AFS Brings Back Classics with 'History of Television' Series

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You know when someone asks if you are familiar with a certain actor, and you recognize the name but can't quite place the face? That was my first impression of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. I of course recognized Caesar from a few films, but my knowledge of the duet's history was lacking.

This is also how I approached the Austin Film Society's "History of Television" series last night: familiar, but ready to learn more. This month's screening focused on the 1950-54 television show Your Show of Shows, starring Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Thrill Of It All) and Howard Morris (The Andy Griffith Show, Splash).  

When I walked into the screening room, I was surprised to discover I was one of the younger attendees there. Even though I was not entirely familiar with the actors, I'd heard of the show and knew others who were familiar as well. Nonetheless, the house was packed with folks ready to laugh.

The humor began not when the show started though, but just before: AFS programmer Lars Nilsen was playing a Sid Caesar interview pre-show, but several latecomers thought it was the screenings itself. Needless to say, a large amount of shushing and calling out "Be quiet!" erupted from the crowd before the announcement that the show had not started yet.

Nilsen shared a bit of history on the show with us, telling us how he chose this show for its pre-sitcom quality, becoming what he believed to be the precursor for shows like Saturday Night Live. The screening was in four parts, each from a selection of the show itself and related programs. Nilsen walked us through each one, briefing us on where the ideas came from and how they were cast. He didn't need to say much, though, for each segment spoke for itself.

I can't remember the last time I heard an audience literally roaring with laughter. The jokes in the show weren't anything astounding -- quite simple, actually -- but Caesar and Coca's performances were so believable and spot on. Segments included the well-known "Bavarian Clock" routine, as well as Nilsen's favorite: Caesar's infamous spoof on the show This Is Your Life.

It was obvious after the show that Nilsen (and the rest of the audience) were vibrating out of the room. The mood went up a few notches, and people were curious about upcoming screenings.

Nilsen said he was excited that the group was just as into it as he was: "When I came on board in April, I knew I wanted to create a series that focused on television, and watching television with other people.  Film and TV are rapidly progressing and becoming more episodic, so I wanted people to see where some of those ideas and humor originated."

When I asked him how long he anticipated the series to run, he laughed and said, "Well, I started a series at the Alamo Drafthouse and haven't been asked to put a cap on it yet. It's been running for 12 years now, so I have high hopes with this one."

The History of Television series runs once a month, and Nilsen let me know that upcoming programs will include The Rockford Files and The Ernie Kovacs Show -- these haven't been posted yet, so keep checking the AFS website for more details. It is a free series that screens in the AFS Screening Room, open to both members and the public.  So stay tuned for more, and we'll return after this commercial break …

[Photo: Your Show of Shows promotional still, featuring Coca and Caesar performing one of their famous "Pantomime" routines.]