Tuesday, 6 May 2014

TEN FROM YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS - Review By Greg Klymkiw - TJFF 2014 - Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014

Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973) *****
Dir. Max Liebman, Prod. Pat Weaver, Writers: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner
Starring: Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris

Review By Greg Klymkiw

To coin a phrase from the title of Alan Zweig's recent documentary masterpiece, be prepared to experience - beyond all your wildest hopes and dreams - a time when Jews were funny. I mean funny!!! Really, really funny.

If there is anything on television today that's even a pubic hair as brilliant as Your Show of Shows, I'd like to know what it is. Watching this 1973 feature length compilation of ten classic sketches from the immortal variety series that aired on NBC from 1950-1954, I was delightfully transported to a time and place when comedians could have you in stitches just by appearing on-screen - completely in character and bearing the gait and posture that offered a mere taste of the hilarity to come. Each sketch is a perfectly crafted gem with a solid narrative coat hanger by which to display gags of the highest order and performed with the kind of chemistry and zeal that seems so lacking in contemporary comedy. These were giants, kings and gods of the universe of laughter.

Astonishingly, the show was performed in a real theatre, with a real audience and broadcast LIVE to the world and even more amazing is that the company of actors NEVER ad-libbed - they stuck completely to the brilliant scripts and meticulous choreography of both the basic blocking and the kind of slapstick that modern comedians can only dream of being able to pull off.

Much of this is attributable to the direction of Max Liebman, a pioneer of live television comedy who knew that the very best way to capture the material was to use the camera like a closeup proscenium and most of all, to place a great deal of emphasis on rehearsal to nail every dramatic and comic beat with perfection and to ensure that the performers hit their marks perfectly - after all, when the show is going out live to millions, there are NO second chances. Liebman is, in some ways, the real unsung genius of contemporary screen comedy. He not only directed the precursor to "Your Show of Shows" (a ninety-minute two part live broadcast with Jack Carter in Chicago and Caesar, Coca and Reiner in New York), but he spent eons producing live comedy and variety reviews in the Poconos where he cut his teeth on sketch comedy that demanded perfection.

Though the cast features an excellent array of many regular performers and guest stars, the quartet who led the Show of Shows charge were Sid Caesar, always taking the skewed leading man role, the leggy plasticine-faced Imogene Coca in the equally skewed leading lady roles, the deadpan, pole-up-the-butt Carl Reiner always an authority figure and last, but not least, the genius that was Howard Morris who could do just about anything (and did).

The collection of sketches provided here is no mixed bag of nuts in terms of quality - each and every one is a scrumptious morsel and these rich comic comestibles are beautifully assembled to provide a perfect arc of laughs from beginning to end, but also offer-up the sort of amazing scope of material that this team of artisans attacked.

I'll describe three sketches to give you a sense of what you're in for.

The first sketch in the compilation is a lovely sampling of a simple two-hander where we learn that wifey Coca has ploughed the family car through the front window of a liquor store. When hubby Caesar gets home from a hard day on Madison Avenue, Coca needs to do everything in her power to keep hubby from driving the car, but to also test the waters as to just how furious he's going to be when he hears the news. At one point, she goes so far as to recount the accident in a third person narrative to see how hubby reacts. Caesar hilariously laughs off the tale of woe, commiserating with the poor schmuck who is, no doubt, smarting over the knowledge that he let his dumb wife actually drive the car.


Hilarity ensues even more at this point, though the tale offers up an extremely satisfying and touching conclusion.

The centrepiece sketch is one of the earliest examples of a movie parody, a brilliant spoof of Fred Zinneman's adaptation of James Jones's From Here To Eternity with Carl Reiner hilariously pinning a row of medals into Sid Caesar's flesh, a magnificent USO dance-club scene that offers-up Caesar and Reiner's rivalry over dime-a-dance gal Coca and during the rendition of the famous beach scene, Caesar shows up in a rubber ducky tube around his waist and once he and Coca settle in for some amore, they're repeatedly interrupted by bucket loads of water splashed in their faces. (Oh, and I'm just guessing here, but chances are good that most of this sketch was written by head writer Mel Brooks, cinema's king of movie parodies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.)

The concluding sketch is pure slapstick genius. It's a parody of the Ralph Edwards program "This is Your Life" which gives us a healthy glimpse at the huge theatre and audience assembled for the live broadcast by including a big scene offstage and on the orchestra floor, but also provides a marvellous all-you-can-eat offering of the magnificent Howard Morris and his unbelievably insane ability to render physical comedy. In this case, he's so monkey-like that he gives the overrated Planet of the Apes reboot star Andy Serkis a major run for his money. Morris doesn't need CGI - the guy simply transforms into a variety of simian poses in the unlikeliest of settings.

These then are but three of ten great sketches and I can't think of a single one that doesn't offer up huge laughs. One sketch is presented in silent movie pantomime style, another offers the quartet as clock pieces on a German clock that's just not working, another is a two hander with Caesar and Morris as the most rigid, pole-up-the-butt Germans imaginable, another involving Morris wagging a huge dill pickle in front of a very hungry Sid Caesar's face - the list goes on. Laughs galore.

I remember first seeing this compilation when it played first-run at a movie theatre in Winnipeg. I was maybe 13 or 14 years old and I still remember the great feeling of being in a cinema in the North End seeing this work for the first time, rolling on the floor with laughter and surrounded by mostly older people who seemed to be laughing so loud that in retrospect, (this was long before the advent of "Depends") I now wonder just how many of them were able to control their bladders. My recent helping of Ten From Your Show Of Shows certainly provided my own bladder with challenges, so anyone planning to catch the TJFF screening of this great 90 minutes of pure hilarity would be best advised to, shall we say, come prepared for any expulsions triggered by laughter.

As live television during the Golden Age proved time and time again, anything was possible.

Ten From Your Show Of Shows plays the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (TJFF) 2014. For fix and info visit their website HERE.