Monday, February 17, 2014

The Late Great Sid Caesar

Comic and television pioneer Sid Caesar died 12 February 2014 at the age of 91. He was perhaps best known for the television programmes Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour.

Sid Caesar was born 8 September 1922 in Yonkers, New York. His parents, Max and Ida Caesar, operated a luncheonette that catered to a multi-ethnic clientèle. It was while listening to the customers at the luncheonette speak in their native tongues that young Mr. Caesar developed the technique he called "double talk", essentially sounding as if one was speaking a foreign tongue without actually saying anything. He also learned the saxophone while very young. He was only 14 when he went to work as a saxophonist in the Catskills over his summer vacation. He would also occasionally appeared in comedy sketches.

Sid Caesar graduated from Yonkers High School in 1939. He moved to New York City in the hope of creating a career as a musician there. He found work as an usher and a doorman at the Capitol Theatre. He audited classes at the Juilliard School of Music, where he studied clarinet and saxophone. Eventually he found a job with the Shep Fields Orchestra. It was while he was with the Shep Fields Orchestra that Mr. Caesar made his film debut in the short "Shep Fields and His New Music with Ken Curtis" (1941). Following his stint with Shep Fields he found a job as a saxophonist at the Vacationland resort in the Catskills. Sid Caesar followed Don Appel, the entertainment director at Vacationland, when he took a position at Kutscher's Hotel in Monticello, New York. The two would later move to the Avon Lodge in Woodridge, New York.

With the United States' entry into World War II Mr. Caesar enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. He was stationed in Brooklyn. It was while he was stationed in Brooklyn that he wrote sketches for a Coast Guard musical revue Six On, Twelve Off. Sid Caesar was later transferred to Palm Beach, Florida, where he was cast in the Coast Guard musical revue Tars and Spars. Tars and Spars was directed by Max Liebman, who would play a pivotal role in his career.

Following the end of the war Sid Caesar made his feature film debut in the movie version  of Tars and Spars (1946). He was signed to Columbia Pictures, but he only appeared in one other film for the studio, The Guilt of Janet Ames in 1947. Sid Caesar then returned to New York City and started a career as a night club comic. He reconnected with Max Liebman, who would help a good deal with Mr. Caesar's career. It was because of Mr. Liebman that Sid Caesar was cast in the Broadway production Make Mine Manhattan in 1948. Despite his success on Broadway, Sid Caesar's future would be in television. He made his television debut in 1948 on Tonight on Broadway when the show aired Make Mine Manhattan live. This was followed by appearances on Texaco Star Theatre (starring Milton Berle)  the same year.

It was in 1949 that Sid Caesar became the host of his own show, The Admiral Broadway Revue, created by Max Liebman. In many respects the hour long show was a dry run for Your Show of Shows. Imongene Coca was a member of the cast and among its writers were Mel Brooks and Mel Tonkin. While The Admiral Broadway Revue proved popular, in the end it lasted only 19 weeks. The reason for its cancellation was that Admiral simply decided to spend the money it cost to produce the show on manufacturing its television sets instead. Max Liebman, Sid Caesar, and Imogene Coca would not be off the air long. NBC executive and legendary television programmer Pat Weaver admired their work and as a result Your Show of Shows debuted on 25 February 1950.

In many respects Your Show of Shows was revolutionary. Quite simply, it was the direct ancestor of every sketch comedy show that has aired ever since, from Saturday Night Live to In Living Colour. What is more its sketches ran the gamut from parodies of films (their spoof of From Here to Eternity being among the most famous) to situation comedies (the recurring "Hickenloopers" sketches) to parodies of operas by Verdi. In addition to Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca the cast also included Carl Reiner (who also served as a writer on the show) and Howard Morris. Writers on Your Show of Shows included some now famous names, among them Mel Brooks, Danny Simon, Neil Simon, and Mel Tonkin.

Sadly, Your Show of Shows proved to be a victim of its own success. According to Sid Caesar in an interview with the Archive of American Television, NBC decided that they could have even more success if they gave Sid Caesar his own show, Imogene Coca her own show, and assigned Max Liebman to making specials. Sid Caesar's next show, Caesar's Hour, debuted the same year that Your Show of Shows went off the air. It could largely be considered a continuation of Your Show of Shows. Carl Reiner and Howard Morris were both members of the cast (with Nanette Fabray taking Imogene Coca's place). Mel Brooks, Danny Simon, Neil Simon, and Mel Tonkin were all writers on the show, joined by Larry Gelbart. The format was also largely the same, although Caesar's Hour differed from Your Show of Shows in that some sketches ran a half hour or longer. Caesar's Hour ran for three years before going off the air on 25 May 1957. He appeared in a special on NBC, The Sid Caesar Show, on 2 November 1958. The special not only featured Imogene Coca, but was written by Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen.

Sid Caesar would not be off the air for long. He returned to television in the 1957-1958 season, but not on NBC. Sid Caesar Invites You debuted on ABC on 26 January 1958. It also reunited Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner with Imogene Coca. Sid Caesar Invites You also boasted some of the same writers as Caesar's Hour, including Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, and Neil Simon. Unfortunately, it repeated neither the success of Your Show of Shows or Caesar's Hour and left the air on 25 May 1958; however, ABC's cancellation of Sid Caesar Invites You would not mean the end of the show. The BBC approached Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca about reviving Sid Caesar Invites You in the United Kingdom. The British edition of Sid Caesar Invites You debuted on 23 July 1958. Unfortunately it proved no more success in Britain than it did here and ran only 13 weeks.

During the Fifties Sid Caesar appeared on shows other than his own, including The Colgate Comedy Hour, Producer's Showcase, The Paul Winchell Show, Person to Person, Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall, and The United States Steel Hour.

Unfortunately, Sid Caesar would not see the success in the Sixties that he had in the Fifties. He had his own show again during the 1963-1964 season. The Sid Caesar Show featured Bea Arthur from Caesar's Hour and Woody Allen was among its writers, but it would not be a hit. The Sid Caesar Show debuted on ABC on 3 November 1963 and left the air on 26 March 1964. He starred in the specials As Caesar Sees It and Sid Caesar - Edie Adams Together, as well as The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special, which reunited the cast of Your Show of Shows. He guest starred on such shows as G. E. Theatre, Checkmate, The Jerry Lewis Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Gary Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Danny Thomas Hour, That Girl, The Steve Allen Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, and The Jackie Gleason Show He also appeared in the films It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), The Busy Body (1967), A Guide for the Married Man (1967), and The Spirit Is Willing (1967). He appeared on Broadway in Little Me in 1963.

In the Seventies Sid Caesar appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The David Frost Show, Love, American Style, various Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, Dinah!, Good Heavens, When Things Were Rotten, Van Dyke and Company, Vega$, and The Merv Griffin Show. He appeared in the films Airport 1975 (1974). Silent Movie (1976), Fire Sale (1977), The Cheap Detective (1978), Grease (1978), and The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980). He appeared on Broadway in Four on a Garden.

From the Eighties to the Naughts Mr. Caesar appeared on such shows as The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Matt Houston, Saturday Night Live, The Love Boat, Amazing Stories, The Tonight Show, The Pat Sajack Show, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Love & War, Mad About You, and Whose Line is It Anyway. He appeared in the films History of the World: Part I (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Over the Brooklyn Bridge (1984), Stoogemania (1986), Vegas Vacation (1997), The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998), Lunch (2012), The Outrageous Sophie Tucker (2013), and When Comedy Went to School (2013). He appeared on Broadway one last time in the revue Sid Caesar & Company in 1989.

In some respects it is not enough to say that Sid Caesar was a television pioneer. Mr. Caesar, Max Liebman, his fellow cast members of Your Show of Shows, and the writers on Your Show of Shows truly revolutionised the medium of television. Prior to the debut of Your Show of Shows television comedy was dominated by variety shows that owed a good deal to vaudeville (one liners, seltzer bottles, and slapstick) and situation comedies that had migrated from radio. Sid Caesar and his colleagues at Your Show of Shows developed a style of comedy that was entirely unique to television. Indeed, unlike many comedy programmes of the era, Your Show of Shows entirely avoided one-liners. Instead the show relied on clever dialogue, well developed characters, satire, and outrageous plots for its comedy. Indeed, much of the comedy on Your Show of Shows (and on Caesar's Hour as well) was purely visual, with some sketches performed entirely in pantomime.

Of course, in reinventing comedy for the small screen, Sid Caesar and his colleagues at Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour virtually laid the blueprint for all sketch comedy shows to come. In fact, it would be fair to say that Saturday Night Live is little more than Your Show of Shows with a different cast and title (although Your Show of Shows was much, much funnier). There has probably never been an American sketch comedy show that did not feel Sid Caesar's influence. The Carol Burnett Show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, In Living Colour, and virtually every other sketch comedy show owes something to Your Show of Shows and Sid Caesar.

 Here it must be pointed out that the impact of Your Show of Shows would go beyond sketch comedy. It would have a lasting impact in other ways as well. Carl Reiner has said that his experiences on Your Show of Shows inspired The Dick Van Dyke Show. He also drew upon his experiences on the show for his film My Favourite Year (1982). Neil Simon based his play Laughter on the 23rd Floor on his experiences on the show. The recurring "Professor" sketches from Your Show of Shows would inspire Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks'  comedy skit "The Two Thousand Year Old Man". Beyond The Dick Van Dyke Show, Your Show of Shows would even have a lasting impact on sitcoms. The recurring "Hickenloopers" sketches featured what may have been television's first squabbling married couple, pre-dating even The Honeymooners.

The debt television owes to Sid Caesar and his colleagues at Your Show of Shows is probably immeasurable. In a time when slapstick and one-liners were still the rule of the day on American television, Sid Caesar and his collaborators reinvented comedy for television and set the pace for all sketch comedy shows to come. It is quite possible that American television would be very different had it not been for Sid Caesar.

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