All Hail: Sid Caesar, 1922–2014

American comic actor and writer Sid Caesar, circa 1950. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Sid Caesar peaked just a little too early for his work to be branded into baby boomers’ brains. His Your Show of Shows (and its immediate successor, Caesar’s Hour; collectively, they ran from 1950 to 1957) was broadcast live and wasn’t aired much in reruns. Most recordings of those episodes were destroyed, too, before NBC knew what it had. His legacy comes down to us in scraps, and then a long tail of movie roles (most prominent, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Grease, and Grease 2), in which he was okay but not at his best. In the back half of his career, he fought a prescription-drug problem that sapped his ability to work, and by the time he got healthy, he was aging out of the business. Still, just enough of his earlier stuff exists to make one thing extremely clear: Sid Caesar, not Milton Berle, invented TV comedy as we know it. He is television’s Chuck Berry.

Seen today, Caesar’s shows are funny — not “oh, I think I understand that this was funny once,” but the kind of funny where you actually laugh. The sketches are often surprisingly brainy, perhaps because that early adopter TV-buying audience leaned toward the affluent and educated. There were opera parodies, faux documentaries, sly New York jokes. (Whereas Berle mugged straight to the camera, Caesar played to its strengths.) Caesar was exceptional at producing foreign-language double-talk, often delivering a script in fake German followed by fake Italian followed by fake French followed by fake Japanese. The humor was  broad enough that any viewer could be entertained, but the jokes were witty and clever enough to entertain those in the know. Here’s a snippet in which that ersatz German (and some funny English) is on exemplary display.

Two things in particular made Sid Caesar great. One was his physical prowess onstage. Caesar was a big muscular guy, and his larger-than-life, high-energy persona was perfectly made to bust through a fuzzy ten-inch black-and-white screen. Whatever that thing is that makes great stage actors seem ten feet tall, he was able to launch it through the airwaves in this crude new medium. It’s some of the same quality John Belushi brought to Saturday Night Live, and in fact, when Caesar hosted SNL in 1983, the cast presented him with an award declaring him the show’s first and only honorary cast member. They knew what he’d done.

Second, he understood that the words mattered as least as much as the images did. The writers’ rooms of Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour would be legendary if just a couple of its staffers had graduated to fame. Instead, most of them did: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Carl Reiner — plus Woody Allen, on some late-fifties Caesar TV specials — are the top of the top drawer, but the list goes deeper, into nearly every great 1970s TV show’s credit reel. How many writers’ rooms get fictionalized? How about not once but twice? Caesar’s was, onstage in Laughter on the 23rd Floor and onscreen in My Favorite Year.

Your Show of Shows — being live from New York, being relatively cerebral, being 90 minutes long — was often better than I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, and if only it had been crisply filmed and preserved, you’d probably be watching it today on Nick at Nite. Fortunately, however, it’s not completely gone. In 1973, a best-of compilation called Ten From Your Show of Shows was assembled from the remaining kinescopes. It was a revelatory Dead Sea Scrolls moment, conveying a sense of what had been — but also what we had lost. Today, we lost the real thing.

All Hail: On Sid Caesar, 1922–2014