We take for granted the notion that funny can always be found on some kind of electrified square – a television, a computer, a tablet, a phone – there to distract us and let our daily stresses ride on the back of our laughter, up, up, and away. Before that was easily found, though, there was Sid Caesar, a man that became an institution with Your Show of Shows and a host of other similar shows and specials that, all together, ran from 1950 through the mid-1960s.
That Caesar’s impact can still be felt with sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live (which made Caesar an honorary cast member in 1983) and all comedy in general speaks volumes about a life that came to an end today after 91 years.
Born in Yonkers, New York in 1922, Caesar took up the saxophone as a boy, playing a hotel in the Catskills when he was 14. As a young adult, he served in the Coast Guard during World War II, taking part in a traveling revue. From there, a brief role on Broadway and an introduction to TV audiences on The Admiral Broadway Revue in 1948 helped pave the way for Caesar to get his own show in 1950.
A 90-minute live show that aired every Saturday night, Your Show of Shows featured Caesar, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, and Howard Morris playing multiple characters in a wide array of sketches. Often leading off the program, “The Hickenloopers” particularly stands out for its cultural impact. A sketch that Caesar would later call a “funny drama” and not a sketch, “The Hickenloopers” is often credited as an inspiration for the modern sitcom. When Your Show of Shows went off the air, Caesar created Caesar’s Hour, a show with a similar format and a reduced running time.
Following the end of his time as a fixture on television, Caesar receded a bit. He had roles in films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Silent Movie, and Grease, and received a Tony Award nomination for the Broadway play Little Me in 1962, but his career was surely hampered by his addiction to alcohol, which he conquered in 1977.
To talk about Caesar’s life and to appreciate all that he has meant to the comedy that we take in when we watch TV, a film, or a comedy clip on the web, one must discuss the legendary writers that put words in his mouth – writers like Mel Brooks, Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, Woody Allen, Lucille Kallen, Danny and Neil Simon, Selma Diamond, Joe Stein, and Michael Stewart.
There’s a reason why historians are fascinated by this perfect storm of youthful vigor and talent, why this collection is celebrated still. There’s a reason why, no matter the era, when great television writers’ rooms come to be – like SNL in the ’70s, like The Simpsons in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and Conan in the ’90s - they are compared to the Your Show of Show‘s writing room and the people that worked with, improved, and learned from Sid Caesar.
Just think about all of the projects that those people have brought to life onscreen and on the stage. Without them, there is no Blazing Saddles, Get Smart, The Dick Van Dyke Show (which was partially inspired by the Caesar writer’s rooms), The Jerk, The Odd Couple, Mash, or Annie Hall to name but a few highlights from the Caesar’s writers’ collective resume. Without Sid Caesar, we may have never known much of that work, and imagining comedy without those contributions is the same as imagining a car without an engine and a man without a spine.
There is no comic actor or writer working today that wasn’t inspired by something that came from someone with a connection to Sid Caesar. There is no way that the pillars of modern comedy – whoever you view them to be – stand without the foundation that was this man, and if you’ve ever used comedy to get through a hard time, laughed to forget, or just laughed to laugh, this death impacts you because the world is just a little bit less funny without Sid Caesar in it.
R.I.P. Sid Caesar, September 8, 1922 – February 12, 2014.
Source: The New York Times