Skip to main content

Sid Caesar was hilariously out of control

By Gene Seymour
updated 2:11 PM EST, Thu February 13, 2014
Sid Caesar, whose clever, anarchic comedy on such programs as "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" helped define the 1950s "Golden Age of Television," died on February 12. He was 91. Sid Caesar, whose clever, anarchic comedy on such programs as "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" helped define the 1950s "Golden Age of Television," died on February 12. He was 91.
HIDE CAPTION
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
Comedy legend Sid Caesar
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Sid Caesar was explosive, hilarious comic, very popular in TV's early days
  • He says in the '50s, Caesar's TV shows appealed to both working and thinking classes
  • His writers included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon; he was hugely influential
  • Seymour: He was impulsive, conquered addictions, lived long to see impact of his work

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Sid Caesar, who died Wednesday at 91, didn't saunter, glide, bounce or skip into your living room the way other comedy TV stars did. He came at you like a football lineman, charging, roaring, enveloping your senses and tickling them relentlessly with sounds and expressions you either didn't expect or had never heard before.

It's hard to believe that someone who was so mercurial and explosive a physical presence could become so beloved and influential an icon of the "cool" medium of television in its early years.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

And yet, at the peak of his fame in the early and mid-1950s, Caesar's audience was broad enough to encompass both working and thinking classes. Imagine what could happen if a great silent-film comedian had passed a crash course in Borscht-belt patter with flying colors, slinging words as he executed pratfalls.

Then again, don't imagine. Watch any vintage black-and-white video excerpt from "Your Show of Shows" (1951-1954) or "Caesar's Hour" (1954-1957). You'll see Caesar in sketches where his characters speak a faux-foreign dialect that, though it's gibberish in at least two languages, makes hilarious sense throughout. You'll see his big fleshy face in tight close-up forcing tears out of his eyes as the fiscally challenged suburban husband whose wife just charged a mink coat to his account. Watch the contortions he puts himself through as he plays a frantically reluctant featured guest on a spoof of the "This is Your Life" TV show.

The words and comedy of Sid Caesar

You say you're not old enough to remember that vintage TV show? Doesn't matter. It may help to know something about the wretched excesses of 1950s pre-rock 'n' roll pop music to recognize what's being satirized by "The Three Haircuts," a trio of pompous, pompadoured vocalists played by Caesar and sidekicks Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. But if you don't, it won't keep you from laughing yourself stupid at the routine.

By the same token, you don't need to have seen the 1953 Oscar-winning movie "From Here to Eternity" to appreciate the beautifully timed expression on Caesar's face at the climax of the parody version when he realizes -- never mind. Just watch it.

Conan's salute to Sid Caesar
The life and legacy of Sid Caesar

Great comedy is evergreen, no matter what color it's shot in. Though the razzmatazz culture of post-war America inspired Caesar's all-star teams of writers, it was those same writers -- including Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Mel Tolkin -- who went on to establish and inspire American comedic standards for the remaining decades of the 20th century and into the next one. "Your Show of Shows," after all, aired live on NBC on Saturday nights just as "Saturday Night Live" has for almost 40 years.

When you watch a classy contemporary sitcom, whether it's ABC's "Modern Family" or HBO's "Veep," the character-driven, sophisticated slapstick has its precedents in many of the domestic sketches and satiric skits of the Caesar shows.

Caesar's roughneck persona seemed an unlikely vessel for such versatile, urbane humor. But along with his slam-bang agility, he displayed the instincts and timing of a classically trained musician. Much like the leader of a jazz ensemble, Caesar had a cultivated ear, willing to listen carefully and generously to both his writers and his fellow ensemble members Reiner, Morris, Imogene Coca and Nanette Fabray, who became as invaluable to the success of those classic shows as Caesar himself.

He was also moody and temperamental. To the end of his life, he regaled interviewers with the story of how, one night in Chicago, he became so enraged at Mel Brooks that he dangled him from an 18th-story window. Brooks, apparently, didn't resent him for it, and cast Caesar in his 1976 "Silent Movie," which showcased the great man's genius for wordless wit.

The years between the last "Caesar's Hour" in 1957 and "Silent Movie" were erratic and not always happy ones for Caesar. He subdued addictions to alcohol and pills, but never caught another wave like the one he rode in the Eisenhower years. Still, he lived long enough to savor the resounding impact he and his work would have on several generations of comics, most of whom, talented as they were, couldn't explode the way Sid Caesar could.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT