Sid Caesar: Comedy's Professor
The only person to be named an honorary cast member of Saturday Night Live. From an institution that produced countless legends, Sid Caesar stood apart from his peers and recognized by his comedic descendants as the one true inspiration to their craft.
Sid Caesar and his team of writers and performers redefined comedy and established the modern form of satire that exists to this day. If it wasn’t for his 1950’s television variety programs “Your Show of Shows” & “Caesar’s Hour”, there would not be an SNL, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Mad Magazine, National Lampoon and a plethora of endless comedy material that made America laugh for the past 65 years.
Caesar cleverly combined sketch comedy with satire and introduced the craft to millions of newly introduced TV owners. The brief vignettes mocked contemporary pop culture, including recurring bits like the predecessor to “The Honeymooners” called “The Hickenloopers,” TV’s first bickering couple or “The Professor” a clueless expert maneuvering through interviews with reporter Carl Reiner.
Breaking away from the broad slapstick of radio and vaudeville, Caesars brand of mini set pieces and intimate character development created a new trend in comedy. Built like a football player attached with a cartoonish rubbery face, without saying a word Caesar could make an audience laugh or resort to his familiar double talk pantomime routine and mesmerize. With live television improvisation is a necessary tool to survive, and Caesar was a master. Check out his infamous parody of an opera star preparing his makeup in the dressing room when the makeup pencil broke and Caesar brilliantly recovered from the defective prop.
From “Caesar’s Hour, ” October 10, 1955 on NBC. This kinescoped sketch is a take-off on the Italian opera “Pagliacci”. Sid Caesar was supposed to paint a teardrop on his cheek when the mascara pencil broke at the beginning and he brilliantly improvised his way out of the prop mishap to comedy gold.
Some of Caesar’s success can be attributed to being born at the right time. He came of age when the Catskill Borscht Belt comedy scene was taking off, honing his craft in front of a live audience. By 1950, TV was a new medium looking for content, and Caesar’s growing popularity made him the perfect fit for Saturday night. The untested and small market of a TV audience was willing to gamble on a relatively unknown son of Polish/Russian immigrants to entertain them.
Caesar’s team of performers includes Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and Imogene Coca and writers Lucille Kallen, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Michael Stewart, Mel Tolkin, Joseph Stein, Sheldon Keller and Larry Gelbart. In later years, a very young Woody Allen became a writer for Caesar.
Forgotten now, most of these writers had successful careers after Caesar. Mel Tolkin was story editor & wrote several scripts for “All in the Family;” he also wrote for Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, and Danny Thomas. Lucille Kallen was the lone female writer on the staff and early television, she wrote the Broadway play, ”Maybe Tuesday,” five mysteries and the novel ”Outside There, Somewhere,” an early comedic feminist exploration. Michael Stewart co-wrote the plays “Bye Bye Birdie”, “Hello Dolly”, “Carnival” and several more. Sheldon Keller also wrote several episodes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” “M*A*S*H,” and many other shows, specials & films. Joseph Stein created “Fiddler on the Roof.”
More familiar were Larry Gelbart, who created the show “M*A*S*H,” and wrote the screenplays for “Tootsie”, “Oh, God!” and several others. Carl Reiner created “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and directed “The Jerk.” Neil Simon became one of the most successful playwrights of a generation, with “Barefoot in the Park, “”The Odd Couple, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and much more. Mel Brooks success is too long to encapsulate in a sentence.
What these writers had in common was Sid Caesar.
His influence was felt more than we recognize. One small tidbit includes the legendary story when Sid Caesar punched out a horse with one hit after it threw his wife of his back. The same scene was famously recreated in Mel Brooks “Blazing Saddle.”
On his death, Carl Reiner commented, “He was the ultimate; he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.”
Mel Brooks said, “Sid Caesar was a giant, maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade. And I was privileged to be one of his writers and one of his friends.”
America lost one of its professors, student and collaborator of comedy. Rest in Peace Sid Caesar.