Hail Caesar: Memories of comedy legend Sid Caesar

Senior Television Writer
02.12.14 9 Comments

Sid Caesar, who died today at 91, was a giant, in every sense of the word. He was 6’2″, and at his early ’50s peak as the star of “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” he was such an impressive physical specimen that when he would impersonate Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he made Brando seem puny.

He was also one of the first, and greatest, comedy stars in television history, and perhaps its greatest talent scout. He was the man who saw something in Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart and put them on his writing staff at various points. (“It was like having all the Impressionists sitting down and talking about painting,” he once told me.) He made such a star of Imogene Coca that NBC quickly moved to spin her off into her own sketch show. Caesar and his team wrote 90 minutes of live sketch comedy 39 weeks a year, performed it without cue cards, and created some of the funniest, most memorable characters and sketches the medium would ever see: film parodies like “From Here to Obscurity,” with its famous and very wet climax, before it had occurred to anyone else that one kind of pop culture could spoof another; brilliant physical comedy like “This Is Your Story” (embedded below), with Caesar lugging a weeping Howard Morris around the stage; and vivid, remarkably silly characters like The German General, who berates an aid in Caesar’s patented double-talk gibberish, only to be revealed at the end as a doorman at a swank hotel.

For a variety of reasons, including injuries and problems with drugs and alcohol, Caesar’s career wouldn’t have the length or breadth of many of his proteges (Reiner, Brooks and Simon would each produce TV shows or movies about their time with Caesar, most famously Reiner’s “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), but two of the most remarkable incidents I witnessed in my career involved him. 

The first was in the winter of 2001. Caesar had discovered old recordings, long thought lost, of “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” and was promoting a DVD box set featuring the very best sketches, interviews and other material. He was not a rich man at this point, and every DVD sale helped, so he was willing to go to extensive lengths to promote it. One of those lengths involved me sitting in his kitchen for a few hours on a January afternoon as he regaled me with stories about the good old days, offering up a master class of comedy theory – on improvising during a live TV performance, he said, “When you feel the laugh, and you start to see if there’s more there, and you play with it a little bit, and that’s where you find things. That’s the beauty of it, that’s the wonderful thing of live. You can do it. The other person will wait for you; they know the lines, they know you’ll come back to your cue.” – and doing impromptu performances of many of his greatest characters. He was in bad physical shape at the time, using a walker to get around after a hip replacement, but as soon as he sat down and got onto a subject he knew so well, all the years and physical discomfort melted away.

That afternoon should have prepared me for the next encounter later that summer, but it didn’t. In part because the DVD release had put him back on the pop culture radar, the Television Critics Association decided to bestow its Career Achivement Award on Caesar. This was a hot, bright evening in Pasadena, and when Caesar hobbled onto the balcony for the pre-show cocktail reception, he looked in even worse shape than he’d been that afternoon in his kitchen, even though I believe he had graduated to a quad cane by this point. The sunlight was bothering him, and he had difficulty focusing on conversations with any critic or fellow award winner who approached him to pay homage. I talked with a few other TCA members, and we all had the same concern: had we just invited this great man to come and make a fool of himself in public?

Ordinarily, the Career Achievement winner is announced near the end of the program, but Caesar wanted to get home early, so he was instead one of the first recipients. The introduction was made, and the crowd rose for a prolonged standing ovation – made so long in part because Caesar was shuffling so slowly towards the podium, in what appeared to be physical distress. As he placed his hands on the lectern and stared out at the crowd, you could have heard a pin drop. This guy whom we all revered didn’t look like he was up to saying anything coherent, or getting back to his seat without significant assistance.

And then, at this moment when the master had us right where he wanted us, he said “Bonjour, madames et monsieurs,” as we let out a collective roar that expressed relief as much as enjoyment, before launching into a speech that was first astonishingly quick double-talk French, then German, then Italian, with strategic bits of English included so we could keep up. (While relating a story about Michaelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, he suggested that the Pope once told the artist, “Come down offa there. We’re putting up wallpaper.”)

It was hilarious, it had complete command of the room – a room that included David Chase, Ken Burns, Amy Sherman-Palladino and the team behind “Malcolm in the Middle” – and it pivoted seamlessly into a heartfelt speech recalling the challenges and thrills of the Golden Age of live TV comedy. Caesar shuffled off stage to an even louder ovation than the first one, and by now it was clear that his slow gait was part handicap, part milking the crowd.

But that wasn’t the best part.

The best part was when Caesar made it all the way off the stage and back to his table, as the applause continued. Before sitting down, he stopped, raised his index finger, called out, “Just one more thing,” and proceeded to shuffle back towards the stage, somehow moving even more slowly than the second time. At this point, it was as shameless as it was brilliant, and the applause and cheers rose in a crescendo as the old pro finally made it back to the podium, leaned towards the mic and said, “I forgot to thank my wife!”

Caesar slipped out of the ballroom not long after, but the rest of the night felt like an afterthought. Chase won multiple awards and refused to give one of his speeches, because it was filled with jokes and he had no interest in following the great Caesar. Every winner found a way to namecheck him at some point. For years after, TCA members would come out of awards ceremonies that had otherwise been lovely affairs and lament that what they could have used was some more Sid Caesar.

The man was one of the greatest the medium’s ever been lucky enough to have. And now he’s gone. Rest in peace, big guy. In your honor, I’m going to have someone hurl buckets of water at me all night.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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