In 2001, a 78-year-old Sid Caesar walked onto the stage in a Pasadena, Calif., hotel to accept an award from the Television Critics Association for his career achievements.
Caesar, who died Wednesday at 91, looked frail even then. He needed a cane to walk. As he went up onstage, no one would have been surprised if he gave a terse “thank you” and went on.
But it did not turn out that way. Maybe it was the crowd: TV critics, sure, but ones who had come to appreciate his remarkable work in comedic sketches on Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57) — even if they were no more than toddlers when those shows aired. Maybe it was just having the lights on him. But a light went on in Caesar, too.
He began his acceptance speech in the double-talk French that was part of his comedy repertoire. Laughs. After an expert pause, when the audience thought he would be serious, he switched to double-talk German. Then the same kind of ersatz talk but in Italian, delivered with such authority that you thought, maybe this really does make sense. Only we in the crowd at this point were laughing too much to think that hard.
Caesar then accepted his award, shared a story, thanked his wife — and made it almost impossible for any funny business to follow him. David Chase, the mastermind of The Sopranos, claimed he was throwing away his “allegedly funny remarks” because “After Mr. Caesar, no way.” Addressing Caesar directly, Chase said, “Everybody in this room who has ever written anything [for TV] has learned from you. You have given me some of the biggest laughs in my life.”
Chase is not the only one to feel that way. To be sure, some younger audiences might know Caesar only from late-in-life interviews or his appearances in such movies as Grease. Or they are aware of him in a vaguely secondhand way: TV-show host King Kaiser in My Favorite Year is modeled on Caesar. Neil Simon, who worked for Caesar, wrote the play (Laughter on the 23rd Floor later adapted for television) based on the experiences of Caesar’s formidable crew of writers.
But Caesar’s own work on his TV shows is worth revisiting because it is still funny, it was done under trying circumstances (Your Show of Shows was not only live, and blending comedic with music, but it was 90 minutes long) and Caesar was operating with a group of actors as fine as his writers.
We’re talking Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris. You could build an entire show around any one of them — indeed, Your Show of Shows ended when Coca got her own NBC series, and Reiner played a character based on Caesar in The Dick Van Dyke Show.
In the middle of them towers Caesar, gifted not only in seemingly off-the-cuff chatter but blessed with a mobilely expressive face capable of going from serene smile to sweat-popping anxiety without a misstep. By the time he came to Your Show of Shows, he had worked onstage — and on television, where he had appeared with Milton Berle (one of TV’s earliest comedy stars) and with Coca on Admiral Broadway Revue, a variety show in 1949.
People like Berle had made their mark on TV with big humor that could be picked up easily on the small TV screens of the day — “broad slapstick and snappy one-liners,” as the New York Times put it.
Caesar, the Times added, “introduced a different kind of humor to the small screen, at once more intimate and more absurd, based less on jokes or pratfalls than on characters and situations.” Indeed, when I think of Caesar, I often come back to that face, working in a tiny-TV closeup to bring us close to what his character was feeling.
And how good was Caesar? The Admiral show, noted the Los Angeles Times, was dropped by its TV-manufacturing sponsor because the company needed its sponsorship money “to build a new factory to keep up with the skyrocketing number of orders for its TV sets generated by the show.” But when that show ended, Caesar, Coca, and producer Max Liebman took their talents as a package to NBC, and Your Show of Shows was born.
The show was not the biggest hit of its time — Berle, for one, was more popular — but in a time of few networks, even modest successes could command huge audiences and generate conversation, as Caesar’s shows often did among an audience that appreciated its to-the-absurdist-limit takes on Pagliacci or From Here to Eternity or This Is Your Life. The smart viewers spotted the art being presented through Caesar by Simon, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, and others. And, as Chase said, the future TV writers in the audience were taking notes.