Sid Caesar and His World
The last of his groundbreaking television comedy shows was canceled 56 years ago, when he was just 35 years old. He then all but disappeared for two decades, sitting out the 1960s and 1970s as he battled clinical depression and substance abuse, only to emerge sober in the mid-’80s, long after comedy had passed him by. But Sid Caesar’s explosion onto the scene in the ’40s and ’50s was a perfect parallel to the journey of the Jewish people, from starting on the margins of American society to serving as leading influences on American culture.
Growing up in a multiethnic, multilingual working-class community in Yonkers, just north of New York City, Isaac Sidney Caesar developed an uncanny ear for accents while working in his father’s deli. Born in 1922, he served in the Coast Guard during World War II, home-based in Brooklyn. The entertainment bug hit him early, and he spent time in the Catskills, like many early-20th-century Jewish singers and comedians. Caesar’s appearance in a wartime service revue called “Tars and Spars” brought him his initial national attention and led to a role in his first film, based on the revue. Yet it was the budding technology of television, then centered in New York City, that gave him the chance to rewrite the rules of comedy.
Like other Jewish comics, Caesar was blessed with good timing. Television in the late 1940s was in its infancy. There were no established conventions, few expectations for what the new medium should broadcast, and no cliques that could lock out newcomers or those traditionally outside the mainstream of U.S. entertainment. In 1948, there were approximately 102,000 television sets in America. A decade later, when Caesar finished his last show, there were nearly 42 million households with a television set, reaching an astonishing 83 percent of the population.
It is a mistake to lump Caesar in with the rest of the early television comedians, like Milton Berle or Jackie Gleason. In zoological terms, he may have been of the same family, but he was a different species. The Golden Age of television showed an admirably serious side, such as the teleplay show Studio One, and it is in this branch that Caesar and his co-stars must be located. Theirs was not mere situation comedy, like I Love Lucy, but rather sharply focused sketch comedy that was almost always satirical.
Though Caesar is remembered for his sketch comedy, his three pioneering shows were full variety reviews, “spectaculars,” as his partner Max Liebman called them. Every week they showcased dancing, classical-music performances, and big musical numbers in addition to the sketches, which took up only a portion of the 90-minute running time. Guided by Broadway producer Liebman, Caesar hit the small screen in 1949 with the Admiral Broadway Review on NBC. The story goes that the show was so popular that Admiral could not keep up with the surge in orders for its television sets, and wound up canceling the Broadway Review in its first season in order to put capital into expanding its production facilities.
That initial cancellation fortuitously opened the way for the most famous of Caesar’s efforts, the legendary Your Show of Shows, which ran from 1950 through 1954. Although the show was a full variety program, it was the sketches that propelled Caesar to superstardom. A consummate professional, Caesar allowed his co-stars Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, and Howard Morris to improvise and play off each other. Mistakes were turned into triumphs, as when Caesar, playing a lonely opera singer putting on makeup, broke a mascara pencil that drew a long black line down one cheek; without missing a beat, he sketched a tic-tac-toe board on his face and played a game with himself while looking in the mirror, all the while singing the original song that was the centerpiece of the skit.
One can still feel the adrenaline of those live performances; and the sheer physicality of the sketches, and of Caesar in particular, is startling. His antics and machine-gun-style delivery often left him covered in sweat and hoarse by the end of a sketch, something no star would permit today, but that was all part of the immediacy of live television.
Perhaps the best example of Caesar’s physical approach is from one of his most famous sketches, a 1953 spoof of the popular show This Is Your Life, called “This Is Your Story.” Caesar plays an unwitting, and very reluctant, surprise guest, who is pulled from the actual studio audience. Running up and down the aisles of the studio, Caesar fights off a half dozen real NBC ushers who ultimately lift him and carry him on stage. Then, as the absurd parody of the faux life story plays out, Howard Morris steals the scene as long-lost Uncle Goopy, who refuses to be parted from his nephew and literally clings to his legs like a monkey, while Caesar hauls him around the stage and announcer Carl Reiner struggles to pull them apart.
Just as well known as Caesar’s slapstick, which was always subordinate to the satire, were his parodies of American and foreign films and contemporary fads. Postwar American culture had its niches of foreign influence, mostly in New York, and one of the most popular imports was foreign film, primarily French and Italian, along with German and Japanese. When I interviewed Caesar for my 2011 book, Pacific Cosmopolitans, he easily slipped into an extended conversation in Japanese doubletalk conversation, as though 50 years had not passed since he last flung out fake Oriental dialogues.
The same goes for Caesar’s satire on postwar popular culture, where he took particular aim at 1950s fads. These skits are just as relevant and biting today as they were a half century ago. One sketch involved Caesar and Coca at a health-food restaurant (think “sustainable, free trade, organic”) where the appetizer was the floral display on the table and the main course, primarily weeds and shrubs, was served with a garden trowel. Another recurring target was music, best exemplified by the hysterically stoned jazz hipster Progress Hornsby. Equally popular were the ridiculous Haircuts, a pop band featuring Caesar, Reiner, and Morris, who crooned and sobbed their way through sophomoric lyrics (such as their “C side” hit “So Rare”) while strutting about the stage wearing huge pompadours.
Yet even with the brilliance of the acting ensemble, Caesar’s shows could not have made the impact they did without the inner sanctum of creative ferment: the Writers’ Room. Indeed, Your Show of Shows and its successor, Caesar’s Hour, are the only television shows in history to be more famous for what went on behind the scenes than on the stage.
Caesar’s sketches came from the minds and mouths and typewriters of some of the best comedic writers of the century, such as Neil Simon, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks. Primarily first- and second-generation American Jews from Yiddish-speaking homes, they came down from the Catskills to conquer Manhattan and smash the idols, such as suburbia and consumerism, of their Christian neighbors. Working at breakneck speed to get a show ready for dress rehearsal in only five days, the Writers’ Room (located in what is now City Center on West 56th Street) was a constant whirlwind of intellectual commodities trading. In my interview with Caesar in 2006, he explained that many of the sketches on both shows were drawn from real life. “It was what I and everyone else was doing on weekends and with our families” that provided the fodder for skits, he recounted.
Imagine a comedy show today structuring a wordless sketch about a husband-and-wife quarrel timed perfectly to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Or take perhaps Caesar’s most popular character, the Professor, a bumbling German fraud of an “expert” on everything from self-defense to archaeology. And the writers showed a particular genius for melding slapstick and pathos, as in a 20-minute poignant parody on the fall of silent film idol John Gilbert, called “Aggravation Boulevard,” where the star’s on-screen image is destroyed with the onset of talkies that reveal his high-pitched, squeaky voice.
Perhaps because they were Jews just emerging into the mainstream, Caesar and his writers were especially attuned to America’s social scene. Where shows such as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver were extolling the wholesomeness of postwar suburbia, Caesar poked fun at the proclivities of the upwardly mobile. The childless Hickenloopers, and later the Commuters, became a recurring sketch, and their antics with their neighbors or daily issues (such as when Imogene Coca tries to break the news in the most roundabout manner possible that she wrecked the car) anticipated the suburban high jinks that would define American comedy in the 1960s, but gave them an absurd edge.
The mischief inside the Writers’ Room was legendary. Desks were set on fire, screaming matches were common, and discarded paper full of pitches littered the floors, while the gravel-voiced comic Selma Diamond typed at a frenetic speed. Nor did the craziness end outside the office: The writers were constitutionally incapable of acting normally, making jokes to and about passersby on the streets or threatening each other after so many hours cooped up together. The very young Mel Brooks was a particular source of madness, often arriving hours late to work and making dramatic entrances such as pretending to slide into home plate while yelling “Safe!” Caesar sat imperiously at his desk while the writers clamored for his attention. A joke he didn’t like would get shot down out of the sky as Caesar imitated a B-17 turret gunner. All this was later memorialized in Reiner’s The Dick Van Dyke Show, the movie My Favorite Year, and a play by Neil Simon.
Characters in sketches were given names derived from Yiddish, such as the Japanese warlord Shtaka, (a bastardization of shtarker, “strong man”). Carl Reiner told me they once named a character Gantze Metzia, which roughly translates to “big bargain.” Yiddish doubletalk often slipped into sketches, used to satirize the pretensions of upwardly mobile Americans. “We were just a bunch of very gifted, neurotic young Jews punching our brains out,” Larry Gelbart, later a distinguished playwright and screenwriter, said in 2001.1
All that energy, work, and fame came at a cost. Working from 10 in the morning to seven in the evening, six days a week for 39 weeks a year was hardest on Caesar. The relentless pace and pressure combined disastrously with a personality that was beset with insecurities and an addictive nature. He also suffered the classic Jewish guilt of a son who far surpassed his immigrant parents. In his 1982 autobiography, Where Have I Been?, Caesar relates a heartbreaking scene: His mother comes down to one of his shows but refuses to enter the theater, he loses her in the crowd, and she shuffles home alone in the dark on a snowy night.
To deal with the stress and his fears, Caesar turned to drink and sedatives in amounts that his physician son later described would kill a horse. He would eat prodigious amounts of food, polishing off several steaks after the weekly show at Manhattan’s famed Danny’s Hideaway. The writers tell about the time he fell asleep in the middle of a meal, face down in his food, and then woke up a half hour later to continue the conversation as if nothing had happened.
The stories of Caesar’s explosive temper, abetted by his enormous strength and often fueled by drink, were legendary. In one of the better-known anecdotes, Caesar once dangled Mel Brooks outside the 18th-story window of a Chicago hotel when the younger writer refused to stop pestering him to take a break and go outside. When a horse threw his wife, Caesar knocked it out with one blow; Brooks later used that as a famous scene in Blazing Saddles.
Ironically, it was Caesar’s success in making television a part of the American landscape that led to his downfall. At the height of Your Show of Shows, it is said, cinema and Broadway theater owners tried to get NBC to change the day of the show from Saturday, claiming that too many people were staying home to watch Caesar. By 1958, however, television had spread like wildfire throughout the country, and the network felt audiences in Middle America were not appreciating the very Jewish, New York–inspired humor of Caesar and his tribe. NBC claimed it canceled Caesar’s Hour due to competition from The Lawrence Welk Show. While Brooks, Reiner, Simon, Allen, and Gelbart would go on to define American comedy in the ’60s and ’70s, Caesar was slipping into a haze of pills and drink. It would be 20 years until he broke free of his addictions, but by then his comedy was a thing of the past and he spent the rest of his life as an elder statesman.
It is impossible to imagine postwar American society without television, or postwar American humor without its Jewish influence. Sid Caesar stood at the nexus of both. Before he was 30 years old, he had defined a new medium and transformed an entire genre of entertainment. Never shying away from his roots, Caesar planted them firmly in the soil of American popular entertainment, bringing forth new fruit.
1 So powerful were memories of the Writers’ Room that it survived in television and film. Carl Reiner based The Dick Van Dyke show on his years of working with Caesar: Reiner played the Liebman-Caesar figure Alan Brady, while Van Dyke played Reiner and Mory Amsterdam was an older version of Mel Brooks. The relationship between Caesar and his writers was the backdrop for the 1982 Peter O’Toole movie My Favorite Year, where Joseph Bologna gave a brilliant performance as the Caesar-figure whose megalomania was equaled only by his loyalty and kindness.