KPBS AIRDATE: November 20, 1996
It really was the show of shows, a comic jewel set in the golden age of television. Sid Caesar’s comedy hour, called “Your Show of Shows,” was smart, witty, silly, irreverent, iconoclastic and at times even controversial. But above all, it was funny. And why not? The writers of that program went on to shape the face of comedy on TV, onscreen and onstage. The comic braintrust that gathered in one little room every week were clown princes like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon.
About a month ago, these graying, balding eminences reassembled to pay tribute to that genius nutcase who brought them all together in the first place, Sid Caesar. That gathering might have served as the script for Neil Simon’s latest play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” There, captured on film by PBS, were these funnymen, forty years after the fact, reliving every hilarious moment, still clamoring for the spotlight, stepping on each other’s lines to get to the quickest quip, the ultimate zinger. It was a zany, rapid-fire, comic competition that had no winners and certainly no losers. It was a howl, and so is Simon’s play about the good old days, when these guys were young and proud, hungry but even then, comic “prima madonnas.” Then, as now, the soft-spoken Simon could barely get a word in edgewise.
But he gets the last laugh in “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” It’s Simon at his absolute best — a play with nonstop one-liners that, for once, don’t interfere with the plot because they are the plot. But, there actually is a story-line.
It’s 1953, and Max Prince, a thinly veiled Sid Caesar, complete with pills and paranoia, is fighting for his life at CBS. The network wants to cut the show down from 90 minutes to 60, because it’s “too smart” and “too sophisticated.” ‘Beat the Clock’ is banging at the network gates.
In their reunion banter last month, these aging gag-guys agreed that, years ago, they were writing for a much more urbane audience. It was the well-heeled intelligentsia who first invested in the new invention. But now, there’s at least one boxy babysitter in every American household, and the jokes, like the laughs, are canned.
Anyway, the play is a very funny re-creation of the writing of the show, or, more aptly, the stalling of the writing of the show. And North Coast Repertory Theatre has mounted a very effective production. They could use a bonafide New York dialect coach, but other than that, the performances are excellent. It’s a real ensemble piece, with everyone getting a turn at eliciting a barrage of belly-laughs.
Simon could have used a script-doctor like himself to sharpen up the second act, and to make it as funny as the first. But director Patricia Elmore Costa has done everything possible to keep the pace at an appropriately breakneck speed. The shtick flies fast and furious. And at the center of the maelstrom, Matthew Reidy has just the right eccentric nuttiness to capture Caesar’s manic devotion to his writers and his show.
For anyone who loves one-liners, this play is a must-see. Funny is as funny does.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1996 Patté Productions Inc.