The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
Last week, as I’m sure you’re already well aware, we lost one of the greats. Sid Caesar passed away at the age of 91. This week Mel Brooks went on Conan to pay tribute to his old boss and friend, and much has been written about Caesar’s illustrious career within the confines of this column alone (here and here). Today we look once again at the legend, but not as a superstar of the world of comedy. Instead, we attempt to see him as just a man.
But let’s jump away from Sid for just one second. In the 1950s, there was no television journalist more respected than Edward R. Murrow, and if you’ve seen Good Night and Good Luck, you know why. Murrow had a reputation for being forthright and honest in his delivery of the news, and was not afraid to rattle cages to do so. The aforementioned film focuses on his takedown of Senator McCarthy on Murrow’s hard-hitting news program, See it Now. In addition to that program, Murrow also hosted a show devoted just to live celebrity interviews, conducted remotely, with Murrow in studio and the celebrity in their house. It was sort of a 1950s combination of Cribs and Ellen. Hosted by a chain smoking newsman. On Friday, October 1, 1954 at 10:30, Murrow’s camera crew crammed themselves into the Park Avenue apartment of Sid and Florence Caesar.
Before Sid enlisted in the Coast Guard, he was going to be a saxophonist. At the age of 14 he traveled from his hometown of Yonkers to New York City. He was unable to join the local 802 musicians union until he established residency in the city at which point he became a doorman at the Capitol Theater where, as he says in his interview, he would tell women what kind of sandwich they had time to eat before the show would start. He would later find work in the Catskills as a musician and according to his biography, Caesar’s Hours, it was here that he would first get the taste for comedy in front of a crowd. He would continue to hone that skill while stationed in New York with the Coast Guard as he performed shows for the boys in uniform, with a specialty in satirizing the brass in charge. Being stationed close to home meant he could continue seeing his sweetheart Florence, whom he would marry in 1943 and would remain married to until her death in 2010.
When the cameras begin their broadcast to Murrow’s studio, we immediately see Sid sitting in his kids’ bedroom with his son Richard, then age 2, who refused to go to sleep because he wanted to be on television, along with his seven-year old sister Shelly. Sid says good night to them and tells them to go to bed, and as he moves into the living room to join his wife, Murrow asks, “do the children ever make you work at home?” Sid tells him that he’s not a comedian at home, an answer that is echoed by his wife when she is asked basically the same question about her husband. “People ask me that a lot. [He’s not funny] all the time. He’s very serious about his work. Most comedians do. And they worry a lot. Comedy is a serous business.” As she gives her answer, it’s unclear if her furrowed brow indicates she’s just concentrating on answering the question on live television or if she’s pulling forth from an answer she’s given many times before. In fact, in a 2009 interview with the local paper of Toluca Lake, California, she gives a very similar answer: “You know, he’s not funny all the time. He can be very serious.”
Back in 1954, Sid continues on the thread of comedy being a serious business. Making the point that one must be able to see the serious side of life in order to acknowledge the humor, he says the following: “If somebody falls down the stairs, you feel sorry for them, but while they’re coming down the stairs they look funny coming down. But, after it’s over, you go and pick them up, naturally. It’s the spur of the moment, absolute thing that you hits at that time.” What I love about this moment in the interview is that this quote is similar to one that would come from the then-Caesar employee, Mel Brooks in 1961: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” While accomplishing different goals, I can’t help but wonder if Sid’s inspired Mel’s.
When asked what he does to relax, Sid offers to show Murrow, but before doing so he puts on a big show of asking his wife for permission to leave, kisses her hand repeatedly before telling the viewers at home that because she’s beautiful, “you’ve got to pay attention.” Whether this is being played up for the cameras or sincerely how doting a husband he was is uncertain, but they remained married for 67 years, so he must have done something right. It is at this point that we are brought into the gun room. It’s a very small room, off of the living room, but it’s simply packed with rifles, all watched over by a mounted deer head hanging from the wall. He briefly tells the story of how he shot the deer, the only animal he’s ever killed, despite the armory in his apartment. He shot the deer, set down his gun and ran over to it, and it sprang up and began to run away. He ran back to his gun and shot it again, killing it. Then when he put on the deer card to mark it as his kill, he misspelled his name, flustered from the experience.
Back in the living room, Sid shows of his sculptures and paintings, including one done by his wife of their house in Westport. His interest in paintings comes from reading the book Lust for Life by Irving Stone about the life of Vincent Van Gough (whose name Sid pronounces formally). It was through reading this book that Caesar felt a kinship with the impressionist artists. “It’s what I want to do in comedy…just give an impression and maybe exaggerate it a bit.”
However produced this visit to Caesar’s home might have been, it’s clear that deep down, Sid was authentically someone who cared deeply about comedy but when he wasn’t performing, he was a very serious person. When Murrow asks him what he’d like to be if he weren’t Sid Caesar the comedian, Sid doesn’t hesitate to give his answer. “I’d like to be Albert Einstein. He’s given so much to the world, and I’d like to contribute one one thousandth of what he’s done. And what he has done won’t be known for another hundred years.” We may not have heard much from Sid after he left television in 1957, but while he was there, his star shined very brightly and inspired so much of the comedy we have today. Without Sid, comedy as a whole would look very different indeed.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries, “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” just premiered a new episode featuring Josh Gondelman and tons of other funny people.