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!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • 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.