Remembrances
4:49 pm
Wed February 12, 2014

Sid Caesar, Who Got Laughs Without Politics Or Putdowns, Dies At 91

Originally published on Wed February 12, 2014 7:00 pm

Comedian Sid Caesar, one of early network TV's biggest stars, died Wednesday morning at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 91.

Caesar didn't do smut, putdowns or smarmy remarks. Instead, he did skits: grown-up, gentle comedy for the whole family.

In one skit, Caesar was the smarter-than-anyone German "professor." Carl Reiner played a movie executive with money problems. The professor's solution? Make a musical — and get the greatest composer in the world. He is shocked to discover that his top choice won't be available.

"Beethoven, dead? Ludwig is gone. This is a shock. Look at that, you don't pick up a paper a couple of days, you don't know what's going on."

In another skit — again with Reiner as the sidekick — the professor was asked about the theory of flying. "What keeps the birds in the air?" he said. "Courage."

Ruling A Room Full Of Comedy Stars

Caesar was 27 when he launched Your Show of Shows — TV's first and greatest live comedy. His writers became comedy royalty: Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks.

"Everybody thinks that Sid waited to be pumped up with intelligence and with material from his writers," Brooks said. "They thought that he was just like — he'd sit there like a crazy empty balloon and that we would come in and we would pump him up and make, you know, we'd make a human being out of him. His tongue would stick out and he would talk and be funny, you know?

"But, believe it or not, Sid was one of the funniest guys, even away from the writers and the writing room."

Writer and performer Reiner said Caesar ruled the writer's room. Life — and laughs — depended on a nod from the boss.

"Sid was the flame," Reiner said. "Every writer was a moth who wanted to hang around that flame. There wasn't a writer in television who didn't want to be licking around that flame."

Every Saturday night, from 1950 to 1954 on NBC, Your Show of Shows brought skits, laughs, musical routines and dance numbers to American families. The comedy troupe included Imogene Coca and Howard Morris. And it was all live. Here's a story Caesar loved to tell, about answering audience questions about his work:

"And the first guy stood up and said, 'Mr. Caesar, we understand that the show is done live and it took an hour and a half. Now, could you tell us how long did it take to shoot the hour and a half?' I said, 'About 90 minutes.' "

His Most Difficult Role: Sid Caesar

In 1954, Caesar's Hour was also live, and funny. The show started with a greeting from the host: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome."

Opening the show, Caesar looks stiff, uncomfortable. Larry Gelbart — who went on to create TV's M*A*S*H after writing for Caesar — said the comedian was painfully shy.

"The only thing we knew that Sid would not be sure of was being able to say good evening to the audience as Sid Caesar," Gelbart said. "Once he got into any sketch, any prepared material, once he could do a monologue, once he could do a mime, once he could play a character, he was fine. The only person in the world he did not know how to play was Sid Caesar."

By the age of 32, Caesar was a millionaire. By the time he was 35, Caesar's Hour had been canceled; he was off the air, and drinking too much. More TV followed, as well as various films and, later, two books — about his career and his struggles with liquor and barbiturates.

Caesar won those battles, but his glory days were over. Those hysterical, exhilarating NBC times were in the past, though they were still celebrated — in Neil Simon's comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor and the film My Favorite Year.

Brooks says there were lots of reasons to celebrate Caesar.

"He could do everything," Brooks says. "[Charlie] Chaplin could not have done what Caesar did. Chaplin could not have done it. He could not have done 39 shows a year for five years and done seven or eight comedy sketches. No one in the world could have done that."

Naive, Good-Natured, Hilarious

Caesar sparked the laughter of my childhood. He taught me, and so many others, what really funny could mean: good-natured humor, with no putdowns, no politics, no sexual innuendo (the censors of the '50s wielded real power). Just innocent, brilliant humor.

"The way I look at things is in a naive way. I like to look at it in a naive way; to me it has more fun," Caesar said. "We have enough of reality in the news. I mean, you're inundated with news all day long from the newspaper, from the radio, from the television.

"Reality is overpowering, so you like to escape a little bit and naivete lets you escape. You don't have to have the reality hitting you all the time. That's what comedy is — to take you away into a little fantasy."

And throughout television's golden age, Sid Caesar's naive fantasies defined humor.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSID ERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

One of television's earliest and biggest stars has died. Comedian Sid Caesar kept America laughing in the 1950s with a pair of popular comedy revues: first "Your Show of Shows" and then "Caesar's Hour." Caesar died this morning in his home in Beverly Hills. He was 91 years old.

NPR Susan Stamberg has this appreciation.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Sid Caesar didn't do smut or putdowns, no smarmy remarks. Sid Caesar did skits, grown-up, gentle comedy for the whole family. In one skit, Caesar was the smarter-than-anybody German professor. Carl Reiner played a movie executive whose studio was having money problems. The professor's solution: Make a musical and get the greatest composer in the world.

SID CAESAR: (as the German professor) We get Beethoven. Now, you call up his agent.

(LAUGHTER)

CAESAR: (as the German professor) You call up Beethoven's agent and you tell them the professor.

CARL REINER: (as movie executive) Beethoven is dead.

(LAUGHTER)

CAESAR: (as the German professor) Beethoven is dead?

(LAUGHTER)

CAESAR: (as the German professor) Ludwig is gone?

(LAUGHTER)

CAESAR: (as the German professor) This is a shock.

(LAUGHTER)

CAESAR: (as the German professor) Look at that, you don't pick up a paper a couple of days, you don't know what's going on.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: In another sketch, again with Carl Reiner as the sidekick the professor was asked the theory of flying.

CAESAR: (as the German professor) My theory is from the birds.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: (as sidekick) What do you mean, Doctor.

CAESAR: (as the German professor) It's from the birds, that's my whole theory. Think of it: you go by and see a bird, your bird has wings, has a beak and (unintelligible) and a streamline and the landing gear for them to play like that. That's the whole theory.

REINER: (as sidekick) But, Doctor, what is it that keeps the birds in the air?

CAESAR: (as the German professor) What keeps the birds in the air? Courage.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Sid Caesar was 27 when he launched "Your Show of Shows," TV's first and greatest live comedy. At the center, the fabulous mobile features and acting conviction of the star. Caesar's writers became comedy royalty: Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, his brother Danny, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks.

MEL BROOKS: Everybody thinks that Sid waited to be pumped up with intelligence and with material from his writers. They thought that he was just like - he'd sit there like a crazy empty balloon...

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: ...and that we would come in and we would pump him up and make, you know, we'd make a human being out of him. His tongue would stick out and he would talk and be funny, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: But, believe it or not, Sid was one of the funniest guys, even away from the writers and the writing room.

STAMBERG: Writer-performer Carl Reiner said Caesar ruled the writing room. Life and laughs depended on a nod from the boss.

REINER: Sid was the flame. Every writer was a moth who wanted to hang around that flame. There wasn't a writer in television who didn't want to be licking around that flame.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: Every Saturday night, from 1950 to 1954 on NBC, "Your Show of Shows" brought skits, laughs, musical and dance numbers to American families. The comedy troupe included Imogene Coca and Howard Morris. And it was all live. Here's a story Caesar loved to tell about answering audience questions about his work.

CAESAR: And the first guy stood up and said: Mr. Caesar, we understand the show is done live and it took hour and a half. Now, could you tell us how long did it take to shoot the hour and a half? And I said about 90 minutes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: "Caesar's Hour."

STAMBERG: In 1954, "Caesar's Hour" was also live and funny. The show started with a greeting from the host.

(APPLAUSE)

CAESAR: Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome. Our show tonight is a musical review...

STAMBERG: Opening the show, the star looks stiff, uncomfortable. Larry Gelbart, who went on to create TV's "M*A*S*H" after writing for Caesar, said the comedian was painfully shy.

LARRY GELBART: The only thing we knew that Sid would not be sure of was being able to say good evening to the audience as Sid Caesar. Once he got into any sketch, any prepared material, once he could do a monologue, once he could do a mime, once he could play a character, he was fine. The only person in the world he did not know how to play was Sid Caesar.

STAMBERG: By the age of 32, he was a millionaire. By the time he was 35, "Caesar's Hour" had been cancelled, he was off the air and drinking too much. More TV followed, various films, and later two books about his career and his struggles with liquor and barbiturates. Caesar won those battles but his glory days were over, those hysterical, exhilarating NBC times that were celebrated in Neil Simon's comedy "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" and the film "My Favorite Year."

Mel Brooks says there were lots of reasons to celebrate Caesar.

BROOKS: He could do everything. Chaplin could not have done what Caesar did. Chaplin could not have done it. He could not have done 39 shows a year for five years and done seven or eight comedy sketches. No one in the world could have done that.

CAESAR: You want to know the names of the seven dwarfs you come to me, the expert.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, no. What?

CAESAR: The names of the seven dwarfs - well, let's see, not Doc, Dopey, Sneezy, Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: You sure there was seven?

CAESAR: Oh, yeah. I'm positive there were seven dwarfs: Doc, Dopey, Sneezy, Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy and Weepy.

STAMBERG: Sid Caesar sparked the laughter of my childhood. He taught me and so many others what really funny could mean. Good-natured humor with no putdowns, no politics, no sexual innuendos - the censors of the '50s wielded real power - just innocent, brilliant humor.

CAESAR: But the way I look at things is in a naive way. I like to look at it in a naive way. To me it has more fun. We have enough of reality in the news. I mean you're inundated with news all day long from the newspaper, from the radio, from the television. Reality is overpowering so you like to escape a little bit, and the naivete lets you escape. You don't have to have the reality hitting you all the time. That's what comedy is: To take you away into a little fantasy.

STAMBERG: Sid Caesar, his naive fantasies defined humor in television's Golden Age.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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