On Wednesday, February 12th, 2014, we lost Sid Caesar at age 91.
Sid changed the comedic world with his legendary talent and subversive Jewish chutzpah; a significant part of our Jewish humor.
If there weren’t a Sid Caesar, there wouldn’t have been comedy as we know it
If there weren’t a Sid Caesar, there wouldn’t have been comedy as we know it. “SNL,” ‘The Carol Burnett Show,’ sitcoms, sketches, and parodies, might all be lost to us.
The 1950s Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar had a dream team of writers who did the subversive, to introduce Jewish humor using Yiddishe double-talk during the Vanilla (pearls and vacuum) era. A sketch from Sid and Carl Reiner:
SID: What have you got to eat?
CARL: Klochmoloppi. We also have lich lop, slop lom, shtocklock, riskkosh, and flochlish.
CARL: We have yuck too. Boiled or broiled?
A genius with words, he worked with the best: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Riener, Woody Allen, and Larry Gelbart. All wanted to impress Caesar, who was not unlike his namesake.
Once he yanked a washbasin out of a wall with his bare hands. The man had a temper and temperament.
Carl Reiner based The Dick Van Dyke Show on Caesar’s writers’ room. The Alan Brady character was known to be a comic genius – along with his tirades towards writing staff. Buddy (Morey Amersterdam) and Sally (Rose Marie) were loosely based upon Mel Brooks and Selma Diamond. The 1982 movie “My Favorite Year” also was also based on the Caesar show and its temperamental star.
Sid Caesar honed his brilliance in the Borscht Belt, along with – KaBoom – Jackie Mason, Buddy Hackett, Woody Allen, Freddie Roman, Morey Amsterdam, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Shelley Berman, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Myron Cohen, Norm Crosby, Shecky Greene, Alan King, Robert Klein, and Jack E. Leonard, Don Rickles, and Henny Youngman, among others. They cut their teeth with applause from the drumming of little hammers of Jews in the audience. And it should be noted not one swear word was used.
The man born Sid Caesar on September 8, 1922, in Yonkers, New York, will forever be considered an undisputed comic genius for his work in early TV. He had an extraordinary ear for languages and a dream team of writers. How could you lose? You could. But Caesar had the chops to become legend. The shy, intellectual Caesar started as a saxophonist, made the transition to comedy, and hit his stride with the new medium of television.
The youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrants, Caesar was a wizard at spouting melting-pot gibberish that parodied German, Russian, French and other languages. In the new medium of television in programs like, Your Show of Shows, which ran from 1950, to 1954, Caesar brought to early television a new kind of comedy. His work in the medium had the effect of changing it. It was Caesar who, way before Seinfeld, loved observational humor and created the well-rounded TV sketch.
Before his own show, Sid Caesar made broadcast history by participating in another TV experiment: The Admiral Broadway Review, the first comedy-music variety show that debuted on two networks, NBC and DuPont in 1949. Sit down. The show was short-lived because it was so popular that Admiral couldn’t keep up with the demand for TVs (is this meshugge or what?) Caesar returned to Your Show of Shows (1950) with his Jewish writer heroes: Howard Morris, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, and Larry Gelbart. The show was short-lived, however a new kind of comedy was born: sketch and character humor with subversity. Here are a few of his memorable characters/sketches, written and performed with such talents as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and Neil Simon.
SKETCHES AND HISTORY
- History as She Ain’t: Monologues, mime, and satires on TV shows and films; e.g., From Here obscurity.
- The Professor: The visiting authority on everything who knew nothing.
- The Hickenloopers: Husband_and_wife skit with Imogene Coca.
- The Great Clock of Baverhoff, Bavaria: mechanical figures went haywire on the hour.
- The Italian Opera Star: gibberish warbling in Galapacci.
- Progress Hornsby: supercool jazz musician.
- a Gallic farce named La Fligl (The Chicken Wing).
- a Nipponese romance with the gantse mishpokhe (whole family), gehakte leber (chopped liver), and shmatte (rag).
Caesar’s verbal acuity was also evident in the double talking foreigner and his monologue as a fly – including sound effects. His career was cut short by personal problems. However, his brilliance has lasted, trained some of our legendary comedy writers and has still made a difference in comedy sketch and character writing. One look at the resumes of his young writers and we see how his team changed the landscape of comedy, and yes, Jewish comedy.
For We Jews, Caesar was – us. He had both the talent and chutzpah to show us off at our best. In the fifties, inclusiveness was important to our parents. We shared the naches and the inclusiveness when a Jew “made it” or “broke through” the vanilla villages. Sid Caesar – was a star – a Jewish star. His inclusiveness fascinated and delighted our mothers. Hey, he and his staff were family. The greatest user (and abuser) of cracked Yiddish in TV was the great Sid Caesar. Jews “got it.” Gentiles just laughed.
In Rome my bubbe was looking for a house: Sid Caesar’s. When we explained she meant Julius, annoyed, she said, Julius, Sid … I want to meet SID!
In one celebrated routine, years before Seinfeld, Caesar impersonated a gumball machine; in another, a baby; in another, a ludicrously overemotional guest on a parody of “This Is Your Life.”
“Real life is the true comedy.”
“Real life is the true comedy,” he said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. “Then everybody knows what you’re talking about.” Caesar brought observational comedy to TV before latter-day comics were even born.
“Sid Caesar was more than a comedian. He was one of the truly great minds of my time and one of the finest privileges I’ve had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him,” said Woody Allen.
Caesar worked closely with his writing staff as they found inspiration in silent movies, foreign films and the absurdities of ’50s postwar prosperity.
“None of us who’ve gone on to do other things could have done them without going through this show.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Neil Simon
Carl Reiner, who wrote in addition to performing on the show, based his “Dick Van Dyke Show” — with its fictional TV writers and their temperamental star — on his experiences there. Increasing ratings competition from Lawrence Welk’s variety show put “Caesar’s Hour” off the air in 1957 and he later looked back on those years as painful ones. He said he beat a severe, decades-long barbiturate and alcohol habit in 1978, when he was so low he considered suicide. “I had to come to terms with myself. ‘ Do you want to live or die?’” Deciding that he wanted to live, he recalled, was “the first step on a long journey.”
... One doesn’t have a sense of humor. It has you. And it is a gift you can neither purchase nor refuse. ” — Larry Gelbart, writer/producer. (M*A*S*H (TV), Sid Caesar’s Hour, Tootsie, Oh, God!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
Sid Caesar was a Jewish pioneer and made and created a new medium with his brilliance and talent. As says the late Larry Gelbart, who believed that laughs have to be in our soul. Caesar had the ability to pantomime, do satire, mimicry, dialect and sketch comedy. This is a gift that made him a pioneer, and has changed the comic world!
To We Jews, the name Caesar will always be legend for Sid’s remarkable talent and unwavering chutzpah on our behalf. Thank you Sid for making us laugh.