An Hour and a Half with Sid Caesar
I spent an hour and a half with Sid Caesar. And you’re thinking “Big deal, millions of Americans spent an hour and a half with Sid Caesar every single Saturday night watching “Your Show of Shows” on NBC.” True, but I spent an hour and half with Sid Caesar last Thursday afternoon at his home. Just Sid Caesar, a friend of his, and me. We talked about his shows, his writers, his fellow performers, and comedy in general. Sid Caesar gave me an hour and a half. It was 90 minutes that I’ll never forget.
I’ve worked at comedy writing most of my life, so a visit with a comedy giant like Sid Caesar was like going to Mecca for me (hmmm… perhaps that’s an inappropriate expression since both Caesar and I are Jewish guys. Okay, it was like going to the Carnegie Deli). I have adored him all my life; in fact I wrote in last week’s column how watching Sid Caesar on television taught me what funny was all about.
Life is full of surprises. Here I was schlepping along in my own little existence, doing what I do in my own little corner of the world, when out of a clear blue sky I get a message to call a man. I call him, and he turns out to be Sid Caesar’s friend and fellow performer Lee Delano. “Would you be interested in an interview with Sid Caesar?” Wow. The next thing I know, a few days later I’m in Lee’s car going to Sid Caesar’s House.
As the car winds through the canyon I think about all those great comedy sketches that cracked me up as a kid and continue to make me laugh every time I watch them: the spoof on “This is Your Life,” the Italian cobbler and his apprentice, the Bavarian clock. “Your Show of Shows” was the beginning of it all. Television comedy as we know it started with this show. Sitcoms, TV sketch comedy, movie spoofs, highbrow satire, pop culture send ups – it all started with “Your Show of Shows.” Following that show, Sid did a one-hour show called, appropriately, “Caesar’s Hour.”
Writers for both shows included what has now become known as probably the greatest collection of comedy writers in history: Mel Tolken, Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Neil and Danny Simon, Gary Belkin, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen. Sid’s shows ran from 1950 until May 1957. Every week for 39 weeks a year, the shows were broadcast live in front of a studio audience and 60 million Americans. A brand new 90-minute show every single week. Done without retakes. And done without cue cards – Sid didn’t like using them. He said it loused up the believability of the actors because instead of making eye contact with each other, the actors wind up looking at the cue cards off to the side.
Sid Caesar has always been a dedicated comedian, using both comedy and pathos in his portrayals. An excellent saxophonist, he applied his musical sense of rhythm and timing to his comedy. Careful preparation, ability to think fast on his feet, and impeccable timing were all important elements to Sid’s comedy. His foreign language double-talk is legendary – and no one can do it better than Sid. But there is one ingredient that he possesses that can’t be learned: his natural-born humor. Sid has the gift of comedy within him. He’s a funny man, that’s all. His reactions are naturally funny; he walks funny, he even thinks funny. It’s in his eyes, his gestures, his entire being. As they say, “You either got it, or you ain’t got it.” Sid Caesar most definitely “got it.”
Even at age 86, Sid Caesar is sharp as a tack. His memory is flawless, his sense of humor as wonderful as ever. And when he relates a gag or story, his comedy timing is letter-perfect. I mention to him how he has always been a hero of mine and he smiles and thanks me. Imagine that. Sid Caesar thanking ME. It dawns on me that I am in the presence of the last of the great comedians of the 20th Century.
I sit down in front of him and begin talking. As I ask my questions he graciously answers each one in detail (and I’m sure he’s heard them all 900 times). He speaks highly of the people in his life that helped him get his start; Max Liebman, producer of “Your Show of Shows,” Pat Weaver, the head of NBC, co-stars Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and his wonderful writing team. Of Imogene, Howie, and Carl he says, “We worked together like a well-oiled machine.” That they did.
He spoke of learning comedy from his older brother Dave and how they would invent sketches as kids spoofing the then-popular airplane pictures like “Test Pilot” and “Wings.” He told me how he learned to double-talk in every language from working at his father’s luncheonette, going from table to table and listening to the distinctive ethnic speech patterns of the patrons. He got so he could mimic the sounds of almost any language. Of course Sid couldn’t really speak any of those languages, it was all gibberish, but when he did it, it sounded right.
His eyes sparkle when I mention one of my favorite routines of his. He laughs easily and falls into the character himself, remembering the lines perfectly. All at once I find myself a one-man audience for a man who used to do this same thing in front of 60 million viewers. Now Sid Caesar is performing just for me and I’m in heaven. I laugh just as I did as a little kid sitting in front of the TV.
At one point I asked him if there was a movie that he turned down and now looking back, wished he had made. As it turns out, there was. It was the film version of the stage hit, “Born Yesterday” starring opposite Judy Holiday. Sid was offered the role of Harry Brock, the part that eventually went to Broderick Crawford. Sid had to turn it down because doing the weekly show at the time was so strenuous that any attempt to squeeze a filming schedule in would have just been too much, even for someone with Sid Caesar’s stamina. Boy, what a loss that was. Sid would have been perfect in that part. I tell him that he made Broderick Crawford a star because he turned down the part. “Yeah, sure,” he says with a smile.
Although Caesar’s shows were the most creative and consistently funny programs on the air, they never got into wide syndication after their initial runs and I don’t know why. “I Love Lucy” is known throughout the world today because it has been appearing in reruns for more than 50 years. Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners” shows up everywhere, all the time. Not so for Sid Caesar. And that’s really too bad. Too bad for all of us, but especially too bad for the generations who came after me who have never seen those marvelously creative shows. Most of the sketches are timeless. They absolutely hold up.
Fortunately, some of the sketches have been put together in compilation boxed sets which are available through sidcaesar.com, so thankfully we can still see some of them. I only wish all of them were available and that they could be seen on television on a regular basis again.
Asked if he had any advice for young comics he said, “Do something believable.” That’s it. That was the essence of Sid’s characters and sketches for me; they were always believable – always rooted in real life. The one motto that Sid stressed to me more than once during our time together was, “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” Indeed. And when Sid did it, the way that he did it was always believable and most definitely funny.