In the history of television, Sid Caesar goes so far back he might as well be Julius Caesar.
He was guesting on Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater in 1948 and headlining the Admiral Broadway Revue with Imogene Coca in 1949. In other words, he dates back to when sponsors owned shows. That was not such a good thing with the Broadway Revue; when Admiral could not keep up with the demand for TV sets because Caesar and Coca were so sensational in their comedy sketches, Admiral canceled the series!
On Feb. 25, 1950, NBC launched Your Show of Shows. It starred Caesar and Coca, along with Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. The writers were not bad either: Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Michael Stewart, Mel Tolkin, and Sheldon Keller. Larry Gelbart joined the staff for the follow-up series Caesar’s Hour. Woody Allen wrote for Caesar specials that came after.
These shows, all airing in the ’50s, were 90-minute, live showcases, basically weekly Broadway revues–39 of them a season! There were no cue cards or ad libbing–producer Max Liebman wouldn’t permit it. With fewer commercials back then, it was really two hours worth of today’s television, performed by half the troupe of a Saturday Night Live–with most of the burden squarely on Caesar’s shoulders.
Much of that effort is lost today. NBC did not preserve the original tapes and even threw out their set of kinescopes. There would be no, enduring, I Love Lucy-style legacy for the Caesar shows, due perhaps as much to their topical appeal (parodies of current movies and trends were part of the comedy mix) as to the fact that, well, the damn shows are missing.
When a “Ten Best from Your Show of Shows” movie was released in 1973, it was culled from surviving kinescopes owned by Caesar and Liebman.
|Imogene Coca (left) with Caesar|
Over the years, in speaking with Reiner and Gelbart and others who saw the shows, you get a sense of how special these broadcasts were. There is a lot of talk about today’s Golden Age of television, but there is still a pretty good argument that the mid twentieth century represented a pretty unique configuration of talent.
The reverence they all had for Caesar–who died Wednesday at the age of 91–never dimmed. “He was the ultimate,” said Reiner Wednesday on news of Caesar’s passing. “The very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.”
I was born a few weeks after Caesar’s Hour went off the air in 1957. Gifted as I was as an infant I don’t remember any of it.
Growing up in the ’60s, I knew more about Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, The Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields–comedians who dated back to the silent era–than I knew about Caesar. Without the shows, it was only through the reverence paid by his peers that his reputation endured.
Being part of the horrible “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” did nothing to enhance Caesar’s reputation. Neither did “Grease” or a couple of later Mel Brooks’ movies. Neither, as Caesar confessed in two autobiographies, did decades of booze and pills.
So when I finally saw the great man first hand he already seemed older than his years. The Television Critics Association honored him with our Career Achievement Award in 2001. Caesar, then 78, looked thin and frail and was pretty much confined to a wheel chair.
The banquet room at the Ritz Carlton in Pasadena that evening was full of TV luminaries: David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos (our choice for Program of the Year in 2001), was there, as was James Gandolfini and Ken Burns, honored that year for Jazz. The casts of Malcolm in the Middle and The West Wing–also both winners that year–were also in attendance.
West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin has written about what that night meant to him, suggesting he stands on the shoulders of the Your Show of Shows writers.
We were all holding our breath, however, as Caesar slowly made his way, cane in hand, to the podium. As Sorkin noted, the great comedian needed an escort to get to the mike. He wasn’t looking, wrote Sorkin, “like someone you wanted to be.”
Some in the room wondered if Caesar had had a stroke. “You worry,” wrote Sorkin, “that this entertainer — for whom language was like a baseball coming at you from Satchel Paige — you worry that he probably can’t get a clear sentence out of his mouth.”
|Burns and Caesar at the 2001 TCA Awards|
Caesar stood there for a long pause. Then he started thanking the TCA–in French.
Well, French double-talk, a language he improvised decades earlier at the luncheonette his immigrant parents ran in Yonkers. It had been a staple of his TV act, a signature piece.
This went on for a minute-and-a-half. Then he launched into half-German.
The room wept with laughter. Almost Italian followed.
It was like seeing Mickey Mantle, in his last years, step up to the plate at Yankee Stadium and hit one last fast ball high into the upper deck. It was miraculous and moving.
Caesar did eventually get serious, and returned to the podium to thank his wife Florence. “She is my guts,” he said. The two were together 67 years, until her death in 2010.
Chase had the unenviable task of following Caesar that evening, and told the comedian that “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.” Other tributes followed from Burns and Malcolm creator Linwood Boomer.
We came to praise Caesar, and he killed. It was a real life “My Favourite Year” moment, one I’ll long treasure.