Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar and Danny Kaye Followed in Each Other's Footsteps

Sid Caesar borrowed early Danny Kaye's producer, early co-star Imogene Coca, and revue format for his historic TV variety show. Fourteen years later, Kaye would return the favor.

This morning, TV comedy pioneer Sid Caesar passed away at the age of 91. Although he never worked with Danny Kaye, Caesar’s early career was intentionally fashioned after Kaye’s—while Kaye’s later career was specifically modeled after Caesar’s.

Here’s how it happened:  While performing in an armed services musical revue, Caesar was discovered by producer Max Liebman—who five years earlier had similarly discovered Kaye. He saw in Sid the same genius for mimicry, dialects, fast-paced double-talk, broad comedy, and pantomime that he had groomed in Kaye.

Liebman would build a live TV variety show around Caesar, modeled after the revues Kaye appeared in at the Tamiment summer camp. And as Sid’s co-star, he cast Danny’s Tamiment castmate, Imogene Coca.

Fast forward 14 years later:  Danny, who had spent a decade running away from television, was finally ready to make the plunge. In early 1963, he began soliciting ideas for his own TV series. The first writers he hired to create The Danny Kaye Show were all Caesar veterans—Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, and Shelly Keller—and they intentionally patterned Danny’s show after Sid’s. Even many of their ideas for comedy sketches were lifted straight from Your Show of Shows, such as Danny playing an “expert” character who each week holds a press conference to expound nonsense on a different topic a la Caesar’s Professor.

Tolkin and Keller served as head writers during The Danny Kaye Show’s first two years, and they kept writing in Caesar’s TV co-stars, Imogene Coca and Howie Morris, as guests on the Kaye show. (Morris appeared with Danny a record 10 times, Coca six.) When Tolkin and Keller needed another writer, they called on fellow Caesar show alumnus Gary Belkin.

The connections also extended to the supporting casts. The first “regular” hired, Lovelady Powell, was let go after taping two episodes because she lacked the versatility of Coca. It would take the staff a year to discover a female with a broad enough range, in Joyce Van Patten. The male regulars were identified more quickly. By episode three, they’d found Harvey Korman, who would play the exact roles Carl Reiner would do in Your Show of Shows. And soon after, they tapped Jamie Farr, to play the Howard Morris roles. Watch the Student Prince spoof on the Danny Kaye Show Christmas DVD, and you’ll swear you’re watching Caesar, Reiner and Morris instead of Kaye, Korman and Farr.

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