My Favorite Hour
Several years before my Disney ignominy I held a much coveted position as a staff writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.* It was there I met and worked with some of show business’s most notable comic minds: Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Ernest Hemingway (who only worked the first season) and the always hysterical Topo Gigio.
Originally called His Show of Shows, 47 writers good and true were hired and sacked before they came up with Your Show of Shows. Their Show of His, Our Show of 90 Minutes, A Show of Hands (offered by sponsor Ponds), Skippy’s Peanutorium were all floated and sunk before Sid himself came up with his Your Show of Shows. It was rumored that Mel Brooks came up with the first Your but in Sid’s autobiography Your Book of Books (not to be confused with Mel Brook’s autobiography Your Book of Brooks), Caesar dispels that notion:
“Everybody wanted a piece of the title. Woody Allen ran around for months claiming exclusive rights to the ‘of.’ The ‘of.’ Who wanted a stupid ‘of?’ Oy!”
It was an amazing time and a rare honor, almost raw, to work with such show business luminaries and Hemingway, who mostly contributed fishing sketches and brought the beer. In fact, it is a little known story that the beer was what ultimately led to Hemingway’s leaving the team. Sid wasn’t big on fishing to begin with, so most of Ernie’s work ended in the crapper, which led to contention between them.
The break came when Ernie (he despised being called that) submitted receipts for the beer. I’ll never forget Sid’s response: “Forty thousand dollars for beer!? For that I could have bought some Germans and brewed my own!”
When he found out Ernie was the only one drinking it he went through the roof. When we got him back down he kvetched: “This is the funniest thing you’ve submitted since you worked here. And it breaks my heart. I could almost understand import, but Coors?”
And with that, he had Woody Allen fire him. Hemingway was a big man and didn’t begrudge Woody for this; we all knew Sid hating firing people. Especially large, rowdy, drunken people, who liked firearms and shows of masculine physicality. He hated firing those kinds of people.
So Woody took the hit for firing Hemingway. Right cross to the nose if I remember correctly. Sent him reeling over a waste can. While hysterically distressing at the time, after Woody got out of the hospital, all fences were mended, primarily by his legal team of Pinchuck, Moosebine & Berkowitz. With the costly litigation, Ernie was driven into early retirement to enjoy his declining years in peace, I imagine. Don’t know what ever became of him…
*Actually the considerably later Who’s Show is This? 1957-1956
Originally Neil Simon worked as part of a writing duo with Art Garfunkel. After the Hemingway debacle, budgets were slashed and belts were tightened (this after the disastrous belt slashing and budget tightening first attempt) and Art was let go. Sid had Mel fire him: I remember Mel’s exact woids: “Dis is television, we sell soap. There’s no place for Art in TV.”
As we all know that was later expanded to motion pictures, music, literature and the stage.
Of course, Art thought Mel was joking and continued showing up for work until he finally noticed the sign on his office no longer read Garfunkel & Simon, but simply Simon. Infuriated, he grabbed his letters and numbers, storming off, but in his haste he forgot his punctuation which gave Simon the edge in the writing game and it has served him well if popular accounts are to be believed. Garfunkel moved onto other pursuits and achieved phenomenal success in dry goods, where punctuation is only a luxury.
Of course Brooks and Reiner were virtually inseparable, beyond all the time they spent apart, one hilarity after another except, oddly enough, at work. At home, at Solly’s Deli on 54th (not to be confused with Sauli’s Belli on 45th), on the subway, in the elevator for Christ’s sake, these were two of the funniest guys I ever met. I actually lost weight trying to eat with them because I couldn’t get any food past my trachea. Hysterical.
But then they’d show up at work and couldn’t rub 2 chuckles together to save their lives. It was amazing. Initially dubbed Writer’s Block on the Clock, shortened to Clock Block out of convenience, some suspected it was an attempt to hold out for bigger paychecks, knowing that if Sid fired them, invariably he’d have to have one fire the other one which would just get messy and cost more than just tolerating their shenanigans. Hard to imagine these two comic powerhouses on a career defining show unable to come up with a joke, but there it was.
They actually made Hemingway look funny, putting a little hat on him and a big squeezy red nose. This of course after he had passed out drunk again after offering up his latest version of his fishing joke. He didn’t discover his get-up until he passed a mirror on 55th St South, whereby he punched a newsy and caught a hack to Trader Vic’s on 44th St W. Interestingly, he forgot to remove the offending apparel and ended up in an impromptu rendition of “HMS Pinafore” at Elaine’s.
To counter Clock Block, Sid had Alice Bluhearty, the network stenographer, follow Carl and Mel around and transcribe their conversations. Their first season contribution in fact came from 7 elevator rides, 3 breakfasts, 9 lunches, 12 dinners and a traffic jam on 9th St. One of their most memorable routines, that escapes me at the moment, came from them waiting for a prescription at Schwab’s on 97th. A couple of wonderful guys, inoffensive to work with and brilliant to hang around with – sadly, owing to the remarkable trajectory of my career, I haven’t had opportunity to keep track of their work. I hope the industry has served them well.
And little Woody Allen: 2 first names and everything. Woody was the closest one to me age-wise, we were both the young upstarts and the subject of much ribbing, a little hipping and the occasional spining from the other guys on the staff. After some particularly vicious shinning from Neil, Woody moved closer to my end of the conference table while castigating him: “Very mature, Neil. No, no really quality stuff. I’m beginning to understand why everybody thinks they took the wrong name off your door…”
I remember one particular crunch where we needed a punch-line for the Near-sighted Boxer sketch. Reiner kept suggesting the Boxer knocks himself out, while Brooks just kept repeating “Nibbles” (ultimately the line we went with). I’ll never forget at one point Woody looked up at me, as he did most people, and said, “Uh, could you pass me that pencil?” And I did. A defining moment in my writing career to be certain.
Woody was a chick magnet and he seemed to always have one or two stuck to his shirt or trousers. Often they would become the source of material for the show as we would peel them off and make them wait for Woody in the green room. Sid often said, “If comedy doesn’t woik out for you, you could become an adult haberdasher.”
In his autobiography Sid recounted, “When the show finally cancelled, Woody gave me a lovely double knit jacket with two blonds stuck to the sleeves. I only wear it on special occasions. Usually when the wife is out.”
At first I thought Sid had hired Topo so Woody would have someone to be bigger than, but the first week Topo made it clear he was settling for no sizism or rodent bias, or he would scurry. I came to feel he held something, some deep dark secret, some ineffable shame over Sid, and I wasn’t alone in this: Woody, Neil and Ernie all expressed similar sentiment. The way Sid let that cute little fuzz ball walk all over him made us sick to our stomachs, except for Woody, who got sick to his pancreas, leading to another hospital visit.
Once, while Woody was hospitalized for a pancreatic enema (Panema), Sid became incensed at my perfume joke, telling me in no uncertain terms, “It stinks!” while the term Simon used was fragrant. Eager to please Sid, I set about rewriting it, removing many of the “Nose” references. As I typed furiously, I felt a tap on my shoulder – it was a boy from Western Union with a telegram for me. It read:
Writing Staff – Your Show of Shows
Re: Artie – Topo asked me to inform you - You’re Sacked
That is all