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.
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.
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?
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.
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).
Photo courtesy of 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.
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)
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
The Sid Caesar Special
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
Mine Manhattan, 1948; Little Me, 1962-63; Die Fledermaus
(opera), 1987; Does Anybody Know What I'm Talking About?,
Psychoanalysis Did for Me." Look (New York), 2 October 1956.
Have I Been? New York: Crown, 1982.
Karen. The Great Clowns of American Television. Jefferson
City, North Carolina: McFarland, 1988.
Alfred. "The Two Worlds of Sid Caesar." Holiday (New York),
Sid. "What Psychoanalysis Did For Me." Look (New York), 2
Bill. "Hail Sid Caesar!" Colliers (New York), 11 November
Deb. "The Funniest Couple in America." Cosmopolitan (New
York), January 1951.
Jhan, and June Robbins. "Sid Caesar: 'I Grew Up Angry.'" Redbook
(New York), November 1956.
Ted. Your Show of Shows. New York: Macmillan, 1977.
also Golden Age
of Television; Variety