Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Hail Caesar

Television was pretty much an extension of the theater when Sid Caesar first started showing up in the living rooms of America in the late-1940s.

The performances were shown to audiences much like you would see something live on stage---few if any close-ups, archaic blocking, everything horizontal. Not that you couldn't deliver the goods shooting that way---just look at any "Honeymooners" episode.

But it was the work ethic that also translated from theater to early television. The shows may have been in front of cameras, but the players performed like it was Broadway---live and often.

Sid Caesar is gone. The year, just 43 days old, has already been unkind. We've lost legendary animator Arthur Rankin, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, on Monday, Shirley Temple Black.

Caesar was 91 when he slipped away today in California after a short illness.

Caesar lit it up every week, for 90 minutes no less, in "Your Show of Shows," which was basically television's first foray into sketch comedy.

Every Saturday night, from 9:00-10:30, Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris---plus several regular guest stars, put on what was essentially was a live variety show---39 weeks a year.

It was, truthfully, the original "Saturday Night Live."

"YSOS" won a couple of Emmy Awards along the way, but its lasting imprint has nothing to do with hardware. The early-1950s was a great time to be on television if you had any bit of pioneer in you and cared to blaze some trails. And Caesar and his band of merry men (and women) did plenty of blazing in the four years that "YSOS" was on the air.

Writing for Sid Caesar was as important as performing with him. If you wanted a career in TV as a writer, you wanted to write for Caesar. He was television's doorman for aspiring writers.

Reiner called upon his years of writing and performing on "YSOS" as inspiration for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which set many scenes in the writing office of Buddy Sorrell, Sally Rogers and Rob Petrie, who wrote for the bombastic, hard-to-please TV star Alan Brady (Reiner).

Sid Caesar was widely known in the 1950s as the best comedian in the world---TV, radio, movies, you name it. He had the rubber face, the gangly body and the New York-soaked voice that always went well with comedy.



It was Caesar and fellow comic Ernie Kovacs who looked at television as a block of clay with which to play, like children in a sandbox. Maybe the better analogy is pigs in slop, for the comedy of Caesar and Kovacs was hardly spic and span---in terms of props, physicality and creativity.

In "YSOS," Caesar and Coca could be anyone from a squabbling married couple to an artist and his muse to two bums on the street. Always, they were scenery chewers but most importantly, always they were funny.

“Television had its share of comedy geniuses,” Los Angeles Times television critic Howard Rosenberg wrote in 1994. “Yet arguably none has been as uniquely gifted and inventive as Caesar. Watching him perform, you just know light bulbs are popping continuously in his brain.”

Caesar wasn't as prolific on the big screen, though he did do memorable turns in films such as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and Mel Brooks' "History of the World: Part I." 

But movies weren't Caesar's milieu. He was a performer who needed the rush of going in front of a live audience, being beamed live into people's homes, eschewing multiple takes, cue cards and TelePrompTers, which weren't even around when Caesar came on the scene---not that he would have used them anyway.

It truly was the Golden Age of Television in Sid Caesar's day. Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Reiner and Kovacs were lock step with Caesar when it came to television comedy---all pioneers in their own way and all making their mark in this new medium that supplanted radio as the family's watering hole of entertainment.

Caesar's shtick included his famous "double talk" bits, in which he'd shamelessly combine languages, dialects and jargon with hilarious results. Thankfully, YouTube functions as our own personal Museum of Broadcasting History, so we can fire up a Caesar sketch 24/7.

There's great irony in one of Sid Caesar's quotes, coming as it did from a pioneering genius such as himself.

"The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot," he once said. "The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius."

That makes for some laughs, but Caesar invented the first wheel of sketch comedy. There was nothing idiotic about that.

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