If ever there was a man deserving the name Caesar, it was Sid Caesar, the uber genius comedian who died this week. He ruled the world of comedy, the incredibly difficult task of getting people to laugh both with you and at you, like an emperor from the first days of black and white television to the late fifties with a power that no other single comedian has ever had.
His spectacular imitations of every kind of cultural and social icon were not just funny: they showed an insight into the human conditions of fear, pomposity, dishonesty, glory hogging that would have made Freud envious. His ability to stretch his mobile face and his polyphonous voice to suit whatever character he wanted to mimic were not just funny but funny in a way that made the lampooned and the audience feel good. He was never obscene and he was never mean. Imagine — a comedian who never used the F word!
I worshiped Sid Caesar and his co-stars, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Howard Morris, and their writers. I’ll tell you why:
I grew up in a home just exploding with tension. My parents, products of the Great Depression, were successful people, but lived in a state of constant fear that my sister and I, and they, would sink into the kind of economic insecurity that their generation knew so well. The only time I can remember in the 1950s when the tension completely vanished, was banished, was replaced with laughter that rocked our fifties modern home was when Sid Caesar was on his super hit, “Your Show of Shows.”
When Caesar and Coca imitated Burt Lancaster and his co-star Deborah Kerr, in their send up of From Here to Eternity, we roared. When Caesar played the phony genius professor double-talking his way into the pretense that he knew something deep, our household demons were gone. When he played a western hero or a jazz star or a doorman trying to act like a German Field Marshal, everything was hunky dory.
It was as if our household — and every household in America — could open the windows and let the anxiety out. Sid had taken it upon himself.
Sid Caesar had a huge career — and also a huge struggle with alcohol and drugs. But he won his struggles, became the picture of abstinence and health, and was a model to everyone who ever stood in front of an audience and tried to get a laugh. And, again, never a dirty word.
Emperor Sid Caesar is gone to eternity himself now. He takes with him the gratitude of every one of us who first learned the relief of laughter from this genuinely great performer. I have read many obituaries of him today. None even hints at how brilliant he was. You had to be there and you were fortunate if you were.
Hail Caesar and Farewell.