Back around 1995, I attended one of the funniest evenings I've ever had in the theater. If it wasn't the funniest, the others competing with it were pretty special. This wasn't a stage play or musical, to be fair, but basically a group discussion. But it was in a theater, and it was about the world of entertainment, so it counts.
The evening was called Caesar's Writers, held at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills. It was a reunion of the writers who had worked on the two variety TV shows lead by Sid Caesar -- Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hours. The series were pretty close to the same: the casts of Caesar, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris were the same, with Imogene Coca in the former having moved on with her own show and replaced by Nanette Fabray in the latter. And the writing staffs were very similar, with a few changes here and there.
And oh, what a writing staff it was. If you put together a list of the staff and showed it to someone without any other information, they'd probably think you had written down your Hall of Fame of comedy writers. And no, I'm not exaggerating. Among those who participated that evening were (and bear with me, because the list is long and the credentials longer...) --
Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart (hey, I told you i wasn't exaggerating -- and I'm even leaving out Woody Allen, because he wasn't there that night).
But those are just the names you know. Others on stage were each impressive in their own right (and write). They included Mel Tolkin (the show's head writer who was later the head-writer for All in the Family), Aaron Ruben (who co-created The Andy Griffith Show and Gomer Pyle USMC), Gary Belkin (who wrote TV comedy for three decades, including several years writing on The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson), Sheldon Keller (whose 30+ years included writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show, M*A*S*H, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, and the movie comedies, Burena Sera, Mrs. Campbell and Movie, Movie which reteamed him with Larry Gelbart), and Danny Simon, Neil's older brother, who had his own 30-year career in TV and was considered one of the top comedy writing teachers in the industry.
And this doesn't include some other writers on the show's staff who weren't there, like Joseph Stein (who wrote the book to Fiddler on the Roof, as well as the musicals Take Me Along, Plain and Fancy, Zorba, and the play Enter Laughing, among others). Michael Stewart, who went on to write the books for such major hit musicals as Hello, Dolly!; Bye Bye Birdie; Carnival; 42nd Street, and Barnum. And two of the legendary, ground-breaking women writers in TV comedy, Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond.
So, yes, again, I wasn't exaggerating. This was an incredible writing staff. And the members who were there that night really were among the cream in comedy writing history.
It will not shock you to learn that the theater was packed. And laughing all night.
Back row -- Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart.
There were two of these events held -- this at the Writers Guild Theatre, and one previously in New York that I believe Woody Allen may have participated in, though not all the others made it from Los Angeles. I'm told by those who attended both that as good as the the one in New York was, the evening in Los Angeles topped it. And if so, I can see why -- and it's not just because of a more complete group of participants. That clearly helped and was a big deal, but I think something else was at play. In New York, the event was open to the general public. At the Writers Guild Theatre they were in front of their fellow writers, and they weren't just telling stories, they were performing for their peers. And in performing, some of them were clearly competing, trying to "one-up" one another -- mostly, though not exclusively (but leading the way), this was centered around Mel Brooks, who was hysterical all night. But also, and this is is what made the evening so special, it's not just that the stories were so wonderful, and that they were trying to give their best in front of their compatriots, but when a classic sketch would get mentioned, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks -- and whoever else might have been involved -- who recreate the sketch there on stage. Or a favorite memory wouldn't just be told as a story, but performed like a classic comedy bit.
It was hilarious. It went on for close to 2-1/2 hours, and there was so much laughter and warmth and joy in the room the entire time. And as good a time as the audience was having -- and we were having a great time -- the writers and friends on stage seemed to be having an even better time.
And to put into perspective how remarkable that writing team was, and that it's not just me saying so, Neil Simon wrote a hit play about it, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which was turned into a pretty good TV movie, that starred Nathan Lane in the 'Sid Caesar' role. (Side note: Before I saw the play on stage, I asked Larry Gelbart which character was based on him. The one named 'Kenny,' he said. When 'Kenny' made his entrance, I almost burst out laughing. I hadn't had to ask. He looked like Larry, he dressed like Larry in the same style sportcoat, and he wore round spectacles like Larry.)
Anyway, the good news in all this is not just that there's a DVD of Neil Simon's play or that I've described a fun evening -- but that evening was recorded and edited down for a two-hour DVD...and then re-edited down further into a one-hour TV special that PBS ran during Pledge Week. And I have a copy of that PBS broadcast here which I've embedded below.
I told you it was worth it to bear with me.
A few final notes:
The video quality is not the greatest, but it's the material that shines through. Also, it's interrupted a few time with pledge breaks, so you can fast-forward through those. And it's divided into two videos. Also, a reminder that the actual evening was almost an hour-and-a-half longer than this. And it's not that this is The Best Material -- it was all wonderful. This is just the great material that fit best together for a one-hour special.
A word too about why you won't see as much of Neil Simon as you might like. First, he is famously quiet.. If you ever saw the movie, My Favorite Year, which is also based on this group and Your Show of Shows, there is character who is always whispering his joke suggestions at the writers table to the person who is sitting next to him. That character is based on Neil Simon. (Usually he would be seated next to Carl Reiner and telling his jokes to him.) The other reason is more specific. About halfway through the evening, his older brother Danny started feeling unwell and left the stage. A minute or so later, Neil was clearly concerned, so he left to be with him. Happily, he ended up being fine, though the two were gone for the rest of the evening.
L-R: Mel Tolkin, Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Aaron Reuben, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Sheldon Keller, Gary Belkin
For meaningless perspective's sake, just so that you can have an idea where I was so-thoroughly enjoying myself, as you are looking at the stage, I was about halfway back and off to the left against the wall. My recollection is that I perhaps briefly can be seen, but as a sort of heads-up -- I'll be the one laughing.