With a Jewish-infused style, Sid Caesar revolutionized television comedy
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With a Jewish-infused style, Sid Caesar revolutionized television comedy

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From left, Sid Caesar, Nanette Fabray, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris as “The Commuters” on the 1950s television series “Caesar’s Hour.” Courtesy Eddy Friedfeld

Sid Caesar, who died on February 12, made America laugh – and he revolutionized television comedy.

His trailblazing style was infused with Jewish influences, according to Eddy Friedfeld, co-author with Mr. Caesar of the comic’s “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter.”

“Sid was part of the Jewish tradition of storytelling,” Mr. Friedfeld, who gave a eulogy at Mr. Caesar’s funeral in February, said. “The difference was not his 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.”

Sid Caesar was the youngest of three sons born to Jewish immigrants living in Yonkers. His father, Max, came from Poland, and his mother, Ida, came from Russia; together, the couple operated a luncheonette. Young Sid developed his foreign-sounding double talk by listening closely to the luncheonette’s multinational clientele.

Mr. Friedfeld, who teaches courses in comedy at Yale University and NYU and worked with Caesar on the book for several years, said that Mr. Caesar had a strong Jewish identity. According to Mr. Friedfeld’s book, after graduating from Yonkers High School in 1939, Sid left home intent on starting a musical career. In Manhattan, he 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 Catskills resort. Mentored by Don Appel, the resort’s social director, Mr. Caesar played in the dance band and learned to perform comedy, doing three shows a week.

“His family were proud and aware Jews. Sid went to cheder, the after-school program. Sid claimed he was the first to introduce the word chutzpah into the American vernacular,” Mr. Friedfeld said.

Unlike earlier comedy, rooted in immigration and financial depression, Mr. 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 United States needed smart, fresh, optimistic, cutting-edge comedy, with an infusion of culture and satire.

Mr. Friedfeld said Mr. 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.

In one of his sketches, Mr. Caesar became a scientist who was bitten by a radioactive termite and developed an insatiable appetite for wood. As the Professor, his boundless expertise ranged from mountain climbing, to sleeping, to children. And as the crying clown, Galipacci, he braved the perils of live television.

Doing the sketches week after week was not easy for Mr. Caesar. In an interview he gave for the Archive of American Television, he emphasized the challenge of doing live TV during its early days. “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, the 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 to 2008, said that Mr. Caesar set the template for television comedy.

“He did the satires, the accents, the costumes that would help define future comedic efforts,” Dr. Epstein said. “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. From a sketch about 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,” Dr. 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.”

In a statement released after Mr. Caesar’s death, Carl Reiner said that his friend and colleague had been “inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist, and single-sketch comedian who ever worked in television.”

A friend of Larry Gelbart, Mr. Friedfeld said that when Mr. 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 Mr. Caesar on his 90th birthday, Mr. Friedfeld recalled bumping into Woody Allen on Park Avenue in New York. Mr. Allen said, “Tell Sid he’s still my finest credit.”

“Sid revolutionized comedy,” Mr. Friedfeld said. “Before Sid, television was burlesque and wrestling and bowling. Caesar, his co-stars, and his 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.”

JNS.org

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