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Despite his landmark star status on TV, Caesar’s talents were essentially those of a stage performer, with a rage fueled by early family conflict, amplified by service in World War II. Although he was sheltered from combat in the Coast Guard, Caesar experienced the Holocaust like all American Jews, and only a few years after the war ended in 1945, he was repeatedly ridiculing Germans on TV, with characters prefiguring Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and Brooks’ 1980s remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be.”
On his early “Your Show of Shows” (1950–1954) and later shows, Caesar surrounded himself with all-Jewish writing teams who were personally experienced in the traumas of modern Jewish history. Caesar’s head writer on “Your Show of Shows” was Mel Tolkin (1913–2007), born Shmuel Tolchinsky in a shtetl near Odessa,Ukraine, where he experienced anti-Semitic pogroms. Later analyzing this persecution which drove his family to North America, Tolkin described it as creating a “condition where humor becomes anger made acceptable with a joke.”
Among other rage-filled writers for Caesar was his friend Mel Brooks, recovering from World War II combat experiences, and the more introverted choler of Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, and others. Contrary to legend, a young Woody Allen only wrote for Caesar 1950s TV specials, but never for the main series “Your Show of Shows” or “Caesar’s Hour.” The interactions of all these verbally gifted Jews with chips on their shoulders was as inspiring as the product they created, and Reiner offered a version of the experience in his classic 1960s TV sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” with Reiner himself playing the role of vainglorious star, modeled after Caesar.
Caesar’s writers’ room likewise inspired the 1982 comedy film “My Favorite Year” produced by Brooks, and Neil Simon’s Broadway play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (1993). These legendary echoes of Caesar have proven lasting, despite a flood of recent DVD releases celebrating his real-life comedy..
Discussing his sources, Caesar told “The Jewish Chronicle” in 2010: “There’s a lot of fun that you can bring out in being Jewish. But I didn’t want to make fun of being Jewish. There’s a fine line…I used to see people davening in shul and they’d snap the book shut when they’d finished. Like they’d won a race. Then look around to see if anyone else had finished. I used to find that very funny…Jews appreciate humor because in their life it’s not too funny. We’ve been trodden down for a long time, thousands of years. So we’ve had to turn that around because if you take it all too seriously you’re going to eat yourself. And we’re very good at being self-deprecating. Either we do it or somebody’s going to do it for us. We might as well do it first.”
Caesar’s demons drove him off television, but his genius made him an irreplaceable, unforgettable talent.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.