TERRY GROSS, HOST:
When it comes to the home video release of TV shows, most of the attention goes to the newest seasons of the newest shows, but our TV critic David Bianculli says there's gold to be found in the first-time DVD releases of a couple of older TV programs. One is a 1970 edition of the "David Susskind Show" and the other is an onstage reunion, in 1996, of Sid Caesar and his legendary writers.
DAVID BIANCULLI: The two DVDs I want to talk about today are hilarious, but they aren't sitcoms. They're talk shows - well, one's a talk show, and one's a filmed seminar. But they're both fascinating examples of a specific pop-culture moment frozen in time. And they're something else as well, both are highly entertaining real-time examples of talk-show Darwinism.
Both shows feature a large, unwieldy guest roster, all of the guests competing for attention at the same time - and by the time the programs are over, the winners are apparent. The first DVD, from S'more Entertainment, is a 1970 installment of the "David Susskind Show," a syndicated talk show. The topic of this particular program, never before released on home video, was "How to Be a Jewish Son."
And the guests fielding questions from Susskind included actor George Segal, who had just come out with the movie "Where's Poppa?"; writer Dan Greenburg, author of the then-recent best-seller "How to Be a Jewish Mother"; and Jewish entrepreneurs from the fashion and fast-food industries.
But the breakaway stars, the guests who ended up running away with the show and taking it over almost completely, were David Steinberg and Mel Brooks. Steinberg had just played an unintentional part in the firing of the Smothers Brothers on CBS, and Mel Brooks had mounted the original movie version of "The Producers."
No matter the topic, these two were hot. And even when one of them was asked a question by Susskind, the other was just as likely to respond. And the responses, for the time, are almost shockingly candid. Here's Steinberg, the son of a rabbi, and at the time very much a single young man, answering one of the host's questions about dating outside his faith. But when Susskind asks Steinberg a follow-up question, the reply comes from Mel Brooks instead.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DAVID SUSSKIND SHOW")
DAVID STEINBERG: Well, it's hard to bring a gentile girl home to a Jewish family. What you do is you bring home a black girl first.
DAVID SUSSKIND: By way of breaking the ice.
STEINBERG: Then you bring home the gentile girl and then you're in. Then they say, oh, come on in. Hiya. Would you like something to eat?
They say Mary Smith, sit down. See, that's "CH" like in "Chanukah."
SUSSKIND: Seriously, have you brought - have you brought gentile ladies into your household?
STEINBERG: No. I...
SUSSKIND: Your father's being a rabbi--
MEL BROOKS: Do you know, in a Jewish religion if you're going with a Jewish girl, if you're just engaged to her and you break off you still pay alimony?
Did you know that? I bet you didn't know that.
SUSSKIND: No, I didn't. I didn't know that.
BROOKS: Legal. That's legal. Sure. Three kisses and mm-hmm, alimony.
BROOKS: It's not a lot but there is a token, a token, like 80 percent of your income.
SUSSKIND: In your bachelorhood you must've paid a lot of alimony.
BROOKS: Oh, in my bachelorhood, did I pay alimony. There was a girl in Scranton, I gotta tell you...
BIANCULLI: The David Susskind Show was televised for 28 years, and "How to Be a Jewish Son" was its most famous, and most requested, installment. And now it's here. The other DVD is a reunion of the writers who had worked with Sid Caesar, either on 1949's "Admiral Broadway Revue" or his two 1950s TV classics, "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour."
There are no clips from those shows on this DVD. What there is, though, is priceless. Unlike an edited version shown years ago on public TV, this is the entire two-hour seminar, in which 10 very smart men sit onstage in folded chairs and tell their stories while telling jokes at the same time.
What a panel. Lucille Kallen, who wrote for "Your Show of Shows," isn't there. Neither is Woody Allen, who wrote for some of Caesar's TV specials. But my, look who is: Not only Sid Caesar and his writing co-star Carl Reiner, but writers Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Larry Gelbart, good old Mel Brooks again, and others whose names are less familiar, but whose one-liners here are just as funny.
And that's what I love most about this freewheeling two-hour discussion. It's comedy at its most democratic, just as in a real TV writers' room. It doesn't matter who offers up the best joke, funny wins, and all the others are smart enough to know funny when they hear it, and laugh generously when it arrives.
Here's a perfect example. Sid Caesar is describing the weekly budget for "Your Show of Shows" when one of the less famous veteran writers, Sheldon Keller, throws in an ad lib that delights everyone, including Caesar.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "CAESAR'S WRITERS")
SID CAESAR: The first "Show of Shows" cost 60 - an hour and a half, an hour and a half. Everything - all the writers, all the yada, yada, yada. Everything cost $64,000 a week for the entire show.
SHELDON KELLER: I saw the same show in K-Mart for 28,000.
BIANCULLI: And right after that, someone else scores too. It's Mel Brooks, who clearly thrives in these highly competitive joke-filled environments.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "CAESAR'S WRITERS")
BROOKS: I belong to Sid. I didn't belong to the show, I didn't belong to Max Liebman.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's right.
BROOKS: I belonged to Sid.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You still do, don't you?
BROOKS: Yeah. And Sid could call me night or day and sometimes he'd wake me at 3:30 in the morning. He'd say Mel, Sid. Need a joke. OK. What is it? Carrots. OK, carrots. Oh, I ate so many carrots I couldn't sleep. He said why not? I could see through my eyelids.
OK. Carrot. Joke. Carrot.
BIANCULLI: That's the beauty, and the equality, of comedy. No matter who comes up with the joke, funny is funny. And so are "How to Be a Jewish Son" and "Caesar's Writers."
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TVWorthWatching.com. He reviewed 2 new DVDs: "Caesar's Writers" which was recorded in 1996 by the Writers Guild West, and "How to Be a Jewish Son," a 1970 episode of "The David Susskind Show."