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Mel Tolkin (Shmuel Tolchinsky), the head writer of Sid Caesar’s pioneering television comedy program, Your Show of Shows (1950-54), and its follow-up, Caesar’s Hour, was born in a shtetl near Odessa on this date in 1913. He came to Canada in 1926, moved to New York twenty years later, and teamed up with Lucille Kallen, who would become his longtime comedy-writing partner. As head writer for Your Show of Shows -- 90 minutes of comedy sketches, 39 weeks per year -- Tolkin oversaw a team that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Kallen; pictured above, left to right, are Brooks, Allen, Tolkin, and Caesar. Tolkin also wrote the show’s theme melody. According to Margalit Fox in the New York Times, Tolkin “paced, muttered, swore, occasionally typed and more than occasionally threw things: crumpled paper cups, cigars (lighted) and much else. The acoustical-tile ceiling was fringed with pencils, which had been flung aloft in a rage and stuck fast; Mr. Tolkin once counted 39 of them suspended there.” Tolkin also worked as a writer for Danny Kaye, Danny Thomas, and Bob Hope, and as story editor and occasional scriptwriter for Norman Lear’s All in the Family, before dying at 94. “When you began in television, you didn’t have a television set. It’s an actual fact. And that’s one of the biggest lessons in show business: too many people learned to write television from watching television, which is the reason so many of them are all alike. In fact, somebody once said that before you sit down to write, stand up and live. You have to learn from life, not from television.” --Mel Tolkin
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.