."
But as I watched this special presentation, what I saw was not ten but infinitely more numbers, like sand on beaches or stars in sky. I saw the influence that YSoS and its leaders - Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Imogene Coca (among other players like Howard Morris, who played Professor Lilloman in "High Anxiety") - had on today's sketch comedy. (Here is a link to one of the more uproarious sketches: "This Is Your Life Story" as well as an embedded clip from tonight's event, with Reiner sharing his initial reactions upon seeing the sketch after many years...)
May we all - writerly or not - be inspired by their commitment to character, content and comedy. (For more Sid Caesar, check out Jewish Humor Central, a.k.a. my dad's Jewish humor blog...)