Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca are sitting close together in a small dressing room backstage at the Westwood Playhouse--together again.
As it happens, "Together Again" is the title of the touring, nostalgic comedy revue in which the two TV legends will appear at the Playhouse starting Friday night, following a preview performance this evening. The production, based mainly on sketches from their classic 1950s NBC series, "Your Show of Shows," runs through Oct. 13.
Is there new material?
"Well," says Caesar, "there's a pantomime sketch. We do a man and wife arguing to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony."
Not exactly something you'd find on TV in the era of "Married . . . With Children."
It is 42 years since Caesar, now 69, and Coca, 82--both still extraordinarily vital--first performed together on the TV series "Admiral Broadway Revue," which led to "Your Show of Shows."
And, says Coca, "It's absolutely weird. Two people couldn't be less alike than Sid and myself. But we kind of know what the other one's going to do. We pick up each other's vibes."
As they sat there earlier this week, bantering and parrying with sharp comedy thrusts, nothing was more astonishing than watching the gamin-like, pixieish and spirited Coca still holding her own with the forceful, brilliantly quick comedy mind of Caesar. It was the same as 40 years ago, when her raised eyebrow and slight sneer told the TV audience that she was a match for anybody.
Both performers seemed pleased that this special relationship was still intact, and they smiled appreciatively at each other as they explained what material was selected from "Your Show of Shows," and why.
"There are certain things that work on television and certain things that work on the stage," said Caesar. "For the stage, it has to be something where you bring the eye to it instead of the camera. Also, we're constrained by the fact that we're only three people (including actor Lee Delano). And we're not using any scenery or huge costumes. It's very economical because it has to be.
"We do a satire of an Italian movie, 'The Bicycle Thief.' And we do 'At the Movies,' which works very well without the cameras. It works as one piece. Our comedy is based on things that happen to people--like in a movie theater, when you sit down and the whole theater is empty and somebody's got to sit right next to you. They've got 1,500 seats in the theater, and the person sits next to you. That's what we do--things you can recognize."
Then, says Caesar, there are the "cliche" sequences: "All the cliches people say. You know--a stitch in time saves a dog. Like the people who meet each other, and they don't know what to talk about, so they talk about the weather: 'It certainly is going to rain. Yes, it certainly is going to rain.' "
Coca: "Sometimes they don't recognize each other, so they fool around trying to find out who the other person is. We've done a lot of cliches in different situations: 'Isn't it a small world?' . . . It never rains but it pours.' "
Perhaps the most famous sketch from "Your Show of Shows" was the takeoff on the TV series "This Is Your Life," in which unsuspecting individuals found themselves being honored before a national audience, with old acquaintances and relatives turning up as surprise guests. But it's not in "Together Again."
"You can't do that sketch on stage," said Caesar.
Oh yes you can, said Coca.
Caesar: "There are too many people in it. You don't have the facilities. Also, it's a wide thing that has to be picked up by the camera."
Coca: "I think that sketch could work like gangbusters in the theater. Well, we disagree. Usually we never disagree."
Caesar: "I tried it on the stage once."
Coca: "It wasn't the right cast. With the right actors doing it with you. . . ."
Coca: "I think it's the funniest sketch I ever saw."
Do the two stars think that audiences respond to different kinds of comedy nowadays?
"Oh, of course," Caesar says. "Comedy now is more explicit. You can say more things and talk about more subjects than we could. The shock value that is in comedy today we don't use, because I just can't say those words on the stage. I just can't say it. I know Imogene can't say it."
"Oh, I don't know," Coca says slyly.
Laughter all around.
"Of course not," Coca says. "I was just kidding."
"It hasn't affected our comedy because our comedy is based on human things you can recognize," says Caesar.
"I think the material is going awfully well," Coca adds. "It doesn't get quite so dated as material that's on topical things or a certain craze. We never did that. We did marital sketches based on a lot of arguments that husbands and wives have had. And we play them honestly."
As for their refusal to use four-letter words, Coca says:
"The audience will take them from certain people. I think they'd be terribly shocked if either one of us said it."
Caesar: "There are certain things in life I cannot do because I don't want to do them. I'm not putting that kind of comedy down, because there's room for every kind of comedy today. The audience is much more diverse than when we were on TV.
"But I think that using that language demeans the language and demeans the culture. Because if you can say those words haphazardly, what do you say when you're really mad? What do you say when you're furious? That's when you use that kind of language. And in private, if you want to. But in public to do that, I just can't.
"To me, it's a crutch. Why not elevate the audience? Why not elevate yourself? It's not only sophisticated, it shows a little education. If somebody uses that kind of language, you don't think much of that person--subconsciously you don't.
"I'm not a prude. If I go to see a play and it's about the Marines having lunch, if a guy says, 'Hey, you wanna pass the gosh-darn butter,' that's out of place. It's got to use the real word, and I'll accept that because it's the truth, it's real."
After all these years, what do Caesar and Coca find in each other that really lasts?
"You never look a gift horse in the mouth," Caesar says. "Why try to analyze it? Everything is overanalyzed today. That's why they have all these entertainment programs," he adds, launching into one of his patented rapid-fire improvisations skewering news stories on these shows:
"This actress is not married but she's going to marry him after their 19th child. After the 14th child, she was going to marry him but they figured it wasn't going to work, so they had another five children just to see if it would work. And now if another 10 children come, 'We may have to start to think about getting married. But I don't know--if you have that much of a closeness after 19 children, do you think it's going to work?' "
Caesar returns to the question of what makes him and Coca tick: "She can anticipate me in practically everything I do. And I can anticipate her."
Has there been any basic change in their comedy relationship over the years?
Caesar: "None at all."
Coca: "Isn't that dull?"
Caesar: "It works."