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!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • 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.