Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar — 1922-2014

From the New York Times:

Sid Caeser_combo-tmagSFSid Caesar, a comedic force of nature who became one of television’s first stars in the early 1950s and influenced generations of comedians and comedy writers, died on Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. He was 91.

His death was announced by Eddy Friedfeld, a family spokesman.

Mr. Caesar largely faded from the public eye in his middle years as he struggled with crippling self-doubt and addiction to alcohol and pills. But from 1950 to 1954, he and his co-stars on the live 90-minute comedy-variety extravaganza “Your Show of Shows” dominated the Saturday night viewing habits of millions of Americans. In New York, a group of Broadway theater owners tried to persuade NBC to switch the show to the middle of the week because, they said, it was ruining their Saturday business.

Albert Einstein was a Caesar fan. Alfred Hitchcock called Mr. Caesar the funniest performer since Charlie Chaplin.

Television comedy in its early days was dominated by boisterous veterans of vaudeville and radio who specialized in broad slapstick and snappy one-liners. Mr. Caesar 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. It left an indelible mark on American comedy.

“If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ “ Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times when he was its chief theater critic, “check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”

A list of Mr. Caesar’s writers over the years reads like a comedy all-star team. Mel Brooks (who in 1982 called him “the funniest man America has produced to date”) did some of his earliest writing for him, as did Woody Allen. So did the most successful playwright in the history of the American stage, Neil Simon. Carl Reiner created one landmark sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show”; Larry Gelbart was the principal creative force behind another, “M*A*S*H.” Mel Tolkin wrote numerous scripts for “All in the Family.” The authors of the two longest-running Broadway musicals of the 1960s, Joseph Stein (“Fiddler on the Roof”) and Michael Stewart (“Hello, Dolly!”), were Caesar alumni as well.

I was too young to see his shows when they were on the air live, but his influence and his proteges made an indelible mark on my view of comedy and wit.  Hail Caesar.

3 barks and woofs on “Sid Caesar — 1922-2014

  1. I luckily wasn’t too young. I watched every episode of Your Show of Shows, and found myself at the age of fifteen, in tears, after the final one. Today I am sure the finest shows TV ever produced were Caesar’s and the Muppets’, and its funny how downright theatrical they both were.

  2. They were both vaudeville without the strippers. (Well, I think Miss Piggy could have done a passable Rose La Rose.)

    • Vaudeville never had strippers. That was burlesque.

      Perhaps the most important thing about Mr. Caesar was the stable of writers that he gathered…they turned out to be every bit as important as those who gathered around the Algonquin’s table.

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