Note: The following piece originally appeared in The Jewish Week on Nov. 6, 2003, on the occasion of the publication of Sid Caesar’s memoir, “Caesar’s Hours,” which had grown out of an article published in The Jewish Week several years earlier. We reprint it here as an appreciation for the legendary comic, who died last week in Beverly Hills, Calif., at 91.
When Sid Caesar was a boy growing up in Yonkers, his parents owned a restaurant, frequented by immigrants from many countries. The young Caesar would bus tables, listening to the sounds and picking up words and nuances. Then, he began speaking in double-talk — an invented gibberish, using fake words and a real accent to convey a foreign language — which would become one of the trademarks of his humor. Even back then, he had the entire restaurant laughing.
Last week, when The Jewish Week met the 81-year-old comedian during his visit to New York City, he spoke at various times in double-talk French, German and Yiddish, adding a certain authenticity to his made-up language with a hand gesture or shrug. His blue eyes still twinkle as he performs, even to an appreciative audience of one at The Pierre.
Caesar has just published “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter” written with Eddie Friedfeld (Public Affairs). This is more a book about his art than an autobiography, focusing on his development as a comic and his years with “Your Show of Shows,” the pioneering live television show of comic sketches that premiered in the 1950s, and the show that followed it, “Caesar’s Hour.”
Those shows are inscribed in America’s cultural consciousness for their profound humor and Caesar’s talent in slipping into all sorts of characters, and also for the legacy of the Writer’s Room, where a group including Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks and, in later years, Woody Allen, gathered along with Caesar to write and craft 90 minutes of live television. They took their comedy very seriously.
“It was a tremendous job. We were nuts,” Caesar says. Their meetings were “jam sessions. You play your version and someone else plays his.” He adds, “We all learned a lot from each other, just sitting in that room.”
Included in the book are transcripts of some of the classic sketches, featuring the Hickenloopers, the Commuters, the German general, the Professor, who was invariably wrong on every subject on which he was an “expert,” and others featuring his co-stars, Imogene Coca and Nanette Fabray. The cover photograph is Caesar in one of his favorite sketches, “The Five Dollar Date.”
The book covers Caesar’s early life and his comic antics with his brother Dave, whom he describes as the funnier brother, but one who would freeze in front of an audience. He writes about his years as a musician — he plays saxophone and clarinet — and then a comic in the Catskills, his service in the Coast Guard during World War II, when he wrote and toured in “Tars and Spars.” Then, he met the show’s civilian director, Max Liebman, who would later direct “Your Show of Shows.”
Recalling the show, Caesar emphasizes that people are still surprised to hear that it was done live, with no editing possible, with 60 million people watching. “I had no laugh track,” he says. “I had to play the audience.”
How important is the audience? “There is nobody who can be funny without an audience. You don’t know what you’re doing. It would be like playing handball without a wall, playing football without a team — you can throw the ball as long as you want and nobody’s going to catch it. It’s their reaction,” he said.
For Caesar, all humor comes out of pain. “But you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to know the truth.”
It’s surprising to hear one of the funniest men in America describe himself as shy. He says that it’s difficult for him to approach someone he doesn’t know in a social situation. He admits that once he immerses himself in a character, he comes alive. “Being on stage is different. That’s my line of work.”
In one chapter toward the end titled “Conquering Demons,” Caesar turns his attention to the decades after “Caesar’s Hour” went off the air, when he was plagued with depression and addicted to pills and alcohol. He describes the lowest point of his life, in 1977, when his addictions not only hurt his family life, but also hurt his art. While performing on stage, for the first time ever, he couldn’t remember any of his lines. Soon after that, he faced up to himself, made the decision to choose life, and entered a hospital for treatment. Two years later, while in Paris, he made another positive turn on the road to recovery, realizing that he had to make friends with himself, a refrain he repeats often during the course of the interview. He has now been alcohol free for more than two decades and written, “I know I’ll never go back.”
During the interview, Caesar’s wife of 60 years, Florence, enters the room and he says he would do anything, anything for her. In the book, he explains that she’s the reason that he’s still alive, having stood by him through years of adversity. “She is the most beautiful version of the Rock of Gibralter I will ever see in my life,” he writes.
His new book grew out of a profile that Friedfeld, a Manhattan-based entertainment journalist and film critic, did on Caesar for The Jewish Week in November 2000.
“Sid was really an impresario and cultivator of talent as much as a performer,” Friedfeld comments, noting that Caesar is a natural teacher. “Working with Sid was the most demanding experience and the most rewarding one I have ever had.”
“Too much has been made of the image of him as a sad clown,” he says. “It just isn’t true. As a colleague and friend, he’s an uplifting and inspiring person.”
When asked about a next project, Caesar admits to having none, but recognizes that this response disappoints many people who expect him to keep working and performing. He is involved in digitally remastering the old television shows for release in DVD format. Because he didn’t want the shows to be cut or edited, he never agreed to any sort of television syndication. But now many of the shows are available for home viewing, for fans old and new.
Caesar lives in Beverly Hills and still gets together with his writer buddies regularly. “If I’ve learned anything over the years,” he writes, “it’s that a little laughter is good for the soul.”