The death of Sid Caesar on Wednesday caused a chain reaction in my soon-to-be 66-year-old mind. I was saddened, of course, but felt a sense of relief that he was at last free from the indignity of aging. Then I felt a nostalgic breeze blowing over me as I remembered why he was so important to me.
Sixty years ago or so, we Crystals sat in front of our grainy Dumont black-and-white television set to watch “Your Show of Shows.” We gathered religiously as a family to laugh at Sid Caesar and his all-stars, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and Imogene Coca. They were doing a parody of “The King and I,” and Sid, as Yul Brynner, complete with bald cap, made his entrance. After assuming the famous hands-on-hips pose of the great king, he suddenly grabbed his bare foot and screamed, “Who’s smoking in the palace?” For whatever reason, it just made me laugh.
From then on, that was my favorite line. At 6, coming out of the bathtub, as my mom toweled me off, I’d grab my bare foot and scream, “Who’s smoking in the palace?” If we went to the beach on a hot summer day, “Who’s smoking in the palace?” would fly out of my mouth as my foot touched the glistening sand. (My 4-year-old grandson says it now and has no idea why.)
On another show, Sid and company performed their “This Is Your Life” sketch. Based on a real episode with broadcaster Lowell Thomas, who took part reluctantly, Sid is brought up onstage by Carl Reiner to sort through his life. Morris, a most underrated second banana, appeared as Uncle Goopy, a tiny, emotional man who bursts into wailing tears when he sees his nephew.
He jumped on Sid, who carried him around the set, first on his back, then dragging him as he clung to his leg. We were exhausted from laughing. This became how I would go to sleep at bedtime. When my dad would come home late from work, he’d come in to check on us, and I became Uncle Goopy. He’d lug me around my bedroom, first on his back, then as I clung to his leg, laughing all the way until I could fall asleep.
I became as enamored with Sid and company as I did with the New York Yankees, two great teams with charismatic stars, Mickey Mantle and Sid Caesar, both in their glorious primes. I grew to imitate Sid’s powerhouse approach to sketch comedy. His virtuoso abilities in language and mime were as seductive as hitting from both sides of the plate.
The first time I met Sid was at the initial Comic Relief telethon I co-hosted with Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg, in 1986. After a clip package that had the audience howling, we brought out Sid and then Carl, Imogene and Morris, the cast of “Your Show of Shows” and Sid’s later program, “Caesar’s Hour,” to a thunderous reception. It might have been the last time they were all together. It was thrilling.
I have performed my one-man show “700 Sundays” more than 400 times now. There were only two times that I can honestly say I was nervous. The first was when I knew Mel Brooks was in the audience, and the second was when Sid Caesar came. I have had the great fortune of being friends with Mel for years. This former writer of Sid’s is a comic genius and a true icon to me. The show went well, and when Mel saw me backstage, the first thing he said was, “Sid should see this.”
I lost my breath. Could that happen?
We had plans to take the show to Los Angeles, and Mel said he’d help. I called Sid myself and invited him. He said it would be hard for him to get there because he was in a wheelchair now. I told him we’d pick him up, and we had a special place he could watch from. It’s a little late for me, he said, so we moved the show to a matinee.
We held the curtain until he was in place. To many, he went unnoticed, merely another elderly person in a wheelchair. But when others realized that it was Sid, you could see a look of amazement that they were in his presence.
I wanted to be perfect that day. Knowing he was there gave me an extra surge of energy.
We met afterward, and it was just magical. He held out his arms and simply said, “Wow.” We had changed places. The powerhouse I first saw on television had come to watch me. We hugged and cried a little. He knew how I felt about him, and all I could do was whisper, “Thanks for coming.” It wasn’t just a thank you for coming that day. It was a thank you for coming into my life, for inspiring me to want to be funny.
A few years later, I was invited to his house and spent some time with Sid, who was very frail and no longer the mighty man who had carried Uncle Goopy and television comedy on his back. I noticed that he was watching the Academy screeners for best picture. The box for the mostly silent “The Artist” was at the foot of his hospital bed. I mentioned that it reminded me of the wonderful silent-movie-star piece he had done 60 years earlier. Sid played a star who, when talkies are invented, loses his career because he has a high-pitched voice.
I threw some lines at him, and he threw them back, the same way I once got to play catch with Mickey Mantle. Sid became so alert, and so funny, and it was just beautiful.
We ran through some other sketches, and there I was, watching the great Sid Caesar, and laughing, and once again thinking, “My God, I wish I could do that.”