When Funny Was Really Funny
Funny. Remember funny? I do. My earliest memory of funny was sitting on the couch with my mother and father and seeing them doubled over with laughter as they watched Sid Caesar on television in “Your Show of Shows.” I wasn’t laughing, being only about one- or two-years old at the time I didn’t know how yet, but as the years went by and I continued to watch Sid Caesar, I learned what funny was. Oh boy, did I learn.
It wasn’t jokes that made Sid Caesar funny. It wasn’t pratfalls or goofy props or slapstick knock-about routines. And it wasn’t funny faces, although he certainly could do them when the occasion warranted. No, Caesar was funny because he was real; he was honest. I believed him in every one of the sketches he was in. I believed him because he believed who he was in those sketches.
For me he was never a comic pretending to be a husband with insomnia – he was that husband with insomnia. He was a bullfighter. He was that crazy German professor. Sid Caesar became each character he was portraying. Believability is not only a crucial element of a great comedian; it is the sign of a truly great actor. Not many comics have it. Buster Keaton had it. Laurel and Hardy had it. W.C. Fields had it. Jack Benny had it. On TV, Jackie Gleason had believability, Lucile Ball had it in “I Love Lucy,” Dick Van Dyke had it, and Sid Caesar has it in spades.
Of course honesty and believability alone aren’t enough to make you funny. You need a few other qualities like impeccable comic timing, spot-on delivery, an ear for dialect, the skill to burlesque it, an ability to ad-lib and that indescribable feeling down deep in the kishkes (guts) that tells you that something is not just funny, but really works! Put those qualities all together, they spell Sid Caesar – the man who showed me what funny was over fifty years ago.
I should add that it certainly doesn’t hurt to have co-stars such as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris performing with you. And the fact that some of the best young comedy writers in the business were writing on the show was also a major plus. But frankly, all the Neil Simons, Mel Brookses and Larry Gelbarts in the world won’t make you funny if you don’t have the goods. I doubt that even the esteemed writer’s room of “Your Show of Shows” could have turned Marlon Brando into a first rate sketch comedian. As much as the writers helped make Caesar a star, it was working with Caesar that helped make the writers stars.
Along with Jack Benny and Buster Keaton, Sid Caesar was one of my idols. I eventually got into comedy writing myself. I have spent most of my working life at the Walt Disney Studio, a good deal of it in writing gags, comic stories and drawing animation storyboards. I never expected that I would ever have an opportunity to meet one of my idols in person. Then out of the blue about a week ago, I got a message to call a guy.
The guy happened to be the character actor, Lee Delano. He was very nice on the phone and said how he had been reading my columns for awhile and enjoyed my work. Then he mentioned that he had been Sid Caesar’s co-star for the past 30 years, basically replacing Carl Reiner’s straight man role from the early 50’s shows. Lee had toured with Sid all over the world, performing the great sketch comedy that had made Sid so famous.
And then he asked, “How would you like to meet Sid Caesar in person?” I couldn’t believe my ears. That would be like someone asking, “How would you like to have ten or twelve million dollars?” Lee said he would get with Sid, set it up and call me back. In the meantime Lee sent over a DVD of a couple of sketches he did with Sid awhile back – very funny stuff.
As of this writing, I haven’t yet met with Sid Caesar but it could very well take place in the next couple of days. I’m not sure what I could possibly say to Mr. Caesar that ten thousand other fans haven’t already said to him. The man has won, I don’t know, maybe seventy-two Emmys and has gotten at least a billion other awards and honors over the years. What does one say to a legend? What does one ask a comedy genius?
Maybe I’ll just thank him. Thank him for showing me all those many years ago what funny is all about. Every young comedy writer should take a month off and sit in a room in front of a DVD player and watch those classic Sid Caesar comedy sketches. That’s how it’s done, guys. No bodily function jokes, no four-letter words, no hard-edged ugly street slang, no put downs. Just pure funny. Believable. Honest. No one has ever been funnier than Sid Caesar. No one.