The term "pioneer" is thrown around a lot to describe TV performers, but Sid Caesar earned the title through his contributions to live television and sketch comedy.
The comedian died Wednesday at age 91. His contributions can be seen in all their black-and-white glory in clips from "Your Show of Shows," which ran from 1950 to 1954 on NBC.
His influence was sweeping because he helped bolster co-stars Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca and Howard Morris and employed such writers as Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart. The best-remembered clip may be a send-up of "From Here to Eternity" with Caesar and Coca.
My memories of Caesar are based primarily on seeing him in action for a PBS panel in 2005 that was promoting the series "Pioneers of Primetime."
Caesar was sitting there as Reiner and Mickey Rooney got into an argument over what constituted a TV pioneer. Reiner defended Caesar as one for his work on "Your Show of Shows." But Bob Hope didn't deserve the title because he relied on cue cards and his radio technique, Reiner said.
Rooney was aghast. "Are you telling me that you're knocking Bob Hope?" Rooney asked.
"Bob Hope was not a television pioneer," Reiner said. "He didn't learn his lines. If you don't learn your lines, I don't take you seriously. We never had a [cue] card."
Caesar, then 82, weighed in on television technology.
"The remote control changed our lives," he said. "The remote control took over the timing of the world. That's why you have road rage. You have people who have no patience, because you got immediate gratification. You got click, click, click, click. If it doesn't explode within three seconds, click click, click."
He explained, in his wonderfully original way, that live television was exhilarating but taxing.
"When you're live, you're in charge," Caesar said. "There's nobody going to cut ya and clip ya and badeedabadump and change the whole scene. . . . We did it without cards. No cards and no teleprompters. You had to know it."
Caesar was feeble but his mind was nimble.
"We didn't do 10, 20 shows [a year]," he says. "We did 39. That's what makes you crazy. That's why I'm in the condition I am today."
Yet his work stood the test of time, and the DVD brought him to younger viewers. One Caesar sketch, a send-up of "This Is Your Life," had been recently shown at co-star Howard Morris' funeral.
"In the funeral home, I never heard laughter like that in my life," Reiner said. "The audience was laughing on the screen, and we were laughing in the home."
The other performers on the panel that day showered Caesar with praise. Red Buttons recalled that he lost two writers from his TV show -- Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon -- to Caesar.
"I'll tell you the truth," Buttons says. "I wanted to leave me for Sid Caesar."
He was a great one. Ask anyone who witnessed "Your Show of Shows" live. Or look for that "This Is Your Life" sketch. Laughter in a funeral home -- that's a sign of comedic genius.