Sid Caesar, Brought Jewish Humor to Middle America, Dies at 91

Son of Immigrants Starred in 'Show of Shows'

Sid and Bob: Sid Caesar shares a joke with Bob Hope in 1960.
getty images
Sid and Bob: Sid Caesar shares a joke with Bob Hope in 1960.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published February 12, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Sid Caesar, who has died at the age of 91, was more than just a pioneer of TV comedy. As his memoirs “Where Have I Been: An Autobiography” (Crown Publishers, 1982) and “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter” (PublicAffairs, 2003) recount, his achievement was a blend of second generation immigrant Jewish experience, jazz music, and repercussions of the Holocaust.

He was born Isaac Sidney Caesar in 1922 to Ida Raphael, born in Russia, and Max Caesar, from Poland, who ran a 24-hour luncheonette in Yonkers. According to family lore, their name Caesar was given to his father by an immigration official at Ellis Island. Early exposure to the linguistic Babel of the immigrant experience at the luncheonette made Caesar able to mimic foreign sounds for comic effect. In a working class family with two older brothers, Caesar grew up lacking a strong sense of individuality or self-worth, a typical background for a clown.

His friend and colleague Carl Reiner told an interviewer for the Archive of American Television in 1997 that as a child, Caesar’s nickname in the family was the Yiddish term for “piece of crap” : “[Caesar] wasn’t handled right as a kid by his parents and his brothers… He told me this once: ‘My middle name was shtick drek.’” Reiner went on to explain that Caesar was “the youngest and he didn’t get a lot of attention and so he didn’t develop those social skills that most people have, but he could act the social skills.”

Caesar found an early identity as a big band tenor sax player. In his beginnings as a comedian, a wild bebop energy infused his performances, and like many jazz players, his artistry was fueled by a longtime addiction to alcohol and pills. As a musician-comedian, sound effects became Caesar’s specialty, whether noisy planes or incomprehensible foreign languages.

Like an instrumentalist creating amusingly original vocal riffs in the tradition of Louis Armstrong Caesar added physical force and passionate intensity, with the stage presence of a young Marlon Brando. Other Jewish comedians of the era with parallel routines such as Jules Munshin paled in comparison to Caesar’s sheer visceral impact. Few comedians could hold the stage with Caesar, among them being the strapping and hyper-energetic Reiner.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • This 007 hates guns, drives a Prius, and oh yeah — goes to shul with Scarlett Johansson's dad.
  • Meet Alvin Wong. He's the happiest man in America — and an observant Jew. The key to happiness? "Humility."
  • "My first bra was a training bra, a sports bra that gave the illusion of a flat chest."
  • "If the people of Rwanda can heal their broken hearts and accept the Other as human, so can we."
  • Aribert Heim, the "Butcher of Mauthausen," died a free man. How did he escape justice?
  • This guy skipped out on seder at his mom's and won a $1 million in a poker tournament. Worth it?
  • Sigal Samuel's family amulet isn't just rumored to have magical powers. It's also a symbol of how Jewish and Indian rituals became intertwined over the centuries. http://jd.fo/a3BvD Only three days left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.