CAESAR, SID

U.S. Comedian

Son of a Yonkers restaurant-owner, Sid Caesar learned first-hand the variety of dialects and accents he would later be known to mimic as a comedian. But his first performing interest was as a musician. He studied saxophone at Julliard, and later played with nationally famous bands (Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill, Shep Fields, Art Mooney). During World War II, Caesar was assigned as a musician in the Coast Guard, taking part in the service show "Tars and Spars," where producer Max Liebman overheard him improvising comedy routines among the band members, and switched him over to comedy. Caesar went on to perform his "war" routine in the stage and movie versions of the review, and continued in Liebman's guidance after the war, appearing in theatrical reviews in the Catskills and Florida.

Liebman cast Caesar in the Broadway review Make Mine Manhattan in 1948, and in 1949 brought him to star on television in the big-budget variety show Admiral Broadway Review, which was simultaneously broadcast on both the NBC and DuMont networks. Caesar had appeared on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater the previous fall, but became an enormous success on his own program, starring with the multi-talented and splendid comedienne Imogene Coca (who had appeared on TV as early as 1939), Mary McCarty, Marge and Gower Champion, and Bobby Van, among others. The series, produced and directed by Liebman, adopted the format of a Broadway review, with top-name guest stars in comedy skits and big production numbers. It also introduced a savvy genre-bending that would help to characterize Caesar's programs: the opening show closed with an elaborate parody of both opera and Billy Rose, called "No, No, Rigoletto." Seen in every city with television facilities in the United States (either live or by filmed kinescope), the show dominated Friday night viewing, the way Berle did on Tuesday and Ed Sullivan on Sunday. Its sponsor, Admiral, was a major manufacturer of television sets. Running an hour in length, the show lasted only seventeen weeks, from January to June, 1949.

Its successor, Your Show of Shows, was a Saturday night fixture for four years, adopting a similar format of comedy monologues, skits, and parodies of movies and plays. But this program was less a showcase for guest stars than for Caesar and Coca, ably supported by Carl Reiner (who replaced Tom Avera after the first season) and Howard Morris (who joined a season later). Writers Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, and Mel Brooks, choreographer James Starbuck, set designer Frederick Fox, and conductor Charles Sanford were all Admiral alumni; the other writers completed a Who's Who of post-World War II American comedy--Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H TV series), Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Neil Simon, and also Joe Stein (Fiddler on the Roof) and Mike Stewart (Hello, Dolly and Bye, Bye Birdie). The writing sessions were reputedly raucous and sometimes even violent, splitting up into groups of two or three who competed with one another, all fighting for attention and success--with the possible exception of Simon, whispering his suggestions to Reiner, who would repeat them to the group. It has long been reported that Woody Allen worked on the show, though this has recently been suggested to be untrue.

The show included a large cast of regular singers and dancers, and was originally the New York half of a larger overall show, NBC's Saturday Night Revue. (Jack Carter hosted a Chicago portion an hour earlier.) At the end of the first season, Carter and the umbrella title were dropped, and Caesar and company went on to perform some 160 telecasts--all live, original comedy. Both raucous and urbane, combined revue and sketch comedy with a rather sophisticated sense of satire and parody, especially for early TV: how many other programs of this era would have conceived a spoof of Italian Neorealist cinema?

Caesar, notorious for his deviations from the script, was skilled at mime, dialects, monologues, foreign language double-talk, and general comic acting. Whether alone, paired with Coca, or part of the four-man repertory group, he excelled. Not a rapid-fire jokester like Berle or Fred Allen, Caesar was often compared in the press to the likes of Chaplin, Fields, or Raimu. The 90-minute show usually featured a guest host (who played a minor role), at least two production numbers, sketches between Caesar and Coca, the showcase parody of a popular film (e.g., "Aggravation Boulevard," "From Here to Obscurity"), further sketches (as many as ten per show), Caesar in monologue or pantomime (e.g., an expectant father in the waiting room, the autobiography of a gum-ball machine), and the entire company in a production number. The most famous characters included Charlie and Doris Hickenlooper, a mis-matched married couple; The Professor, a Germanic expert scientist in everything and nothing; storyteller Somerset Winterset; jazz musicians Cool C's and Progress Hornsby; and the mechanical figures of the great clock of Baverhoff, Bavaria, striking one another in addition to the hour.

In the fall of 1954, Leibman went on to produce "Spectaculars" for NBC, Caesar began Caesar's Hour (with Reiner, Morris, and Nannette Fabray), which lasted three seasons, while Coca tried her own half-hour show, lasting one season. Caesar and Coca reunited in 1958 on the short-lived Sid Caesar Invites You.

Building on the interest generated by a 1972 Esquire article about the show, Liebman compiled routines of several programs from 1950-54 into a feature film, Ten From Your Show of Shows (1973). NBC had thrown away their copies of the program, but Caesar and Liebman had retained their kinescopes made during the show's original run. A series of 90-minute TV specials anthologized from the original shows were syndicated in 1976. By the mid-1970s, Caesar was seen only in occasional guest appearances, and later in diverse TV series and films (Grease, 1978). His autobiography, Where Have I Been, was published in 1983. Caesar and Your Show of Shows served as the not-so-thinly-veiled inspiration behind the film My Favorite Year (1982).

-Mark Williams


Sid Caesar
Photo courtesy of Sid Caesar

SID CAESAR. Born in Yonkers, New York, U.S.A., 8 September 1922. Graduated Yonkers High School, 1939. Married: Florence Levy, 1943; children: Michele, Richard, and Karen. Studied saxophone and clarinet, New York City; played in small bands, then the orchestras of Charlie Spivak, Shep Fields, and Charlie Thornhill; toured theaters and nightclubs as a comedian; appeared in film, on Broadway and television, from 1945; starred in several TV shows; returned to Broadway as star of Little Me, 1962-63; appeared in such films as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963, Silent Movie, 1975, and Grease, 1978; appeared in opera Die Fledermaus, 1987. Recipient: Best Comedian on TV Award from Look magazine, 1951 and 1956; Emmy Award, best comedian, 1956; Sylvania Award, best comedy-variety show, 1958. Named to U.S. Hall of Fame, 1967.

TELEVISION SERIES

1949 Admiral Broadway Review
1950-54 Your Show of Shows
1954-57 Caesar's Hour
1958 Sid Caesar Invites You
1962-63 As Caesar Sees It (syndicated)

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1976 Flight to Holocaust
1977 Curse of the Black Widow
1981 The Munsters Revenge
1985 Love is Never Silent
1988 Freedom Fighter
1988 Side By Side
1988 Nothing's Impossible

TELEVISION SPECIAL

1959 The Sid Caesar Special

FILMS

Tars and Spars, 1945; The Guilt of Janet Ames, 1947; It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963; The Busy Body, 1966; The Spirit is Willing, 1966; A Guide for the Married Man, 1967; Ten From Your Show of Shows, 1973; Airport 1975, 1974; Silent Movie, 1976; Fire Sale, 1977; Barnaby and Me, 1977; Grease, 1978; The Cheap Detective, 1978; The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, 1980; History of the World, Part I, 1981; Grease 2, 1982; Over the Brooklyn Bridge, 1983; Cannonball Run II, 1983; Stoogemania, 1985; The Emperor's New Clothes, 1987; The South Pacific Story, 1991.

STAGE

Make Mine Manhattan, 1948; Little Me, 1962-63; Die Fledermaus (opera), 1987; Does Anybody Know What I'm Talking About?, 1989.

PUBLICATIONS

"What Psychoanalysis Did for Me." Look (New York), 2 October 1956.

Where Have I Been? New York: Crown, 1982.

FURTHER READING

Adir, Karen. The Great Clowns of American Television. Jefferson City, North Carolina: McFarland, 1988.

Bester, Alfred. "The Two Worlds of Sid Caesar." Holiday (New York), September 1956.

Caesar, Sid. "What Psychoanalysis Did For Me." Look (New York), 2 October 1956.

Davidson, Bill. "Hail Sid Caesar!" Colliers (New York), 11 November 1950.

Myers, Deb. "The Funniest Couple in America." Cosmopolitan (New York), January 1951.

Robbins, Jhan, and June Robbins. "Sid Caesar: 'I Grew Up Angry.'" Redbook (New York), November 1956.

Sennett, Ted. Your Show of Shows. New York: Macmillan, 1977.

 

See also Golden Age of Television; Variety Programs