By Robert Gluck, JNS.org
The recently deceased Sid Caesar made America laugh, and in so doing, revolutionized television comedy. His trailblazing style was infused with Jewish influences, according to Eddy Friedfeld, co-author with Caesar on his biography “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter.”
“Sid was part of the Jewish tradition of storytelling,” Friedfeld, who gave a eulogy at Caesar’s funeral in February, told JNS.org. “The difference was his was not joke telling, it was comedy based on character. His sketches were stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. That was not coincidentally a function of the Jewish influence.”
The youngest of three sons born to Jewish immigrants living in Yonkers, NY, Caesar’s father Max emigrated from Poland, and with his wife Ida, who had come from Russia, operated a luncheonette. Young Sid developed his foreign-sounding double talk by listening closely to the luncheonette’s multinational clientele.
Friedfeld, who teaches courses in comedy at Yale University and New York University and worked several years with Caesar on the biography, said Caesar had a strong Jewish identity. According to Friedfeld’s book, after graduating from Yonkers High School in 1939, Sid left home intent on starting a musical career. He arrived in Manhattan and worked as an usher and then a doorman at the Capitol Theatre. He was ineligible to join the musicians’ union in New York City until he established residency, but he found work as a saxophonist at the Vacationland Hotel, a resort located in the Catskill Mountains. Mentored by Don Appel, the resort’s social director, Caesar played in the dance band and learned to perform comedy, doing three shows a week.
“His family [members] were proud and aware Jews. Sid went to cheder, the after-school [Jewish] program. Sid claimed he was the first to introduce the word chutzpah into the American vernacular,” Friedfeld told JNS.org.
Unlike previous comedy that was rooted in immigration and financial depression, Caesar’s brand was about a new, post-World War II America, prosperous and hopeful in the era of suburbs, skyscrapers, and space travel. The U.S. at the time needed smart, fresh, optimistic, and cutting-edge comedy, with an infusion of culture and satire.
Friedfeld said Caesar was a master of character and dialect, and he transformed himself into classic characters such as the put-upon husband Charlie Hickenlooper; feudal lord Shtaka Yamagura; stoner jazz musician Progress Hornsby; Tony Towers, the inventor of the Towers Trot; the Gangster Moose in “Bullets Over Broadway,” who had ears like a hawk; Al Duncy, who was reluctantly and literally carried onto the stage to have his life story told with Uncle Goopy and a parade of other crazy relatives in front of 5,000 people; and the German General, who fastidiously avoided jangling his medals as he prepared to be a fancy hotel’s doorman.
Caesar in his sketches became a scientist who, after being bitten by a radioactive termite, developed an insatiable appetite for wood. As The Professor, his boundless expertise ranged from mountain climbing, sleep, and children. And as the crying clown, Galipacci, he braved the perils of live television.
Doing the sketches week after week was not easy for Caesar. In an interview he gave for the Archive of American Television, Caesar emphasized the challenge of doing live TV in the early days of the medium. “Doing a show live on television is a different animal altogether than doing TV today,” he said. “I mean on tape, that’s like relaxing. That’s like going on vacation!”
Lawrence Epstein, author of “The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America” and a professor of English at Suffolk County Community College in New York from 1974-2008, said Caesar set the template for television comedy.
“He did the satires, the accents, the costumes that would help define future comedic efforts,” Epstein told JNS.org. “Caesar’s great comedy ear is often cited for his ability to create any accent and seems to speak fluently in that language while in fact uttering gibberish. But I think that great ear’s largest contribution was its ability to recognize talent.”
The only show in history where the writers became as famous as the performers, Caesar’s “Show of Shows” turned sketch comedy into an art with movie satires, foreign film parodies, and pantomime. From a boy at his first dance, to an argument at a bus station, to lions in the circus, the stories crafted by the show’s writers helped television to grow into one of the most enduring forces in our society.
“Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and so many others went on to further greatness after traveling through the Caesar comedy gateway,” Epstein said. “I think Neil Simon’s older brother, the late Danny Simon, was an overlooked genius in the room where the ideas flowed, but everyone in that room who is not well-known deserves much more recognition. Caesar was himself a complex guy, but one whose brilliance gave a permanent and enduring gift to the American people.”
Carl Reiner said in a statement after Caesar’s death that he was “inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist, and single-sketch comedian who ever worked in television.”
A friend of Larry Gelbart, Friedfeld said that when Gelbart was asked why most of Caesar’s writers were young and Jewish, he responded, “Because all of our parents were old and Jewish.”
Before flying to see Caesar on his 90th birthday, Friedfeld recalled bumping into Woody Allen on Park Avenue in New York, and Allen said, “Tell Sid he’s still my finest credit.”
“[Caesar] revolutionized comedy,” Friedfeld told JNS.org. “Before Sid, television was burlesque and wrestling and bowling. Caesar, his costars, and writers created modern television. They brought this modern sensibility. All the great sitcoms that followed, like “˜All in the Family,’ “˜Cheers,’ “˜Frasier,’ and now “˜Modern Family,’ owe their legacy to Sid Caesar.”