Sid Caesar is dead at 91 and the curtain has softly closed on a comedy giant. Although giant is perhaps not a large enough term to refer to a legendary figure who, through his live comedy programs, seemed to have invented the forerunner to the TV sitcom. The comic, and comedic genius, had been ill for a year before his death on Wednesday February 12. Stars and other comic icons have come forward to speak of their sorrow at the trial blazer’s death and also to talk of his ability to connect with audiences in a way that made them “roar with laughter.”
In a sense, comedy legends do not die; they live on by benefit of their unique signature comedy and their genius becomes a living memorial to expert timing and execution of the gag or punch line. Their delivery being something that many strive for and few obtain. As quoted by another recently deceased legend Peter O’Toole in the 1982 film My Favorite Year – a movie inspired by an event on Caesar’s Your Show of Shows – and attributed to another late thespian, Sir Henry Irving: “Dying is easy…comedy is hard.”
From 1950 through 1954 Sid Caesar, and his comedic partner Imogene Coca, was comedy on American television. Live and lasting for 90 minutes, Your Show of Shows set a very high benchmark for comedy TV. Later in the show Carl Reiner and Howard Morris joined as two more regulars in the variety comedy series that basically invented sitcoms.
Reiner, another comedy legend, was a favorite on Your Show of Shows and after the program finished its run, and Imogene Coca moved on to her own series, Reiner went on to work with Caesar on the new Caesar’s Hour. Sid Caesar’s second comedy show ran from 1954 to 1957 and two years later, Carl Reiner came up with the format for a television sitcom based on his experiences working with Caesar on the two different comedy shows.
Networks turned him down, initially, until Reiner struck comedy gold by teaming up with fellow Caesar writing pal Mel Brooks and came up with the comedy routine The 2000 Year Old Man which earned both men a Grammy. CBS then decided the show about the writing staff for a comedic despot, based on Caesar and played by Reiner, was a good idea and The Dick Van Dyke Show was born.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was the first “homage” to Sid Caesar and his role as comic icon and when the show finished in 1966, the curtain closed on Alan Brady, the Reiner version of Caesar and a comedy giant, albeit a fictional one.
Years later, after Sid Caesar had leapt back into the limelight in the 1978 John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John “original” high school musical film Grease – as Coach Calhoun – another Your Show of Shows alumnus; Mel Brooks was executive producer (uncredited) on another homage to Caesar. The 1983 Richard Benjamin film My Favorite Year starring Peter O’Toole, Mark Linn-Baker, Jessica Harper and Joseph Bologna – as King Kaiser – was based on an actual event in the Sid Caesar live television show with Bologna as Caesar.
The 1982 comedy told the story of an over-the-hill matinee idol who suffers from a drinking problem who is to guest star on a live variety show based on Caesars Your Show of Shows. The film used the real life occurrence of Errol Flynn appearing on the show when Mel Brooks was a writer on the program. Flynn was turned into Alan Swann and Benji Stone, the writer who agrees to look after Swann, was an combination of Brooks and Woody Allen, who wrote for several Sid Caesar television specials after Caesar’s Hour had finished.
The film shows Caesar, or Kaiser as he’s known in the movie, as a bigger than life individual who borders on being a benevolent despot over the writers of his show. In reality, the Errol Flynn appearance on Your Show of Shows was fairly low key and uneventful. Apparently, according to Mel Brooks, Flynn never even met the writers of the comedy program.
Both of these “homages” to Sid Caesar’s comedy genius dealt only with the professional side of the comic giant. Neither Carl Reiner, nor Dennis Palumbo – who wrote My Favorite Year – mentioned the personal problems that faced Caesar over the years and during the time of his award winning comedy shows. The comedy legend suffered for years from alcohol and substance misuse and Caesar wrote of his trials and struggles to overcome his personal demons in the 1983 autobiography Where Have I Been and in the follow up book Caesar’s Hours.
The curtain has closed on a comedy giant, but, Sid Caesar will live on in the memories of those old enough to have experienced his brand of comedy. The comic who described his type of comedy as “being someone’s Uncle David” and whose own comedy idols were Charley Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy is gone and it is very unlikely that the world will see genius like his again. R.I.P. Sid Caesar who was one of a kind.
By Michael Smith