Culture: February 2014 Archives

Sid Caesar, RIP

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I'm struck by one detail in the obituaries for comedic actor Sid Caesar. He got married in 1943 to Florence Levy, and he stayed married to her until her death in 2010 -- 67 years on their way to together forever, as Paul Harvey used to say. Not a whiff of scandal.

I'm also struck by the parallels to the life and career of a British comedic actor. Caesar was just two years older than Tony Hancock. Both had early exposure to the stage and began their comedy careers during World War 2, emerging as dominant stars in the early 1950s, backed by talented young writers (Caesar by the likes of Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon, Hancock by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson). Both moved comedy in the direction of finding humor in real life, a break with the surreal and slapstick comedy of the past. Both inspired generations of young comedians. From Wikipedia:

Writer Mel Tolkin stated that Caesar "didn't like one-line jokes in sketches because he felt that if the joke was a good one, anybody could do it. One-liners would take him away from what drove his personal approach to comedy." Larry Gelbart described Caesar's style as "theatrical," and he called him "a pure TV comedian." In describing his control during the live performances, actress Nanette Fabray recalled that unlike most comedians, such as Red Skelton, Bob Hope or Milton Berle, Caesar always stayed in character: "He was so totally into the scene he never lost it."
Neil Simon recalled that after writing out a sketch and giving it to Caesar, "Sid would make it ten times funnier than what we wrote. Sid acted everything out, so the sketches we did were like little plays." Simon also remembered the impact that working for Caesar had on him: "The first time I saw Caesar it was like seeing a new country. All other comics were basically doing situations with farcical characters. Caesar was doing life.

In the 1960s, both went through a vicious cycle of career collapse and chemical dependency. But only one emerged from the 1960s alive. In 1968, Hancock, despondent and alone in Australia, deliberately overdosed on barbiturates and vodka. Caesar recovered to write a book about his lost years, went back into acting, and lived to enjoy the tributes of his admirers. What was the difference?

I don't know for sure, but I suspect it was the detail with which I began this article: Sid Caesar's 67 years of marriage to the same woman, who knew him before he was famous. Three kids. Someone to keep him grounded. Someone to pull him out of his tailspin.

(Hancock's personal life was rather more complicated. And one by one, he cast off the writers and colleagues who had helped his star to shine.)


This may be another clue. It appears that Caesar maintained a vital connection to his Jewish faith.

Rena Strober, a young comedic actress and singer, got to know Sid Caesar through her membership in the Friar's Club, and that led to an invitation to celebrate the Second Night of Passover 2013 at Sid Caesar's home, surrounded by legends of comedy and Broadway. Theodore Bikel presided; Rena, as the youngest present, asked the Four Questions; Mel Brooks, Norm Crosby, John Byner, and Lainie Kazan were among the other guests. It would be Caesar's last seder.

Writer Esther Kustanowitz, a friend of Strober's, tells of the impact of a YouTube video of a classic sketch on Sid and Rena's friendship:

We reflected on her time with Sid, and his impact on generations of humor aficionados, including my father, the creator and editor of blog JewishHumorCentral, who regularly posts videos from comedy classics like "Your Show of Shows." A few months ago, he had posted a video clip of one of Caesar's classic sketches ("The Argument to Beethoven's 5th," featuring Sid and Nanette Fabray in a powerhouse wordless duet, linked below), and I shared it with Rena. She had never seen it before, but played it for Sid later that day. They talked about the clip, whether it was improvised or rehearsed (the former, she remembers him saying), and how brilliant it was, and Rena told him that the clip had appeared on a friend's father's Jewish humor blog. This was a story born decades ago in one comedy sketch that has resonated through the years and across technology, crossing from virtual into reality. I connected to Rena through blogging. I connected Rena to my dad's blog. And she was able to bring my dad's virtual connection to and deep appreciation for a legendary comedian to that comedian himself. The virtual, with the intercession of real people having real conversations, enabled an ill man to understand that what he had produced in this world had resonance beyond the point that he could have imagined. I believe that this connection, midwifed by the Internet, was a gift for all of us.

Here's that clip:

A tribute on Jewish Journal mentions his performance at a Hanukkah event in 1996. Here he is in 1991, doing his double-talk schtick on a telethon for Chabad's work on behalf of Russian Jewish immigrants.

Monty Hall remembers his old friend and frequent lunch companion:

The two men knew each other for some 40 years and frequently ran into each other at testimonial dinners, mostly Jewish, for this or that honoree.

"Often Sid was in the audience and when the M.C. spotted him and asked him to say a few words, Sid would launch into one his fractured Italian or Japanese monologues and have everyone in stitches," Hall added.

At the get-togethers at Factor's, Hall would sit next to Caesar and regale him with Yiddish jokes.

Those weekly lunches were immortalized in a film called, appropriately, Lunch.

From the Telegraph obituary

Using mostly his own material, Caesar drew on his observations of everyday life, making use of the comedy of situation or character rather than the gag or wisecrack, so prefiguring the emergence of the sitcom. By modern lights, the humour lacked edge. "There were so many things we couldn't do," Caesar later recalled. "It was the 1950s. Everything had to be squeaky clean. So it made us work harder and made us think deeper."

In a second volume of memoirs, Caesar's Hours (2003), he admired the way his heroes, great comedians of the silent film era - like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton - worked "both sides of the street", playing humour off against pathos.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Culture category from February 2014.

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