Sid Caesar was perhaps the oddest genius and giant in the history of television. He was, unquestionably, both – one of the tiny handful of people in TV’s early days who deserved to have both G-words thrown at him.
The trouble is, he was, in effect, a genius in live TV for only about eight years. After that, he was a man condemned to lead a virtually posthumous life for five decades. That life ended Wednesday at the age of 91, with Larry King reporting Caesar’s death on Twitter.
Caesar, after his initial fame, would show up here and there, usually in places where people would treat him as he were the same comedic giant and TV pioneer who had helped a new medium conquer America. That was the man on “Your Show of Shows” from 1950 to ’54, “Caesar’s Hour” from 1954 to ’57 and “Sid Caesar Invites You” in 1958.
He wasn’t the same, of course. The great critic Pauline Kael’s theory was that he was never the same after he had lost the excess weight. His autobiography describes the offstage “violent drunk” and drug abuser he was – a man, in effect, who couldn’t help but burn himself out. But he could still, in later years, do dazzling double talk and dialects. He could still give audiences the minor flicker of what he once did with a phosphorescent burn that sometimes teetered on the brink of the truly terrifying.
You had to see, for instance, Caesar in an early ’50s parody of Ralph Edwards’ “This Is Your Life” playing a man who just did not, for the life of him, want the story of his life told to millions of people on television.
Caesar was big and beefy back then and, by anecdote, almost as strong as a middle linebacker. He ran around the audience, chased by TV studio ushers pretending to try to trap him and force him up on the stage so that his life story could be told to early TV’s sentimental watchers. Caesar’s sweaty pushings and shovings of those extras were actually terrifying to watch. His genius, in those years, was that he was a comic who seemed genuinely violent and scary.
And then, when the big sweat-soaked lug was finally trapped into submitting to the indignity, he discovers that one of the voices from his past come to pay tribute belongs to his beloved “Uncle Goopy” played by tiny Caesar show regular Howie Morris. The sight of Morris, weighing about as much as a wet beach towel, clinging to the bottom of immense Caesar’s leg as he galumphed across the stage remains one of the greatest comic sights from early television.
His show was full of such things, all enacted by Caesar and his stock company (Morris, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca) with inspired brilliance.
His writers room seems to us now a kind of post-Borscht Belt assemblage of comic genius. Mel Brooks was the undisputed maniac and star. The Simon Brothers – Doc and younger brother Neil – were part of the glue the kept Brooks rooted to earth. Larry Gelbart, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin and Reiner were fireplugs to keep the engines going. And Woody Allen was their writer’s assistant.
That singular assemblage of comedy brains has made that show fodder for all sorts of fantasies from “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (Alan Brady was a kind of slightly calmer Caesar) to the movie “My Favorite Year.”
That writers’ room became the Comedy Establishment for the next two generations of American show business.
It was part of the technological genius of the new medium called television that kinescopes of what Caesar did back then were saved and can still be watched now for the mind-boggling and hilarious things they are.
It may be an exaggeration to say that without Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, early television wasn’t ever likely to amount to all that much.
With them, though, it gave the world a leap of comic imagination equal to the technological leap of the medium itself.