Influential TV star and comedy genius Sid Caesar has died at the age of 91. Caesar first came to national prominence as the star of Your Show Of Shows, a televised Saturday-night comedy revue that ran from 1950 to 1954. At the time, Caesar was one of the youngest and most inexperienced of all the comedians who became “overnight” stars, thanks to the new medium of television.
But Caesar surrounded himself with talented co-stars—including Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner (who later used his Your Show experience as the basis for The Dick Van Dyke Show)—and an incredible staff of writers, including Neil and Danny Simon, Lucille Kallen, Mel Tolkin, and Mel Brooks (whom Caesar paid out of his own pocket, until he was able to convince producers that Brooks was worth keeping around). And it was their gleeful, sophomoric satire that’s remembered by TV historians and comedy nerds as the cream of the crop. In a review of Ten From Your Show Of Shows, a compendium of kinescopes of choice sketches that played in movie theaters in 1973, Pauline Kael wrote that, where Milton Berle’s comedy could only allow his audience “to be ridiculous,” Caesar and his comrades “allowed us to be ridiculous and smart at the same time.”
Caesar started out as a musician, working as a saxophonist at Catskills resorts while still in his teens, before gradually branching out into comedy. In 1939, he joined the Coast Guard and continued to hone his performing chops in military revues. It was on the best-known of these, Tars And Spars, that Caesar met Your Show Of Shows producer Max Liebman. It also marked the moment when it became clear that Caesar’s comedy was getting a much bigger response than his saxophone playing. The show went on to tour nationally, and was filmed in 1946.
In 1949, Caesar, Liebman, and Imogene Coca teamed up for a TV variety series, called The Admiral Broadway Revue that ran for 19 episodes. In The Box, his oral history of the early years of TV broadcasting, Jeff Kissoloff writes that the series’ sponsor, TV set manufacturer Admiral, “dropped the show because it was too successful. The company was selling so many television sets, it needed to reinvest in capital improvements instead of television programming.” This modest fiasco inspired NBC executive Pat Weaver to relaunch the show as a network-owned property, with advertising time sold “to individual sponsors” rather than one single corporation that would then control its creative direction—and the fate of the series. The next year, with the onscreen team of Caesar and Coca augmented by the off-screen one of Morris and Reiner, Your Show Of Shows was born.
With his commanding physical presence, Caesar quickly established himself as the tentpole of the smartest comedy show on TV. As writer Joe Stein recalled, “Sid was like a postgraduate course in comedy. I worked with Gleason, Phil Silvers, and Jerry Lewis. They all had their areas, but Sid had no limits—except one thing. He couldn’t stand up and tell jokes. The most difficult thing for him was to go in front of the audience and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Your Show Of Shows.’ He had a lot of difficulty talking as himself.” Happily, the writers came up with plenty of other people for him to be. He was especially legendary for his fake German dialect-characters and the parts he played in the movie parodies that may have been Your Show Of Shows’ greatest contribution to the creation of self-aware, satirical pop culture.
After four years on the air, the pressures of turning out an hour of new comedy every week were beginning to wear on Caesar. Combined with his power and size, this could make for some spectacular tantrums, as recalled by Mel Brooks:
Caesar had also begun to slide into alcoholism. “When he had a few drinks—a few hundred drinks,” Lucille Kallen said, “Sid would get maudlin and sentimental about us, and other times I think he would have been very happy to have drowned us. No actor, no performer likes to feel dependent for his stardom and his whole persona on other people, so Sid would throw the script that we had slaved over on the floor. He was saying in effect, ‘I don’t need you. I’m a big star.”
Rather than pull back, Caesar redoubled his workload by ending Your Show Of Shows and launching Caesar’s Hour—basically Your Show Of Shows with Morris and Reiner but not Coca, and with Caesar himself in full creative control. (The writing staff now included Larry Gelbart.) Howard Morris described it “as good as any Broadway show, but [Caesar] was getting crazier and crazier. The writing sessions were even wilder because we did not have Max [Liebman] to control us. Now, this was a Jewish family really screaming at each other all day long.”
Caesar’s Hour ran three seasons, from 1954 to 1957. According to Howard Morris, NBC—seeing that the star was burning himself out—suggested that he cut back to one show a month, but Caesar refused. After the series ended, Caesar’s TV career tapered off into a sporadic string of specials and guest appearances.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Caesar fitfully pursued a movie career, though his momentum was hampered by his drinking. He starred in 1967’s The Busy Body, a comedy notable for an early appearance by Richard Pryor, and had roles in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), A Guide For The Married Man (1967), Airport 1975 (1974), Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie (1976), Fire Sale (1977), The Cheap Detective (1978), Grease (1978), and Brooks’ History Of The World—Part 1 (1981).
In 1983, Caesar published the first volume of his autobiography, Where Have I Been, in which he wrote frankly about his battle with alcoholism, revealing that he had quit drinking after blacking out during a 1977 turn on stage in Neil Simon’s play The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers. That same year, he made a one-night return to live TV comedy, hosting Saturday Night Live.
He appeared less and less frequently, but still could be seen here and there in movies like Cannonball Run II (1984), The Emperor’s New Clothes (1987), Vegas Vacation (1997), and The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit (1998). Caesar’s last performance was a cameo in Mark Hamill’s Comic Book: The Movie (2004). That same year, he published a second book, Caesar’s Hours.