‘Your Show of Shows’ a Classic Reminder of Television’s Potential

A Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco signed photo from Your Show of Shows went to auction in February 2003.

By Jim O’Neal

In the fall of 1949, inside a room on the 23rd floor of NBC’s Manhattan headquarters, an ensemble of comedy writers were preparing to give Americans a reason to stay home on Saturday nights, glued to their 10-inch televisions. Soon, their efforts would spread fear down Broadway, just as Hollywood was beginning to worry about the effects of television on box-office receipts.

But this seemed different. The sophisticated, rowdy and mainly 20-something staff was about to use the relatively new medium of television to create stay-at-home laughter that surpassed everything that came before. From its premiere on Feb. 25, 1950, the manic energy of Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris, turned Saturday nights into a showcase for pure comedic genius.

Aside from launching legendary careers for Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart, the 90-minute revue provided a beacon of hope and direction to a medium that needed both.

It had started when NBC’s television programming chief, Pat Weaver, pitched Your Show of Shows in 1949 to Max Liebman, a veteran producer. Since television’s debut in 1946, networks attracted advertisers by allowing sponsors to buy entire timeslots and produce their own shows. A prime example was the Texaco Star Theater featuring Milton Berle.

Weaver had an entirely different concept. His network would air its own shows and sell “spots” of airtime to multiple companies. Liebman had been the first to pair Caesar and Coca when he directed a sponsor-driven program, the Admiral Broadway Revue, and he agreed to produce this new NBC-owned show. He quickly decided to reunite Caesar and Coca and then form the writing team around them.

A dream team as it turned out. Sid Caesar described it best: “This writing staff was pure magic. We were all a little bit crazy, but it somehow produced terrific material.” All that talent converged in the smoke-filled “writers’ room.” It was where the 21-year-old Mel Brooks would punctuate his chronic lateness by screaming, “Lindy has landed!” – much to the open anger of the demanding Sid Caesar.

Lucille Kallen, the lone female writer, is quoted as saying the team literally lived Your Show of Shows, working seven days a week, 39 weeks a year from that office … and loving every minute.

In what would later be known as television’s Golden Age, the incomparable staff created a gallery of memorable sketches, brought to life by Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. There were movie parodies like From Here to Obscurity, Mel Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man, and the extraordinary chemistry between Coca and Caesar, displayed in the saga of Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper’s floundering marriage. And, of course, Caesar’s portrayal of the “Professor.”

The show was so popular that Broadway movie and theater owners, after experiencing a dramatic box-office decline, pleaded with NBC executives to move the TV show to midweek. Even critics loved it. The notoriously harsh Larry Wolters of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Sid Caesar doesn’t steal jokes, he doesn’t borrow ideas or material. A gag is as useless to him as a fresh situation to Milton Berle.” Alfred Hitchcock said, “The young Mr. Caesar best approaches the great Chaplin of the early years.”

What effect did the show, running over five years, have on television? Consider this: When it debuted in 1950, there were 4 million sets in American households. When the final curtain fell on the Hickenloopers and company, over half of the nation’s 48 million homes had a television.

Coincidence? Perhaps, but it’s also a reminder of what television at its very best could be … before the “vast wasteland” encroached.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

National Debt on Automatic Pilot to More Growth

A letter by President George W. Bush, signed and dated July 4, 2001, sold for $16,730 at an April 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In May 2001 – just 126 days after President George W. Bush took office – Congress passed his massive tax proposal. The Bush tax cuts had been reduced to $1.3 trillion from the $1.65 trillion submitted, but it was still a significant achievement from any historical perspective. It had taken Ronald Reagan two months longer to win approval of his tax cut and that was 20 years earlier.

George W. Bush

Bush was characteristically enthusiastic about this, but it had come with a serious loss in political capital. Senator James Jeffords, a moderate from Vermont, announced his withdrawal from the Republican Party, tipping control of the Senate to the Democrats, the first time in history that had occurred as the result of a senator switching parties. In this instance, it was from Republican to Independent, but the practical effect was the same. Several months later (after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon), there was a loud chorus of calls to reverse the tax cuts to pay for higher anticipated spending.

Bush had a counter-proposal: Cut taxes even more!

Fiscal conservatives were worried that there would be the normal increase in the size and power of the federal government, lamenting that this was a constant instinctive companion of hot wars. James Madison’s warning that “A crisis is the rallying cry of the tyrant” was cited against centralization that would foster liberal ideas about the role of government and even more dependency on the federal system.

Ex-President Bill Clinton chimed in to say that he regretted not using the budget surplus (really only a forecast) to pay off the Social Security trust fund deficit. Neither he nor his former vice president had dispelled the myth about a “lock box” or explained the federal building in Virginia that had been built exclusively to hold government IOUs to Social Security. In reality, they were simply worthless pieces of scrip, stored in unlocked filing cabinets. The only changes that had ever occurred with Social Security funds were whether they were included in a “unified budget” or not. They had never been kept separate from other revenues the federal government received.

But this was Washington, D.C., where, short of a revolution or civil war, change comes in small increments. Past differences, like family arguments, linger in the air like the dust that descends from the attic. All of the huge surpluses totally disappeared with the simple change in the forecast and have never been discussed since.

Back at the Treasury Department of 15th Street, a statue to Alexander Hamilton commemorates the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, a fitting honor to the man who created our fiscal foundation. But on the other side stands Albert Gallatin, President Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, who struggled to pay off Hamilton’s debts and shrink the bloated bureaucracy he built.

Hamilton also fared better than his onetime friend and foe, James Madison. The “Father of the Constitution” had no statue, no monument, no lasting tribute until 1981, when the new wing of the Library of Congress was named for him. This was a drought that was only matched by John Adams, the Revolutionary War hero and ardent nationalist. It was only after a laudatory biography by David McCulloch in 2001 that Congress commissioned a memorial to the nation’s second president.

Since the Bush tax cut and the new forecast, the national debt has ballooned to $20 trillion as 9/11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial meltdown produced a steady stream of budget deficits in both the Bush and Barack Obama administrations. The Donald Trump administration is poised to approve tax reform, amid arguments on the stimulative effect on the economy and who will benefit. In typical Washington fashion, there is no discussion over the fact that the national debt is inexorably on automatic pilot to $25 trillion, irrespective of tax reform. But this is Washington, where your money (and all they can borrow) is spent almost with no effort.

“Just charge it.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

News Reporting Has Come a Long Way, but Kinks Remain

A sketch of Edward R. Murrow, signed, by artist Johnny Raitt is among six sketches of famous newscasters that went to auction in July 2010.

By Jim O’Neal

In the past year, several prominent newspapers and TV networks have corrected or retracted provocative political stories that were factually wrong. Critics are prone to blame the insatiable appetite to feed the 24/7 news-cycle beast and, increasingly, a news organization’s rush to be first. This has been compounded by the steady transition from costly field correspondents to much-less expensive panelists sitting around a table in the TV studio offering personal opinions.

Most of these discussions start with “I think” or “In my opinion,” which by definition blurs facts with subjective comments. Unbiased, factual reporting is mixed into a lethal cocktail that blurs reality and has inexorably led to an environment where charges of “fake news” are routine. Then social media further distort issues and reality. People can now easily shop for any “facts” on TV or the internet that support their opinions. However, the “need for speed” is not a recent phenomenon.

Triggered by the oldest of journalism’s preoccupations – the desire to be first with a dramatic story – Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer and their network, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), made broadcast journalism history on March 13, 1938. What set the stage was CBS founder and CEO William S. Paley’s realization that his radio network had just been soundly beaten again by the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and their reporter “Ubiquitous Max” Jordan, with his eyewitness account of Austria’s fall.

Worse, the fault was Paley’s. Until Jordan’s story and its effect on America, Paley had supported news director Paul White’s decision not to use network employees for hard-news reporting. To their increasing chagrin, men like Murrow and Shirer were forced to cover truly soft stories like concerts instead of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich’s actions and intentions. Paley had had enough. He asked White to call Shirer and tell him, “We want a European roundup tonight.” The broadcast would cover the European reaction to the Nazis’ Austrian takeover. The players would include Shirer in London with a member of Parliament; Murrow in Vienna; and American newspaper correspondents in Paris, Berlin and Rome.

They had eight hours to put together what had never been done before. As Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson describe in their book The Murrow Boys: “Never mind that it was five o’clock, London time, on a Sunday afternoon, which meant that all offices were closed and that all technicians and correspondents and members of Parliament they would need were out of town, off in the country or otherwise unreachable. Never mind the seemingly insuperable technical problems of arranging the lines and transmitters, of ensuring the necessity of split-second timing. Never mind any of that. That was what being a foreign correspondent was all about. It was part of the code of the brotherhood. When the bastards asked if you could do something impossible, the only acceptable answer was yes. Shirer reached for the phone and called Murrow in Vienna.”

Beginning at 8 p.m., with announcer Robert Trout’s words, “We take you now to London,” Murrow, Shirer and their comrades proved radio was not only able to report news as it occurred but also able to put it into context, to link it with news from elsewhere – and do it with unprecedented speed and immediacy. They set in motion with that 30-minute broadcast in March 1938 a chain of events that would lead, in only one year, to radio’s emergence as America’s chief news medium and to the beginning of CBS’s decades-long dominance of broadcast journalism. The broadcasts by Murrow and his team during the London blitz and over the entire course of the war set the standard for broadcast reporting style and eloquence.

We have come a long way since then, but it’s not clear to me if we’ve made any progress.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].