Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sid Caesar Was My Father

[post 249]

And Imogene Coca my mother. But only for a day or two, and not as publicly as I might have liked.

The year was probably 1958, and Sid Caesar's comedy-variety show, which first came to fame as Your Show of Shows, was back on NBC, though under a different name. With co-stars such as Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris collaborating with a writing team that featured such not-yet-famous names as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, and Woody Allen, Caesar was a 1950s television comedy trailblazer, and he did it with 39 live episodes a year.

As a child actor on New York City television, nine or ten years old at the time, I was cast in a sketch for the show. Not exactly a starring role: I was to play one of a dozen or so children of Caesar and Coca. All I remember was that it was a chaotic family dinner scene around a long table, and that the first rehearsal may have been the day before, more likely just the day of. Unfortunately for my bragging rights, the sketch apparently never jelled to their satisfaction and was canned hours before that week's show went on the air. Such was live television.

Mom and Dad
Sid Caesar will turn 90 this September 8th, but since I recently found myself again marveling at his old clips, I decided to jump the gun and celebrate dear old dad's birthday with a post highlighting some of his physical-ish comedy. While Coca started out in vaudeville as a child acrobat, Caesar didn't have a physical comedy background nor the movement vocabulary of a Chaplin or Keaton. However, many of his skits escalated to a level of chaos where bodies start getting flung all over the place, with hilarious results. These are all classics, but I'm sure a lot of you haven't seen them, and even if you have, well, not watching them again would be an insult to our family.

First up is This is Your Story, a parody of the This is Your Life tv show, in which raw emotion is converted into raw physical action faster than you can say "Uncle Goofy." That's Carl Reiner as the host and Howie Morris as the over-affectionate uncle.

Caesar was also an accomplished musician, having played sax with Benny Goodman before making it as a comedian. In Three Haircuts, Carl Reiner, Howie Morris, and Caesar parody the pop stars of the 50s with "You Are So Rare" and "Flippin' Over You." The second piece has some truly athletic moves.

Here he joins Nanette Fabray for an elaborate and often brilliant pantomime of a husband and wife quarreling to the score of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Slower paced was The Clock, but it provides a good lesson in building a gag.

Even when he's not at all physical, Caesar doesn't need intelligible dialogue to get a laugh. In 2007, an 85-year-old Caesar hobbled onto the stage of the tv improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? to do battle with Drew Carey in a game matching skills at foreign language "double talk," and proceeded to run gibberish circles around the younger comedian.

Just for the record, the only languages Caesar actually speaks are English and Yiddish.

Happy 89½ birthday, pops!

Some Links:
A Charlie Rose interview with Caesar.
The official Sid Caesar web site.
Caesar's Hours: My Life In Comedy, With Love and Laughter, Caesar's "artistic autbobiography."

1 comment:

Ira Seidenstein said...

Hi John, Just read your Sid C blog again. I saw his live show around the mid-1990s? at a small theatre/club in the Village. Perhaps the venue was used more for music. There was a small band and when Sid C came out the audience rose as one and gave him a full standing ovation and applause on his first ENTRANCE. After about 2 minutes he got the audience to calm down and sit. The feeling was that he wanted to prove that he actually can earn a standing ovation. There are ways to manipulate a standing ovation. He deserved the first one and earned the one that came at the end of the show. After seeing his live show I would say that Sid Caesar is perhaps the single most talented clown I have ever seen.