February 20, 2019

Two comedy kings celebrate another

The curtain-raiser for the 2014 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival is an explosion of humor that will bring tears to the eyes of old-timers and introduce younger folks to the progenitors of today’s star comedians.

Two of the greatest Jewish comic performers and writers of the postwar decades will be featured: Sid Caesar, who died in February at 91, will be present in spirit and on screen, and Carl Reiner, in person, just catching his second wind at 92.

The centerpiece of the May 1 opening night will be the screening of “Ten From Your Show of Shows,” a compendium of some of the sitcoms and comedy sketches starring Caesar extracted from the most celebrated TV show of the early 1950s.

Caesar’s partners and foils were the likes of Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Reiner, the latter also among the stable of the show’s writers, which included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.

Reiner will be the guest of honor at the festival’s opener and will be interviewed onstage by his friend Phil Rosenthal, best known as the creator of the TV show “Everybody Loves Raymond.” 

The early days of television did not include canned laughter, only the response of a live audience, which likely will be echoed by contemporary viewers.

“Sid’s humor is as relevant today as it was more than half a century ago because he did not try to be hip and trendy or rely on shock value,” Rosenthal said in a phone interview. “His sketches are timeless.”

One of the 10 sketches features a noisy boor who keeps interrupting a soprano’s salon recital; another features a wife trying to explain to her husband how she smashed up the family car.

A third segment sends up a silent movie, in which a villainous manager hits on a sewing-machine worker (Coca) until she is rescued by a brawny laborer (Caesar). Still another sketch has Caesar as a know-it-all German scientist, demonstrating the comic’s ability to make utter gibberish sound like an actual language.

The final episode, “This Is Your Story,” is a masterpiece of its kind, and show-biz veterans, including Reiner and Rosenthal, avow that they have never seen anything to match it.

Parodying “This Is Your Life,” a forerunner of today’s reality shows, “host” Reiner picks out an unsuspecting member of the audience and escorts him to the stage. Then, from the wings, he brings out old girlfriends, former teachers, scout leaders and distant relatives to re-create the subject’s life.

In the Caesarian version, the comedian himself is the unsuspecting foil, and the last thing he wants to do is be part of the show. It takes four husky ushers to abort any escape attempt, and, finally, emotional huggers overwhelm Caesar, piling on top of him and each other.

The sketch, of course, must be seen to be appreciated, but Rosenthal testified, “I fell off my chair when I saw it — and I was sitting in a theater at the time.”

In Reiner’s judgment, “Sid was the greatest sketch comedian who ever lived … he created the template for all others.”

Reiner himself — writer, director, producer and actor – will be fêted during the evening “for his extraordinary contribution to Jewish humor,” Jewish Film Festival director Hilary Helstein said. (The festival is a program of TRIBE Media Corp., which produces the Jewish Journal.)

Caesar hired Reiner as a writer in 1950. They remained close friends and lunch companions until Caesar’s death.

Caesar never went to acting school; he was a natural and knew instantly whether a skit would work, Reiner reminisced during a phone interview. “He used to sit on a big chair facing the writers, and when he liked something, he would nod his head. When he didn’t like an idea, he took an imaginary machine gun from his lap and, pointing to the ceiling, shot the idea down.”

When not inhabiting one of his characters, Caesar could be quiet and glum, Reiner recalled. “He was a solitary drinker, and after the show, when he got into his limousine, he’d start drinking — though he never drank at work.”

As a child, he was frequently bullied by his older brother and “had a lot of demons,” Reiner said. In later years, the demons led Caesar to years of alcoholism and deep depression, but eventually he overcame them.

Rosenthal, now 54, was 16 when he saw Caesar perform for the first time, and was smitten.

“Sid’s humor had an underlying sweetness, there was nothing mean about it,” Rosenthal said. “ ‘Your Show of Shows’ and the subsequent ‘Caesar’s Hour’ pioneered the format for just about all subsequent comedy shows, including ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” he said.

A recent article by David Margolick in Tablet magazine noted that “Your Show of Shows,” produced, directed, written and performed almost entirely by Jews, studiously avoided any Jewish references, dialogue or jokes. The article points to the irony that the show was entirely Jewish yet proved it by trying to pass as non-Jewish.

Reiner acknowledged the criticism, but noted, “You have to remember that the show was on only a few years after the end of the war and the Holocaust, and that Jews were still being maligned.”

Reiner and fellow writer Brooks found outlets for their Jewish sides and intonations in their famous dialogue “The 2,000 Year Old Man,” though they never performed that skit on “Your Show of Shows.”

Now that Jewish wit and soul is ubiquitous on stage and screen, the more pertinent question is why so many of America’s funny men and women are Jews.

“Maybe it’s genetic,” Rosenthal pondered. “And maybe it’s how we deal with the world. When I went to high school in the 1970s in suburban New York, I was always picked on. When you’re a small, skinny Jewish kid, you disarm the bullies with laughter.”

Reiner and Rosenthal, a generation apart, are keeping busy. Reiner’s autobiographical book, “I Remember Me,” came out last year and was so well received that he wrote a sequel, “I Just Remembered,” which will be available in a couple of weeks.

Rosenthal, proving that even wimpy Jewish kids can grow up to be tough guys, is playing a Jewish James Bond on the comedy Web site Funny or Die. He is also in the early stages of putting together a Broadway musical and working on a Henry Winkler pilot for BBC and on a food and travel show.

For more information and tickets for the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.