David Zurawik

Appreciating Sid Caesar, the real father of TV sketch comedy

By now you probably know that comedian Sid Caesar died today at the age of 91.

But judging by the paper-thin pieces I have been seeing on the web this afternoon, I am guessing many readers might not understand how seminal he was to the history of television and sketch comedy.


Caesar deserves some cultural context and honor for the fearless and pioneering figure he was.

Live television burned him up within a decade, leaving behind a guy addicted to amphetamines, downers and alcohol. But, oh my, did he burn bright with the energy of post-World-War-II American life in the early 1950s, when not even the founders of American television knew what the medium was, let alone could be.


Part hipster jazz musician and part Borsht Belt tummler, Caesar won a mainstream audience and then pushed it into cultural spaces most viewers could probably never imagine themselves going. John Belushi's samurai warrior? Caesar was there first with a crazed, Yiddish-speaking samurai.

Caesar regularly parodied foreign-language art films, like "The Bicycle Thief." Think of that the next time you want to make some big, uninformed statement about how TV has "dumbed down" the culture since its earliest days.

In 1990, my wife, Christina Stoehr, and I wrote an article for the now long-gone "Memories Magazine" in connection with the 40th anniversary of the debut of Caesar's landmark "Your Show of Shows."

We interviewed Caesar and his brilliant sidekick, Carl Reiner, for the piece.

"We spoke to the people," Caesar told us. "You know? We did things the audience went through. We were beginning to see psychiatrists, and we were buying our first home, our first furniture and toys for our kids. Which is what America was going through at the time."

Foreign films, psychiatrists and a comic critique of the birth of the consumer society on TV every Saturday night at 9?

Couldn't be. Just ask all the revisionist or never-knew pop culture professors and media analysts who tell you 1950s TV was suburban-bland and Barbara Billingsley cooking Beaver's dinner in pearls and a dress.

No, I'm here to tell you tonight that it was there in Caesar's crazed, uninhibited sketch comedy. I was a little kid who understood almost none of it at the time, but I tuned in religiously every week because I was fascinated by the angry, manic energy of Caesar sweating through suit after suit on live TV looking as if he was going to explode right through the box into our living room.


"We were the first show to do situation comedy in sketch form," Carl Reiner told us. "We used to investigate our own lives. All the performers were from the lower class who had made enough money to be middle class. And we were all commenting on our new-found middle-classicity."

Class-consciousness on '50s prime-time TV? Never. We all know the tube was always a Don-Draper tool invented only to sell refrigerators and laundry detergent.

Yes, that was there as well in Caesar's early work -- social class consciousness and commentary. And even as a little kid, I knew these guys were from the same "lower class" I was from, and to see them in the opening credits waving from the glittery, magical world of the Broadway Theater District told me there was another America out there, and it was possible to get there even from the world into which I was born.

I will always love Caesar & Co., as well as early TV, for telling me about that other world far away from the factory town where I lived.

Here's some of what Stoehr and I wrote for "Memories" about Caesar and his brilliant TV creation.

In March 1950, three weeks after the premiere of "Your Show of Shows" with Sid Caesar, The New York Times was already hailing "The Rise of Caesar."


By fall, the newspaper was telling its readers the show "was not to be missed."

Indeed, "Shows" would become the third most popular program on television that year, with almost half the nation's television sets tuned to NBC on Saturday nights at 9 o'clock.

More important, the program virtually defined the universe of television comedy -- a universe little changed today --working out in comic fashion the collective anxieties of a generation that, having made the world safe for democracy, now faced a battlefield of mortgages, children, corporate ladders, credit payments, the bomb and a cold war.

For the generation that entered adulthood during and after World War II, "Shows" served much the same cultural function as NBC's "Saturday Night Live" did for the Baby Boomer generation that followed...

Like its spiritual descendant, "Shows" was a loose, freewheeling, live revue. Its peppy theme song, "Stars Over Broadway," which played over a picture of Broadway all aglow after dark, was followed by a frenetic 90 minutes of live comedy sketches, pantomime and parody, interspersed with show tunes, ballet and classical music. Yes, show tunes, ballet and classical music...

For many viewers, Caesar was more than the star of the show. He was the show. Caesar in a buckskin cowboy outfit and 10-gallon hat parodying Alan Ladd in the feature film "Shane."


Caesar in swimming trunks and black socks – soaking wet with co-star Imogene Coca in a pile of sand on the stage – in a parody of the famous, steamy beach scene in "From Here to Eternity."

Caesar as the clown in "I, Pagliacci," singing (in classic Caesar foreign-language babblespeak), after discovering his lover has been unfaithful: "La gente Prosciutto e ridere e hitchhikes prohibito. Trammamuto in lazzi lo spasmo. Oh, lo Spasmo!"

… Perhaps, the most enduring image of Caesar is that of "The Professor" in a squashed top hat, baggy pants, oversized vest and ratty black coat with tails. (The outfit is on display at the Smithsonian.)

In a typical skit, trench-coated Reiner would begin, "This is Carl Reiner, your roving reporter at La Guardia Airport, where we're awaiting a planeload of famous visitors."

Inevitably, the famous visitor would be Caesar's self-important, know-nothing professor.

Reiner: Professor, what is the most revolutionary discovery that you made in all your travels?


Caesar: I found an old civilization. It was a matriarchal society where the women were the important people – the men were nothing. The women were the rulers. They were the heads of government. They were in charge of everything.

Reiner: But where was this, doctor?

Caesar: In Cincinnati.

Forget the punch line. The laughter came not from the dialogue, but rather some deeper national wellspring. Reiner was the stereotypical post-War American: straightforward, unpretentious, earnest, initially deferential to the "famous visitor."

Caesar's professor represented European learning and superiority until unmasked by the absurd replies to Reiner's questions…"

I will let others talk about the legendary writers' room for "Your Show of Shows." It included: Mel Brooks, Lucille Kallen, Tony Webster, Joe Stein and Danny and Neil Simon.


Contrary to popular misbelief, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart, the creator of "M*A*S*H," didn't write for "Shows." But they did write for Caesar at "Caesar's Hour," the variety show starring Caesar that took "Shows" place in the late 1950s.

Stoehr and I interviewed most of them for the piece along with head writer Mel Tolkin.

Never have so many great writers submerged their egos in the support of one performer. That is how big a talent Sid Caesar was.

Mel Brooks worked for him. And long after Brooks surpassed Caesar is popularity and accomplishment, Brooks still talked about Caesar with a kind of awe.

You can a draw straight line from Caesar's "Show of Shows" to Carol Burnett, who told us how she used to sneak into the theater in the 1950s to watch Caesar rehearse. And from there you can draw another line to "The Honeymooners" and "The Dick van Dyke Show," which was created by Reiner. And from there to "This is Spinal Tap" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and Jimmy Fallon.

I write this appreciation tonight with much sadness, even though I can still hear Caesar looking back at "Shows" in that 1990 interview and saying, "All of this was wonderful. It was like Christmas."


Surely, some of what I am feeling is sadness for the death of Caesar, who I admired as much as any performer I have ever seen on TV.

But I think some of that sadness -- and anger -- also comes from remembering the great promise performers like Caesar brought to TV in its earliest days.

Not only has that promise yet to be realized, but, looking out at the landscape today and remembering what it was like when such giants as Caesar stood tall in prime time, I doubt the promise ever will be fulfilled.

And I wonder if anyone in the business even cares.