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Emmy commemorative: Primetime punchline pioneers

Comic geniuses finally seen, not just heard

TV in the 1950s often existed as little more than radio with pictures: flickering video visits with stars made popular elsewhere. But certain shows and performers created programming so unique they not only made an indelible impact on the birth of a new medium, they continue as powerful influences to this day.

Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater,” “The Red Skelton Show,” “The Jack Benny Show,” “The Steve Allen Show,” “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” offered skits and routines so well written or outrageously acted they assured still-timid TV networks that here was a medium that might last.

While the main comedic theme in those early years centered on offering viewers sentimental visuals from entertainment past, the above shows took America’s new living-room toy beyond nostalgia and toward art.

If the entire ’50s TV decade had to be defined by only three names, however, they would be Lucy, Sid and Jackie, innovators whose bodies of work represent impressive shoulders upon which many of today’s performers stand.

Consider how Kramer’s entrance into Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment mirrors the unique arrival of Norton (Art Carney) into the Kramden home. The entire “Saturday Night Live” genre exists in homage to Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” debuting in 1950, also on Saturday night. And no female sitcom star hits her mark without the spirit of that big-mouth redhead hovering overhead.

” ‘I Love Lucy’ really helped establish television as a genre that could work,” says Bob Thompson, Syracuse U. professor of television and popular culture and founding director of its Center for the Study of Popular Television.

“Most other shows at that time were done live and with a very New York aesthetic, very theater-based, with guests often dropping by because they were already performing on Broadway,” Thompson explains. “By shooting ‘Lucy’ on film, moving to Hollywood, and being the first to use three cameras, it presented a more Hollywood movie aesthetic. ‘Lucy’ was a fictional narrative. The story became the focus, not individual acts.”

Indeed, adds Thompson, ” ‘I Love Lucy’s’ immediate hit with television audiences really did seal the fate of the variety show. Suddenly, the sitcom gained steam.”

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, by avoiding the cheaper kinescope, knew they were creating something meant to last, Thompson says.

“They really understood what was coming down the line. They almost predicted Nick at Nite.”

“Your Show of Shows” also upended the long-standing variety format by turning it on its ear, physically and literally, becoming a show you not only saw but savored.

” ‘Your Show’ took the improv and sketch idea and adapted it to TV,” says Tim Brooks, senior VP of research at Lifetime Television and co-author of “The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present.”

While Milton Berle and others worked in a broad, vaudeville tradition, ” ‘Your Show of Shows’ took characterizations up close, made them intimate, and not something you’d see on stage or at the movies,” Brooks explains. “While movies are big and spectacular, the best television is right up close, sitting on your lap. ‘Your Show of Shows’ did that while also adding a heavy dose of satire.”

“Sid Caesar really had an amazing improvisational style and range,” says Tom Hill, VP/creative director, TV Land, a cable home for classic small-screen fare. “He became all those characters, but he also played them in a way that was also more subtle. You really had to pay attention.”

Jackie Gleason, on the other hand, through his own form of Darwinian adaptation, moved beyond his Glee Girls and song and dance into a 39-episode creation known as “The Honeymooners.”

“It was so meticulously perfect,” Thompson says, “it changed American comedy for generations. With only one season’s worth of episodes to rerun, by the 1960s, every kid by the age of 18 had seen them over and over.

“Today, it’s a college of American comedy whose alumni include ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Mad About You’ and ‘The Flintstones.’ “

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