Sid CaesarA few days ago Sid Caesar passed away at the age of 91 from complications due to illness. His passing was mourned by the comedic community, but it’s hard to gauge the reactions of the general public to the death of the patriarch of sketch comedy. Sid Caesar’s influence on comedy is everywhere and you might not even realize it. Caesar was the star of two successful variety shows, Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957), both of which were live comedy programs that influenced generations of comedians not just through the stellar performances of Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, Carl Reiner, and Nanette Fabray, but also through the amazing writing talents of Mel Brooks, Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and Mel Tolkin.

Mel Brooks, as we all know, wrote, directed, produced, and starred in some of the most influential comedic movies and television shows (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, Get Smart, etc.). He even snuck Caesar into small roles in Silent Movie and History of the World Part 1. Reiner used his experiences as a writer and performer under Caesar as the basis for The Dick Van Dyke Show with his character, Alan Brady, Rob Petrie’s boss, based in part, on Caesar. Neil Simon went on to become a prolific playwright, winning Tony Awards for The Odd Couple (1965) and Lost in Yonkers (1991). His 1993 play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, was based on his experiences as a writer for Caesar with all of the characters as stand-ins for his fellow writers and Caesar himself. Larry Gelbart went on to co-create and write the television show M*A*S*H. Mel Tolkin, best known for his work on Your Show of Shows, was also a contributing editor and writer for All in the Family and Archie Bunker’s Place. And if you’re still a fan of Woody Allen, then you know how famous he went on to be as a writer and director. All of these men contributed to the landscape that would influence the next generation of comedic talent, but for every person who quotes a Mel Brooks movie, cites M*A*S*H as a show that changed the format of the half-hour sitcom, or praises a Woody Allen film, they’re inadvertently tracing that comedic lineage back to Sid Caesar.

Caesar himself was wildly praised by his peers and Hollywood for his comedic prowess and the intelligence with which he approached comedy. Even though his shows had to play to audiences most would consider the lowest common denominator, Caesar made sure that sketches never treated the viewing audience as dumb. Amongst his assembled staff of writers, there wasn’t a book read, a movie/play watched, or music listened to that couldn’t be referenced. Astonishingly, Caesar never wrote for his own shows, relying on his staff to create the scenarios and dialogue, though Caesar was still involved in punching up the material, performing the sketches out loud, over and over again, until he was satisfied. Sketches were an average of 10 minutes long so the performers could milk everything out of the material while the camera was allowed to capture every expression, which Caesar and his fellow performers had in spades. Caesar was adept at the art of pantomime, able to capture the simplest task and still make it hilarious, and an expert improviser. He also perfected the art of “double-talk”, which he’d been doing since he was a child in his parents’ diner in Yonkers, New York. Alfred Hitchcock even called him “television’s Charlie Chaplin”.

As a person, Sid Caesar was both praised and sometimes feared by his fellow performers and staff. A bear of a man, Caesar was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, temperamental personality known for violent outbursts, which you can see even in his comedic approach. In many sketches, the characters Caesar often played reacted by pushing and shoving or through sudden bursts of emotion. One of his more infamous outbursts resulted in hanging a young Mel Brooks over the balcony of a hotel room while the writing staff was pulling an all-nighter for Your Show of Shows. Brooks would later reference another of Caesar’s violent actions in Blazing Saddles. The scene where Mongo punches a horse is supposedly based on Caesar doing the same when his wife was thrown from a horse while out riding. Regardless of his temper, Caesar was also a warm and caring individual; a loving friend, husband, and father, he was also an ardent supporter of the Humane Society who created an award in his name in 2005.

With his passing, I hope more people will rediscover Sid Caesar and understand his place in the pantheon of comedy gods. Caesar was a man who paved the way for other comedians, but his stardom, like the man himself, burnt out quickly in the eyes of the viewing public. I was fortunate to have a mother and grandfather who loved comedy and introduced me to Sid Caesar as a teenager, but there are some who vaguely remember him for his roles in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Grease (1972) and many who don’t know him at all. If you’re a fan of comedy, I encourage you to scour YouTube for sketches or watch interviews of him and his fellow writers and performers. Caesar was insightful, honest, hilarious, and poignant to a fault. The best thing we can do is celebrate him and all that he contributed to comedy because they don’t make ’em like Sid Caesar anymore.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s