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.”
Sid Caesar was a giant-maybe the best comedian who ever practiced the trade & I was privileged to be one of his writers & one of his friends— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) February 12, 2014
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.