Comic legend Sid Caesar passed away Wednesday, after a brief illness, at his Beverly Hills home. The influential genius of early television sketch comedy, dead at 91, was adored and revered by countless other comedians of the era. He was a comedian’s comedian.
Sid Caesar was born, on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, New York. The youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, Sid developed his trademark foreign language double talk by keeping a close ear on the customers chit-chat at the counter of the little diner his parents owned and operated.
Moody and shy as a boy, he was not thought of very highly by early teachers, but the possibilities of a life in show business opened up for him when he learned to play the saxophone. Music gigs in the Catskills, where comedians flourished during much of the early part of the last century, gave him the opportunity to try out his comedic chops. It was in this form of entertainment where he would eventually leave his mark.
During the early 1950’s, Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows,” was the Saturday night favorite for households across the nation. An hour and a half of comic sketches and variety acts, this influential format established his genius and laid down a template for television entertainment for decades to come. The large number of late night talk shows and the powerhouse of Saturday Night Live make it clear that the format is still not dead.
Caesar struggled in later life with addiction and personality issues and almost completely disappeared from the public eye. During the late 1970’s Caesar was so far down the hole of alcohol and pill addiction that, for a brief period, he spent more time in bed than out of it. Finally, in the 1980’s he was able to shake off his past. He worked hard to develop new habits and a healthier way of living. It worked and he found renewed success, though nothing like the early years, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1985. It would be hard to think of someone more deserving of that honor than Sidney Caesar.
In the following years, Caesar made appearances in several movies including The Cheap Detective, Vegas Vacation, Silent Movie, and History of the World Part I. He hosted Saturday Night Live, a show whose very existence is a direct result of this legacy, and appeared on Broadway with his stage partner from some of his most memorable early performances, Imogene Coca.
His work not only influenced the direction television comedy entertainment would take for the next 50 years, but helped the careers of so many other comic legends, whose genius has kept us laughing all those years. At one time or another, Mel Tolkin, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brookes, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen all worked with this influential performer, now dead at 91. Happily, we can be sure his was a good life. Said Caesar, in a 1992 interview with the Boston Globe, “I’m a happy man now. Contented.”
By Brian Ryer