Comic showman Sid Caesar, a Jewish pioneer of American television sketch comedy as the star and creative force of “Your Show of Shows” during the 1950s, died on Wednesday at age 91, according to his friend and former collaborator Carl Reiner.
Reiner told Reuters he learned of Caesar’s death from a mutual friend, actor and writer Rudy De Luca, who had recently visited Caesar at his Los Angeles-area home. He said the veteran entertainer had been ill for at least a year.
While he enjoyed a career on TV, film and stage that spanned six decades but was marred by years of substance abuse, he is best-known for his work with comedienne Imogene Coca on the landmark “Your Show of Shows,” which aired on NBC from February 1950 to June 1954.
One of the most ambitious and demanding of all TV enterprises, “Your Show of Shows” was 90 minutes of live, original sketch comedy airing every Saturday night, 39 weeks a year. It is widely considered the prototype for every U.S. TV sketch comedy series that followed, including “Saturday Night Live.”
“SNL” alumnus Billy Crystal remembered Caesar as “the greatest sketch comedian of all time” and “my first comedy hero and “inspiration.” Crystal recalled a visit with Caesar in which “he got to run lines with him from ‘Your Show of Shows.’ One of the great moments of my life.”
“All those who want to be funny should study his work,” Crystal added.
“He was a unique talent, and he was a pioneer of television and entertainment when television was in its infancy,” said Eddy Friedfeld, who helped Caesar write his 2003 autobiography “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter.”
“Your Show of Shows” and its successor series, “Caesar’s Hour,” became an incubator for some of the greatest comic minds in American show business, with a roster of writers that included Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Reiner (who also co-starred on the show) and Larry Gelbart.
Nominally hosted each week by a different star (much like “Saturday Night Live”), “Your Show of Shows” also featured a cadre of regular singers and dancers, as well as ballet and opera performances to lend an air of cultural refinement.
But the series became a hit for the comic chemistry between Caesar and Coca, a former vaudeville performer nearly 14 years his senior who died in 2001 at age 92.