TV pioneers give it one more go
'Pioneers of Primetime' will air Nov. 9 on PBS.
By LYNN SMITH
LOS ANGELES TIMES
HOLLYWOOD -- Some of the legendary vaudeville veterans who pioneered television comedy came to a darkened stage at the Beverly Hilton this week, bursting with memories of the old days and unable to resist performing. Call it a lifetime habit.
"I was in show business at 3," said Rose Marie Mazetta ("The Dick Van Dyke Show"). "Before that, I didn't do too much, just hanging around the house."
Rose Marie, 81, who showed up with a bow in her hair, and Sid Caesar, 82, who wore fuzzy slippers, appear in "Pioneers of Primetime," a PBS special that will air Nov. 9 and was previewed at the Television Critics Association summer meeting. But panelists Carl Reiner, 83, Mickey Rooney, 84, and especially Red Buttons, 86, also had plenty to contribute, including an impromptu chorus of "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy."
When Rooney made the somewhat touchy observation that Hollywood was founded by Jews, Buttons piped up, "Yes! I remember you in Andy Hardy and the Hassidic Housewife."
And when Rooney said, "I'm not here to talk about myself," Buttons retorted, "Yes you are." After lavish praise of Lucille Ball, Buttons chimed in, "I never liked her," his head on his fingers and legs crossed, Jack Benny style.
Buttons and Rooney go back to World War II, when they served in the same unit. But even the war was a ripe subject for comedy. "One day he saved our entire outfit," Buttons said. "He killed a cook."
Rooney was aghast when Reiner claimed Bob Hope shouldn't be considered a pioneer of television comedy. (Hope is featured in the special, along with Steve Allen, Buddy Ebsen, Red Skelton, Sammy Davis Jr. and Milton Berle.) "Are you knocking Bob Hope?" he asked. Reiner replied that although Hope was a brilliant performer on radio and film, he never learned his lines and had to refer to cards, over other performers' objections.
Caesar said the live performers on his "Your Show of Shows" had to learn not only their own lines but the others' as well, in case they forgot them. He preferred live TV, he said, because "when you're live, you're in charge."
When television first arrived in the late 1940s, "there was nothing on, unless you count bowling and wrestling," according to Caesar. Still, its popularity frightened film executives, Reiner said. He recalled that his brother, who managed a Bronx movie theater, put a television in the lobby on Saturday nights so patrons could come to the movies and still catch Caesar's show.
One memorable sketch from that show called "This Is Your Life" was played at the funeral recently of one of its stars, Howard Morris. "In the funeral home, I never heard laughter like that in my life," said Reiner, also a co-star on the show. He recalled first watching the episode in a kinescope in a theater in the 1970s: "I heard a woman shrieking with laughter. Then I realized that woman was me."
Modestly waving off the others' high praise and deference, a frail-looking Caesar recalled how much he owed to his writers, who included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon. "It's like sitting and holding a team of wild horses, and you can tell them where to go and they did it."
The panel spent little time bemoaning the loss of the old days but did note that although comedy clubs offered up-and-comers the opportunity to hone their joke-telling skills, there was little training ground these days for sketch comedy. It was always the audience that told him whether or not his material was funny, Caesar said.
Caesar also observed with some sadness the effect of the remote control on viewers' patience. "It changed the timing of the whole world," he said. "If it doesn't explode in three seconds, click, click, click," he said. "Children need time to grow up."
One TV critic asked why the special seemed so short. Producer Steve Boettcher said he adopted the slogan of the old vaudeville performers: "Get on, get off, and leave them wanting more."