When Artists Ran TV

In the early days of TV, artists like Sid Caesar (with his writers Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen) had free rein to push the boundaries of humor. Can you imagine some marketing guy today approving a five minute silent pantomime like this classic with Caesar and Nanette Fabray?

This entry was posted in Advertising, Art, Business, Entertainment, Television and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

0 Responses to When Artists Ran TV

  1. rayafilms says:

    I think the good thing about this situation is that the balance of power is shifting with the internet – I have seen this classic for the first time today without a TV or marketing guy in sight!

  2. Ken Ballweg says:

    Ernie Kovacs! If you don’t know this name, take the time to look up some of his shows. They (along with the Beeb’s radio based Goon Show) are the genesis of so much .alt sketch comedy. And still funny.

  3. pond says:

    All the old ‘behind the scenes at TV’ satires and parodies from those days put the SPONSOR in the driver’s seat. Whatever got the Sponsor’s boots shaking had to go; if the Sponsor was relatively liberal, the Standards and Practices got to look it over. S&P back in the 50s was a LOT more restrictive than today, at least as far as taboo subject matter. It’s important to remember this.

    There are also 2 important caveats to this ‘golden-haze’ look back.

    1. It was the dawn of a new age, and nobody really knew what would work. Conventional thinking and mindless formulas only are possible with something of a track record for past shows.

    2. The number of TV-owning households was climbing all through the 1950s. Thus ratings were going up and up. The whole darn pie was growing, so Sponsors were happier and happier. Today of course the whole darn pie is shrinking, and also being spread wider and thinner. That leads to fear and the need to ‘play it safe and take fewer chances.’

    We also have to remember that on the outlier fringe, apart from the big 4 over-the-air networks, there is a lot of good, innovative work done. HBO has done Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm; FX has done the Shield. Showtime has done Dexter, which CBS picked up as (censored) reruns, probably to fill gaps created by the WGA strike.

    I would put Larry David up against some of the top 50s comic innovators. He wouldn’t fare badly at all.

  4. Morgan Warstler says:

    1. This stuff is on TV. It is on YouTube and for $100 or so, you can watch Youtube on TV all day long.

    2. This is crap. OMG. Jon you are officially an old man. I’m going to be an old man soon enough, but allow me the smallish privilege of pointing it out. You can do the same to me later. :)

    3. Pond, it is a sad sad day when I agree with you. Ok, so fix the order of things, here’s this: Larry David and his wife aren’t really liberals. They fake it publicly. Why? So Larry can tell the most sexist racist Republican jokes, the ones everyone laughs at, and get away with it. Pull the headdress off a Muslim – sure! Take a fat black ghetto hooker to the ballpark to ride in the carpool lane? Sure! Fight the wheelchair guy? Sure! If the exact same comic was a pro-war conservative, liberal Hollywood would freak the hell out. So you are a great comic genius, you want to tell the funniest jokes – time for your wife to send a “I hate Bush” email – and quick.

  5. Renee says:

    Being a student of improve… this provides great inspiration. The argument is the natural impulse of any actor but seeing the highs and lows in their performance was fascinating when set to music! Let’s get the artists back in charge of TV and ditch those unreal reality shows!

  6. STS says:

    If brevity is the soul of wit, this sketch ain’t wit. But it is evidence that Sid Caesar enjoyed considerable artistic license.

    What I find nostalgic about this sketch is the aesthetic sensibility that made these two people feel obligated to pantomime the entire movement. This kind of respect for something as high-brow as Beethoven’s artistic integrity is pretty absent these days.

    Of course, Sid Caesar probably didn’t care about Beethoven — he just didn’t have the time, technology or skills to carve out a few key passages and punch up the timing 😉

  7. Jon Taplin says:

    Morgan- Try going to the head of FX and say you are going to produce six minute silent sketch comedy. See how long before they throw you out the door.

    I promise you I don’t want to time machine back to 1955. I love my life and can find great art like the “Raising Sand” album all over the place. I think Hugo’s notion of more homemade porch music would suit me just fine.

  8. Morgan Warstler says:

    Jon, your thing reminded me of an interview with Jerry Springer’s producer… he said, the way he produced the show was with the sound off – if it was still interesting, it went on air.

  9. Hugo says:

    Ken, most of the Kovacs material didn’t survive, archivally. So for that reason, and because of his early death, many a writer and comic and producer has felt free to lift his stuff, with nary a nod and mum’s the word. SNL, to name but one example, would’ve been stillborn without him.

    As far as diehard Kovacs fans are concerned, it’s one of the black marks against the entertainment industry.

  10. Ken Ballweg says:

    Ah, but there is a “Best of E. K.” DVD that is worth tracking down. Old Kinescope transfers that really give the feel for how raw and surreal it all was. Similar to the early (pre-monitzed) days of the interwebs when a lot of mental pasta was being tossed at the wall to see what would stick.

    If Kovacs hadn’t died early, it’s hard to say how much shape he could have given TV comedy instead of it being dominated by Caeser, Berel and Skelton. Part of the memory came from the fact that so much of Kovacs is totally visual like the sketch above.

    Damn I’m getting old. Hey you kids get off my cathode ray tube!!

  11. Hugo says:

    Or for that matter, “Hey all kids wind up your lids!”

    That’s great news about the DVD, Ken. You’ve made my week. Possibly my gorilla, too. About which you really ought to be ashamed…

  12. Hugo says:

    Hey Ken, permit me to return the favor, in an odd way. Last year there was an incessant TV ad campaign featuring Robt. Jarvik as “the Inventor of the Artificial Heart” (American for Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein”).

    Dig this, though. Jarvik doesn’t hold the priority patents. Guess who does!!!

  13. Jon Taplin says:

    Hugo- Don’t leave us hanging. Who holds the patents?

  14. P. Cross says:

    Tune in next week folks and test pattern

  15. Hugo says:

    The Ventriloquist Paul Winchell, autodidact and garage inventor extraordinaire.

    A Franklin under our noses.

Leave a Reply