A legend from the world of comedy has left us.
Sid Caesar, who is credited with revolutionizing television comedy, passed away Wednesday following a brief illness. He was 91.
Caesar is best known for his work on the live Saturday night variety shows “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.” Both shows influenced generations of comedians and served as the precursors to shows like “Saturday Night Live.”
“Sid Caesar set the template for everybody,” longtime friend Carl Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles. “He was without a doubt the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could ad lib. He could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh.”
The importance of both shows was that they served as the first original form of television comedy. Early television was dominated by vaudeville and radio comedians, who simply adapted their acts to the new medium. Caesar, his partner Imogene Coca and the writing staff, which included names such as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner and Woody Allen, explored this new medium and came up with a form of comedy that best suited it. At the time the show was considered to be Avant Garde comedy.
Both shows consisted of sketch comedy, music and television satires, monologues from Caesar, musical guests and large production numbers. The writing was sharper than anything else that was on TV at the time and both shows received award nominations and critical acclaim. Neil Simon said the reason the show was different than anything else that was on at the time was because it focused on truth. “Other television shows would present situations with farcical characters; we would put real-life people into identifiable situations.”
Caesar was known as a “sketch” comedian and known for his versatility as a performer. He was skilled at mime, performing monologues, improvisation, physical humor and pantomime. However his trademark bit was “double talk,” in which he was able imitate different languages without having to use any actual words. For his work on both series he was nominated for 11 Emmy awards and won twice. Though it is important to note that Caesar did not write any of his own dialogue. He would come with ideas and scenes and have his writing crew flesh out the dialogue.
Some of the more memorable characters on the show were the Hickenloopers, who were TV’s first bickering couple, predating the Honeymooners. Another one was The Professor, a German who sounded smart but turned out to not be an expert on anything.
After “Caesar’s Hour” ended he appeared in the Broadway musical “Little Me,” for which he received a Tony award nomination. He also appeared in Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World” and Mel Brook’s “Silent Movie.”
However Caesar was addicted to alcohol and barbiturates. “I remember how I slipped further into darkness,” he wrote in his autobiography “Where Have I Been?” “I kept working in films, on the stage and in TV — but I wasn’t really there. It was like a 21-year blackout.”
Caesar hit rock bottom in 1977 after his mind went blank during a performance of Neil Simon’s “Red Hot Lovers.” He walked off stage, checked into a hospital and quit cold turkey.
“I had to come to terms with myself,” he recalled. “Do you want to live or die? Make up your mind. And I did. I said, ‘I want to live.’ And that was it: the first step on a long journey.” Caesar said
The comic also had anger issues. Famously he held Mel Brooks out of an 18th-story window. In another incident he knocked out a horse, which had thrown his wife of its back, in one punch. Brooks replayed the moment in his film “Blazing Saddles.”
With a new found sobriety he continued his work on television and film. He played Coach Calhoun in both “Grease” movies, appeared in the Mel Brooks film “History of the World, Part 1,” and was nominated for an an Emmy for his appearance on “Mad About You.” He hosted “Saturday Night Live” in the early 80s and was named a honorary cast member. His last credited role was “Comic Book: The Movie.” from 2004.
Sid Caesar was born as Isaac Sidney Caesar in Yonkers, New York on September 8, 1922. He was the son of Jewish immigrants. His parents ran a restaurant and Sid helped out. It was there that he developed his “double talk” as he learned to mimic the patois, rhythm and accents of the clientele.
He was a saxophone player and wanted to pursue a career in music. He studied saxophone and clarinet at the Juilliard School of Music. In 1939 he joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Brooklyn, where he played in military revues and shows. There he met famous jazz composer Vernon Duke and the two collaborated on musical revues.
In 1942 he met his future wife Florence Levy. They were married a year later and had 3 children. Caesar was married to her until her death in 2010.
He was ordered to to to Palm Beach Florida where Duke and lyricist Howard Dietz where putting together a revue show called “Tars and Spars.” There Caesar met Max Liebman, who would produce his first television series “Admiral Broadway Review.” “Tars and Spars” would serve as Caesar’s first gig as a comedian. His comedy received more applause than the music so Libeman asked him to do stand up bits in between songs. After the war Caesar and his family moved to Los Angeles.
Years later in 1948 Caesar appeared on Milton Berle’s series “Texaco Star Theater.” This lead to Caesar’s own series “Admiral Broadway Review,” which he hosted alongside Imogene Coca. The show was very successful but cancelled after 26 weeks because the sponsor, the appliance company Admiral, couldn’t make TV’s fast enough to meet demand.
One year later “Your Show of Shows” appeared, initially as part of the second hour of “Saturday Night Review.” By the end of the 1950-51 season it became the landmark 90-minute show. To avoid the Admiral situation it was the first show without a sponsor. And the rest is history.
Reiner had this to say about Caesar:
“Inarguably he was the greatest single monologist and skit comedian we ever had. Television owes him a debt of gratitude for his pioneering work and the great shows he gave us all. Render onto Caesar what is his due. He deserves real applause from the American people.”
Brooks had this to say bout Caesar:
“Sid Caesar was a giant — maybe the best comedian who every practiced the trade. And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends.”
Comedy would not be the same without Caesar. His legacy can be felt even today. He will be missed.