Sid Caesar, 1922-2014

When I was a kid “Your Show of Shows” was regular viewing at our house. It was by far the best comedy/revue program on television. There was nothing like it. The onscreen talent was wonderful: Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howie Morris. And the writing! Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Tony Webster, Joe Stein, Danny Simon. Larry Gelbart wrote for Caesar’s later programs. These are the names that have dominated comedy in the U. S. for the last half century not only on television but in film and on the stage. If you want a good feel for what “Your Show of Shows” was like, watch any episode of “The Dick Van Dyke Show”. Think of that but zanier. The goings-on among the writers and backstage have been dramatized in the movie My Favorite Year.

It was by far the funniest and most innovative comedy show on television until Ernie Kovacs hit the airwaves.

Sid Caesar has died at the age of 91:

In a day before comedy was laced with irony and studded with mean-spirited barbs, Sid Caesar was more than funny.

He was hilariously, outrageously, tear-inducingly, gather-up-the-whole-family-for-this funny.

A veteran of the Catskills with an elastic face, a knack for gibberish and a mind that could find comedy gold in the workings of a Bavarian cuckoo clock, Caesar was the king of live television sketch comedy in the 1950s.

Some of the best writers — Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks — vied to work for him. No slouches at comedy themselves, they were dazzled by his genius and, at times, horrified by his temper; he once tore the sink from a hotel bathroom and threatened to throw Brooks out an 18th-story window.

Caesar went public with some of his emotional problems in 1956, long before it was common for celebrities to do so. He is best known, though, not for his tormented inner life but for the inspired zaniness of the sketches on his trademark programs, “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.”

A two-time Emmy Award-winning performer, Caesar died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills after a brief illness, according to his biographer Eddy Friedfeld. He was 91.

“He was without a doubt the greatest monologuist, pantomimist and sketch artist that ever worked on TV,” Reiner told The Times on Wednesday. “He set the template for all the other comedians that came after him, but none could do what Sid did.”

Today’s comedy programs are funny, maybe, 10% of the time. Sid Caesar’s program was funny 90% of the time. That’s what happens when you gather together great performers and great writers. We will not see the like again.

4 comments… add one

  • steve

    You are much too generous with the 10% number methinks,, especially as it relates to TV sitcoms. Gave up on them long ago. Most comedy movies are awful. I sometimes think that Idiocracy was uncannily and precisely prescient. I guess this could just be my getting old and cranky, but I wonder if it might not also be the expanded market, so many more channels and venues for comedy, that you just cant have enough concentration of talent to pull it off well. Given that the AFI doesnt list any movie from the 21st century in their top 100 list, it does appear that I am not alone in that assessment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AFI's_100_Years…100_Laughs

    Steve

  • michael reynolds

    I listen to Marc Maron’s podcast and he interviewed both Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. It seems they’ve been going over to Caesar’s house weekly, though they both agreed he was pretty much on the final approach. So at least he had some old friends around at the end.

    I gave up on SNL a long time ago, and very reluctantly gave up on Letterman when it became clear that he had just stopped trying. But there’s still good comedy on TV. Jon Stewart and even more, Stephen Colbert; The Middle, which is uncannily like my family if we were as poor as we used to be. Brooklyn 99 is showing potential though the supporting cast is weak and the writers haven’t quite figured out how to write for the great Andre Braugher. Parks and Rec is good. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is great in early seasons, getting a bit weary now. Louie is funny. Episodes has moments. Early seasons of Community and Modern Family were funny.

    Oddly enough one of the funnier shows on TV is a wonderfully-written and acted drama: The Good Wife. Alan Cumming as Eli Gold and Zach Grenier as David Lee are both very funny.

    It’s the rigidity of the commercial TV structure that makes comedy so hard. Not every sketch wants to fill the seven minutes or whatever between commercial breaks on SNL. Something that’s two minutes’ worth of funny turns painful when dragged out. Comedy is so often about rhythm, and the commercial TV rhythms are all wrong for funny.

    That and the loss of the live audience that provides the energy and discipline for comedy.

  • That and the loss of the live audience that provides the energy and discipline for comedy.

    I was always much better in performance than in rehearsal for just that reason. Working at your best without an audience takes a special sort of discipline.

  • PD Shaw

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Your Show of Shows, and it looks like its because NBC didn’t keep most of the film.

    I assume what Dave is describing is the kind of comedy that is laugh out loud funny. I don’t think TV sitcoms necessarily aim for that type of response at least on a regular basis. A lot of the format is about character development and sometimes elements of drama or romance. Sketch comedy has to go for the laughs, or its pretty much nothing.

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