“Stop me if you’ve heard this one.…” Decades before YouTube videos, Netflix queues and the world of “watch instantly,” Americans looked only to their TV sets for an hour of entertainment that might provide a little something for everyone. More often than not, this came in the form of the variety show—an extravaganza of comedy sketches, songs, interviews, stunts and witty repartee, featuring an array of entertainers as versatile as the shows themselves.
When Sid Caesar made a career switch from saxophonist to comedian in the late 1940s, Milton Berle was well on his way. As his announcer claimed, Berle was the biggest name in television. It was on the Milton Berle show, officially known as Texaco Star Theater, that Caesar made his TV debut in 1949. By the time The Buick Berle Show went on the air the following year, Caesar was a recurring guest star.
Caesar had been a longtime admirer of Mr. Television, as Berle came to be called. In his autobiography, Caesar’s Hours (2005), he credits Berle with bringing vaudeville to television: “Milton was crucial to the development of our format because he showed the networks that a new show could be done every week. He also demonstrated that audiences were willing to tune in to the same performers every week in the variety context.”
Later in life, Berle and Caesar appeared together in the star-studded screwball adventure farce It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), an ensemble piece about a group of strangers trying to track down a suitcase full of money. The film also features Carl Reiner, Caesar’s longtime “second banana.”
On the late teens and early 1920s vaudeville circuit, Milton Berle met Isabelle Donohue—better known as Belle Montrose—a small, snappy vaudevillian whose dippy stage persona belied her exacting comedic style and the years she had spent honing her stagecraft. Montrose shared an act with her husband, straight man Carroll Abler, who used the stage name Billy Allen. (Their act, in which Montrose would reply to Allen’s seemingly banal setups with deadpan malapropisms, is considered a precursor to the comedy duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen.) Berle often shared the bill with Montrose and Allen, and they became his mentors; he later referred to Montrose as the “funniest woman in vaudeville.” While Montrose and Allen were onstage, Berle would look after their young son, Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen, better known as Steve Allen. In later years Berle often joked that Allen owed him babysitting fees.
As host of multiple TV variety shows in the 1950s and ’60s, including The Steve Allen Show and The Tonight Show, Allen carried the vaudeville torch, building his reputation on a knack for ad-libbing with live audiences and guests—especially beloved ones like his old friend Uncle Miltie.
Steve Allen’s career spiked when NBC offered him a late-night talk-show spot to compete with CBS’s Ed Sullivan Show. Allen conceived most of the program’s elements, including an opening monologue, deskbound celebrity chats, intermittent comedy sketches, visits with exotic animals and man-on-the-street interviews. Allen’s Question Man—the archetype for Johnny Carson’s later psychic character, Carnac the Magnificent—opened envelopes containing “answers,” presolicited from the audience, and invented the questions. According to Allen, President John F. Kennedy’s favorite joke came from a Question Man routine. Answer: “Chicken Teriyaki.” Question: “What’s the name of the oldest living kamikaze pilot?”
When Jay Leno inherited The Tonight Show from Carson, he turned Allen’s man-on-the-street interviews into the popular “Jay Walking” segment, wherein Leno asks simple questions of Angelenos and televises their ridiculous responses. Another of Leno’s “signature” bits, in which he reads hilariously ill-worded headlines, was born on an episode of Allen’s Tonight Show: When Allen ran out of material with broadcast time to spare, he thought quickly, grabbed an issue of The New York Times and began reading aloud the letters to the editor, ad-libbing jokes as he went. The routine was a hit, and it became a regular part of the show.
Woody Allen landed a job writing for The Colgate Variety Hour at the tender age of 19, and by the time he was 21 he was writing for the hugely popular Caesar’s Hour alongside some of the comedy greats of the 1950s. Allen later recalled that his life at the time was filled with “little stints doing monologues on The Tonight Show with various hosts I can’t remember, and writing material for various nightclub comics you’ve never heard of.” Steve Allen was one of the first people to recognize Woody’s genius. Allen booked Woody as stand-up talent during the second incarnation of The Steve Allen Show (also known as the Westinghouse series), which inspired numerous comedians, including David Letterman, Steve Martin and Harry Shearer.
Woody Allen’s stint on the Westinghouse series was a success, and he was soon a regular guest on all the great variety shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson as host. “Woody is one of the few people who could do set routines and make it look like stream of consciousness,” Carson once said. “His selection of words and his timing are part of his genius.”
Writing for Sid Caesar, Woody Allen rubbed elbows with comedian Mel Brooks, playwright Neil Simon and actor and filmmaker Carl Reiner. This writing team worked at a string of summer resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains, colloquially called the Jewish Alps or the Borscht Belt (the clientele was mostly nice Jewish families). From the 1920s to the 1960s these resorts were an important meeting place for as-seen-on-TV comedians and up-and-comers alike. Some familiar quips heard on the Borscht Belt: “I spent a year in that town, one Sunday” (George Burns) and—wait for it—“Take my wife. Please!” (Henny Youngman).
According to Allen, “All these comedians were very, very formula. They’d all come out in a tuxedo, and they would say, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’ and there was no sincerity to any of it.… They would do golf jokes because the president played golf.” But working on Caesar’s Hour was different because it allowed Allen to write beyond the traditional set-’em-up, knock-’em-down one-liners. As he said of his former boss, “For Sid, you didn’t write jokes so much, you wrote…funny, real situations. They weren’t jokes in the traditional sense, because he was not the conventional teller of one-liners.”