Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mel Tolkin R.I.P.

Mel Tolkin, the lead writer of the legendary TV series Your Show of Shows, died on November 26 at the age of 94. In addition to Your Show of Shows, Tolkin wrote for shows ranging from Caesar's Hour to All in the Family.

Mel Tolkin was born Shmuel Tolchinsky in Odessa, Ukraine on August 3, 1913. The family migrated to Montreal in 1926. He studied accounting in accordance with his family's wishes, but found himself drawn to show business instead. In the Thirties he wrote musical revues and played piano in night clubs around Montreal. He used the name "Mel Tolkin" so that his family would not find out. His first big break in show business came as writing the book for the revue Of V We Sing which ran for a brief time on Broadway in 1942. During World War II he served in the Canadian Army.

Following the war, Tolkin moved to New York City. His talent for entertainment found him at Camp Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos. It was there that he met his writing partner, Lucille Kallen. It was in 1949 that Tolkin and Kallen were hired for the TV show The Admiral Broadway Revue. An early comedy variety show, it starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Aired on both NBC and the Dumont network, The Amdiral Broadway Revue would pave the way for another show starring Caesar and Coca and written by Tolkin and Kallen--Your Show of Shows. Your Show of Shows debuted in 1950 and aired on Saturday night. It was one of the earliest sketch comedy shows and can be considered the direct ancestor of such series as Saturday Night Live and In Living Colour. In fact there is very little later sketch variety shows have done that Your Show of Shows did not do first--movie parodies, parodies of TV commercials, skits that pushed the boundaries of good tastes, and so on. Tolkin not only wrote many of the sketches on Your Show of Shows, he also wrote the theme song for the show as well.

Indeed, Mel Tolkin was the lead of a group of writers, most of who would become legendary in a relatively short period of time: Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon. The performers on the show would become legendary as well, featuring not only Sid Caesar, but Carl Reiner and Howard Morris (best known as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show) as well. Your Show of Shows would leave the air in 1954, whereupon Tolkin would become ;ead writer on Sid Caesar's next variety show, Caesar's Hour. Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon would follow Tolkin to the new show, which included a new writer--a fellow by the name of Woody Allen. Sadly, Caesar's Hour was not the success that Your Show of Shows had been and lasted only three seasons.

From the late Fifties into the Sixties Tolkin would write for such series as Sid Caesar Invites You, The Danny Kaye Show, Run, Buddy. Run, and The Good Guys. In the Seventies he wrote several episodes of All in the Family. In the Sixties he also wrote the screenplay for the movie Last of the Secret Agents. Tolkin also wrote for Bob Hope and Danny Thomas.

Tolkin also worked on Broadway. In 1950 he composed the lyrics and music for the musical revue Tickets, Please. In 1958 he wrote the comedy Maybe Tuesday. In 1990 he wrote the musical revue Those Were The Days.

Even though his name is not as well known today as some of the writers he worked with on Your Show of Shows, Mel Tolkin was arguably one of the most talented comedy writers in television. The work that he and his fellow writers did on Your Show of Shows was sheer genius. Even today, over fifty years after the show first aired, those sketches are still laugh out loud funny. As a man who wrote many, many hours of the best comedy material ever to air on television, Mel Tolkin will not soon be forgotten.

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