The subtitle of Sid Caesar's show, which opened at the Golden Theater last night, asks: "Does Anyone Know What I'm Talking About?" My answer is yes - because most of the sketches are reprised from "Your Show of Shows" and other Caesar TV programs and were also seen earlier this year in an Off-Broadway production of the show at the Village Gate.
Now, one can argue justifiably that reprising golden oldies makes no difference because they deal with universal human truths and are, besides, performed by a certified comic genius. On another plane, the American public - and probably publics across the globe - are suckers for nostalgia. "They don't make 'em like they used to," etc. So what's the harm?
None, if you judge the show simply as an exercise in fond remembering - and many will. The truth from my corner is that "Sid Caesar & Company" is very uneven on two counts: One, genius doesn't always operate on its own level; and, two, some sketches are so dated ("A Boy at His First Dance") or cutesy (the pantomimed "Grieg [mispelled Greig in the program] Piano Concerto") that laughter comes hard.
Caesar himself says that he is dealing with a number of truths, all slightly exaggerated for effect. Fair enough, but sometimes the exaggeration is such that it overwhelms the truth inside. Caesar overdoes most of his gestures. One, apparently, will never do to get his point across. Take the matter of Caesar's tongue.
This is a remarkable instrument. It darts in and out of his mouth with startling agility, almost reaching his chin at its outermost thrusts.While obviously ideal for clowning, tasting and other activities, its repeated appearances become overkill.
Yet, the man is capable of projecting great understanding of the human dilemma. The best sketch by far is called "The Penny Candy Gum Machine," which Caesar himself wrote some 40 years ago. It tells in human terms the story of a little candy machine that rises to the glamorous heights of a slot machine in a fancy hotel, then falls, ignobly, to a towel dispenser in a men's room. It's the eternal story of success and failure told in a few minutes with superb timing, facial accents and no syrupy sentimentality whatsoever.
Salutary, too, is the production again directed by Martin Charnin. Charnin has dispensed with the irrelevant music of the downtown version, replaced it with two fine songs by himself and hired - with the exception of Lee Delano - a new enlarged cast in which Linda Hart and Lubitza Gregus stand out.
This cast combined with one or two other Caesar sketches make "Sid Caesar & Company" a better show than its downtown predecessor but, given the superior talent gathered on stage, disappointing still.
Without necessarily asserting that less is always more, there are certainly times when less can occasionally prove better.
This is a lesson being unwittingly provided by the new version of the Sid Caesar & Company cabaret show which undertook a Broadway transition - plus an overproduced transformation - at the Golden Theater last night.
In the spartan, even shabby and seemingly determined uncomfortable ambiance of the Village Gate earlier this year, Caesar, accompanied by a small, talented bunch of second bananas, gave a shining demonstration that old comics never die - they merely resuscitate their old material.
More to the point, if that material is still of the stuff dreams and memories are made of, it will be enough. And, taking the rough with the smooth, it was.
Now plunging to Broadway, Caesar does virtually the same act - it needed cutting and rearranging then, it needs cutting and rearranging now.
The best part of the evening remains the gems culled from his magisterial TV years, such as the famous sketch of the popcorn crunching, milquetoasted Caesar, minding his own business in a cinema, who is hurled, willy-nilly and protesting, into a lovers' quarrel.
Then there's his lovely mime impression of the rise, decline and fall of a gum vending-machine on its way to a men's washroom via Las Vegas, his venerable Grieg concerto routine, and finally some of his Old Professor dialogues, with such vintage jewels as the "shark in the fish tank" and "the flying screamer."
The Broadway version has been adapted, shaped and directed by Martin Charnin, and this Charninization is not always to the show's advantage.
Now the talented musicians - the music director again is Elliot Finkel - take, as it were, a backer seat, and this is good, but Charnin has introduced some of his own cutesy revue songs (the one about sweeping up a stage is especially puerile), which is not.
The show, before awkward in shape and length, now is further distended and contorted by the insertion of a long and only sporadically amusing sketch about an eroded and even dying matador.
Caesar on his dignity is always good value, but here on this extended Spanish excursion, even that dignity is short-changed - but it does reveal the basic truth about Caesar, namely that he is an actor (and mime) above everything else.
When he was at the Village Gate, I pointed out that he was Bill Irwin before Bill Irwin. His vaudeville skills can be compared to Red Skelton's, while his timing has the immaculate precision of a Milton Berle.
Of course the basis of his comedy was and is silent-screen clowning, added to a shaggy-dogged sense of irrelevant humor - an unexpected pointlessness that anticipated camp - and a neat sense of character.
The know-it-all, imperturbable and ineffably smug professor mouthing his pseudo philosophy is as much a persona as Jack Benny's meanest-man-in-the-world, and therein lies the charm.
The supporting cast is energetic, but apart from the admirable Lee Delano, who does a kind of super efficient Carl Reiner imitation as Caesar's vice consul and stooge, it leaves comparatively little impression.
The night belongs to Caesar - rightly so - but Charnin's job should have been to give Caesar a better showcase, not least in the further selection of his own material.
Some of the early sketches - that perforce set the mood for the evening - are perilously weak, and although made just about acceptable by Caesar's consummate performing (he even brings off that embarrassingly feeble number about a newborn baby's first steps into life) better material would have resulted in a far stronger show.
When one thinks of what must still be lying around from those TV archives of Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," written by the likes of Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart, you cannot help feeling that the show's selection is too predictable and too ordinary.
With a better basic selection of skits and sketches this Broadway excursion could have been another Show of Shows. As it is, it remains an intermittent demonstration of clowning genius which still needs a finer point placed upon it. Back to the drawing board!
When a show-biz legend returns to Broadway after a long absence, especially a legend who has written a memoir of his hard times, he always runs the risk of being upstaged by an audience's memories of his youth. But Sid Caesar, it can happily be reported, looks and sounds the same as ever in his new revue, ''Sid Caesar & Company: Does Anybody Know What I'm Talking About?'' at the Golden. His clown's arsenal is intact, too: the eyeballs and eyelids that can fly and bulge in at least four different directions while mimicking a slot machine, the manic tongue that can fracture any foreign language into ear-bending double talk, the weary skepticism that makes even an elaborately costumed Spanish matador sound like a put-upon waiter at the Carnegie Deli.
No, there's no need to worry about finding a shadow of the Sid Caesar we've loved for 40 years in ''Sid Caesar & Company.'' There is, however, good reason to worry about his show, for it is so misconceived that it turns the guest of honor into a beggar at his own feast. What good is Mr. Caesar's remarkable comic instrument if no one has given him a score? The star who enjoyed the writing services of Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen and Woody Allen, among others, on television's ''Your Show of Shows'' and its progeny has no billed writers in this outing. Nor does he have any second bananas who might remotely rival Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris or even the somewhat less-than-immortal ''Show of Shows'' dance team of Mata and Hari.
What Mr. Caesar does have is a director, Martin Charnin, responsible for juicing up a Caesar nightclub act seen last summer Off Broadway. To Mr. Charnin, going Broadway apparently means spending money. He has commissioned a handsome set from Neil Peter Jampolis - a black box framed by a band of light, like the old Sylvania television screens. He has hired a supporting cast of seven, top-heavy with toupees and large breasts, of whom only one (Lee Delano, a Reiner stand-in) is steadily employed by the sketches and only one other (the wasted Linda Hart, last of ''Anything Goes'') has discernible talent. Mr. Charnin also hired himself to write three songs, or at least to retrieve them from a trunk of all-purpose Special Material. These numbers, one of which makes vast satirical sport of the task of sweeping a messy stage, are irrelevant to the star but do require the employment of onstage musicians as well as the aggressively winsome smiles of every last featherbedder in the company.
In the middle of this ''production'' stands Mr. Caesar, straitjacketed by a chalk-striped suit but always eager to please. Among the dozen or so bits he performs are some golden oldies, including a finger-bashing performance of the Grieg Piano Concerto, the ''Show of Shows'' sketch ''At the Movies'' and the Germanic pseudo-intellectual non sequiturs of that instant expert on everything and nothing, the Professor.
It's representative of this revue that even these gems are undermined by Mr. Charnin, who lets each selection run on until it expires of exhaustion. ''At the Movies,'' in which Mr. Caesar's innocent moviegoer finds himself trapped in a marital brawl, is further dented by the weak players and by a juvenile updating of its punch line to accommodate out-of-the-closet times. The baggy-pants Professor - the granddaddy of so many classic comedy shticks, including Mel Brooks's 2,000-Year-Old Man - is denied a punch line altogether. Mr. Caesar must instead segue into the final Charnin choral musical number, an uplifting anthem to positive thinking titled ''Make a New Now, Now!'' By the second chorus, you may well begin to fear that ''Now'' will never turn into Then.
Other sketches, all introduced by stilted patter about comic truths, demonstrate that some of Mr. Caesar's comedy is shackled to passing half-truths of a distant America. His notions about forbidding mothers-in-law, henpecked husbands and preening teen-agers are of a piece with the rest of television's Golden Age, including ''I Love Lucy'' and ''The Honeymooners.'' What we don't see is the sophisticated material - the cultural parodies, the articulate marital warfare of the Hickenloopers - that made Mr. Caesar and ''Your Show of Shows'' a dominant influence on mass American comedy for a generation. It's not coincidence that Caesar alumni created such movies, plays and television series as ''Blazing Saddles,'' ''Annie Hall,'' ''Love and Death,'' ''The Odd Couple,'' ''The Dick Van Dyke Show,'' ''All in the Family,'' ''M*A*S*H'' and the current ''Mastergate.'' You can see vestiges of vintage Caesar sketches in all of them.
At the Golden, the man himself looks so fit and ready to amuse that he could probably still perform ''Little Me,'' his brilliant Broadway marathon of 1962, in which Neil Simon let him fly in seven hilarious roles of ''Show of Shows'' caliber. By contrast, the show at hand frustrates the audience, which has come to praise Caesar, by burying him.