This film boasts high-rise hilarity

Comedian: Nathan Lane is brilliant in `Laughter on the 23rd Floor,' but one factual inaccuracy has to be exposed.

May 26, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Showtime is promoting "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" by saying, "You can't get a ticket to see Nathan Lane on Broadway, but you can see him on Showtime."

The Broadway reference is to Lane's starring role in Mel Brooks' "The Producers," the hottest ticket in the theater world these days. But that's not the only reason to focus the promotion on Lane; his performance in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" is spectacular. Even if you don't know anything about comedian Sid Caesar and his seminal "Your Show of Shows" - the live NBC program in the early 1950s on which this made-for-cable movie is based - thanks to Lane's performance, you will still understand the man and the way in which network television almost killed him.

As an added treat, Showtime is also premiering an 80-minute documentary, "Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy," at 9:45 tonight after "Laughter." The companion piece is surprisingly in-depth in terms of its interviews with Caesar and members of the incredible army of talent with which he surrounded himself: Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbert.

You'll not only hear the stories about their days and nights backstage at "Your Show of Shows" and its successor, "Caesar's Hour," you'll also hear Caesar talking about the addictions he developed to uppers, downers and alcohol during his run as one of America's favorite TV stars. Though seriously lacking in cultural analysis, the interviews speak truths that TV rarely tells about itself.

"Laughter on the 23rd Floor," Neil Simon's thinly veiled account of life with Caesar, also speaks some large truths rarely told on TV. The largest involves the tremendous promise that network television held in 1949 when "Your Show of Shows" debuted, and the way in which so much of it was betrayed by pandering to Madison Avenue.

The film, based on Simon's play of the same name, opens in 1954 with Max Prince (the fictionalized Caesar played by Lane) on the ropes. His show is starting to slip in the ratings, multiple addictions are taking their toll, and the network is trying to take away creative control.

While Simon does a good job of getting us instantly inside Prince's world, the script assumes a lot. For instance, viewers who don't know Caesar's history might be a little confused by one meeting in the film in which network executives tell Prince they want him to stop doing parodies of foreign films in his show.(Some background: Ownership of TV sets was spreading beyond the big cities, and the network boys thought people in, say, Wisconsin, wouldn't know what Caesar and second banana, Reiner, were doing when when they parodied "The Bicycle Thief." In fact, you didn't need to know anything about the Italian film to laugh at the insane doubletalk between Reiner and Caesar. This was the kind of network dumbing-down that drove Caesar into depression and rage.)

But any confusion caused by the script is more than made up for by Lane's performance. You might not know all the details of Caesar's battles with NBC, but you'll absolutely understand how the artist feels when art loses out to commerce as you watch Prince rushing to the doctor thinking he's having a heart attack after one of his fights with the network. Lane is an absolute over-the-top howl as he runs around the doctor's office in his underwear, screaming that a polka-playing accordionist named Lawrence Welk is beating him in the Saturday night ratings race, and the resulting stress is going to make his heart explode.

For all the truth in "Laughter," there is one lie, and it needs to be exposed: Simon sets up an ethnic dichotomy to drive the comedy. On one side are Prince and almost all of his writers and stars who are Jewish. This is historically accurate.

But Simon goes out of his way to paint the network's owner (the chief villain in "Laughter") and his lieutenants, as super-WASPs, or white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. This is not the way it was.

In 1954, the owner of NBC was David Sarnoff, a Jewish immigrant. He and William Paley, the Jewish founder of CBS, dominated the television world. Yes, they generally hired WASPs to fill the public roles of top management, but Sarnoff and Paley are the guys who called the shots and betrayed the medium in so many ways.

It's wrong for us to ignore historical truths or, worse, to blame another ethnic group, as Simon does - even in a film as funny as this.

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