Forgive the nostalgia, but the news triggered a wave of memories going back almost 60 years.
Sure, he lived to the ripe old age of 91, but Sid Caesar’s death left a void in the panoply of a generation of comedians. Not only was his television show mandatory viewing in my home, but, in later years, he was a genius in the movies. My favorite was his role in “Silent Movie,” in which Caesar was on the phone – with subtitles only – and after saying, “No one does slapstick anymore,” he goes sliding helplessly across the floor and crashes into the opposite wall.
The obituary in the Daily Republic quoted Woody Allen as saying, “He was one of the truly great comedians of my time and one of the finest privileges I’ve had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him.” Carl Reiner, father of Rob Reiner, said, “He had an ability to connect with the audience and make them roar with laughter.”
Caesar was one of a group of Jewish comedians who became famous in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them getting their start in vaudeville or in the Catskills. Others with a similar pedigree included Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, Milton Berle and Jack Benny. There were dozens of hotels in the Catskill Mountains, a location about 90 miles from New York City. I had the opportunity to work there in the summer after my ill-fated two years at Cornell. I lasted one day, or rather night, as a bar waiter because instead of attending to the customers, I couldn’t take my eyes off the strippers.
Caesar’s career was not without problems, one of which was his alcoholism. He overcame his passion for drink and went on to a career in comedy, most memorably the movies. But his first television show, “Your Show of Shows,” was his ticket to comic stardom.
I don’t think my parents missed an episode of that series, which also starred Imogene Coca. If you’re old enough, you may remember that early TV shows were in black and white, and what was worse was that we watched them on a Dumont television with a 12-inch screen. If that wasn’t bad enough, there were no remote controls, so someone – me – had to go up to the TV to change the channel, raise or lower the volume and bring the program into focus.
We didn’t have to scroll through a lot of channels, however – the choice was CBS, NBC, ABC, and later, public broadcasting. When we watched television in the evening, I was on a short leash with an early bedtime. There was no such thing as a VCR, so if you missed a show that you had wanted to see, you were out of luck.
It’s quite amazing that Caesar’s career lasted more than 40 years, and there was no sign as he grew older that he had lost his comic touch. I can’t help but wonder which of today’s comedians – male or female – will hold the interest of an audience for so many years. I know that it comes with getting older that you think, “They don’t make them like (fill in the blank) anymore.” If I’m not mistaken, there are no comedians who have one-hour shows, except for the late-night hosts. But Jay Leno, David Letterman and Conan the Comedian don’t fill their time with the kind of humor we had in the early years of television.
That’s not to say that all the comedy was clever and amusing. I used to think that Red Skelton overdid it with his slapstick and Milton Berle was notorious for using second-hand jokes.
I have to admit that I’m turned off by some of the current crop of comedians – both male and female. I’ve wondered for years why many of them think that to be funny, they have to be vulgar. Of course, the cable channels are not covered by the Federal Communications Commission the way the networks are, so the only thing that prevents them from abusing their airwave privilege is their judgment.
My affinity for Sid Caesar was enhanced when I learned that his parents were from Russia and Poland, as were my grandparents. That doesn’t mean that I could stand up in front of an audience of a thousand people and make them laugh. Hmm, maybe a second career?
Bud Stevenson, a retired stockbroker, lives in Fairfield. Reach him at [email protected]