They came not to bury him, but to praise the man who pioneered television sketch comedy.
Sid Caesar, whose “Your Show of Shows” was a household name during its run from 1950 to 1954, recalls being amazed and profoundly moved when he received a 15-minute standing ovation during his recent appearance on Drew Carey’s improvisational series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” on ABC.
The 79-year-old actor, who walks with a cane following recent surgery to both hips, told Reuters his biggest fear about returning to the small screen after an absence of more than 20 years was that no one might recognize him.
“What I was nervous about was the kids: Will they know me? Will they remember me?” says Caesar in an interview at his spacious Beverly Hills home. “Kids 18, 20 years old can only hear about me through their fathers and grandfathers.”
But the bearded, slow-moving Caesar need not have worried about his “Whose Line” appearance any more than his place in television history.
His “Show of Shows” and later “Caesar’s Hour” dominated television in the 1950s, pioneering the sketch comedy format later imitated by such shows as “Laugh In,” “The Carol Burnett Show,” and the modern king of late-night comedy, “Saturday Night Live” and its many imitators.
Besides becoming institutions in their own right, Caesar’s shows also produced a who’s-who of comedy writers and performers, including Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbert, Mel Tolken and Woody Allen.
RAISED IN YONKERS
Born in Yonkers in 1922, Caesar dabbled in music early on, studying saxophone at the Juilliard School and later playing with several bands, before pursuing a career in acting.
He is perhaps best known for the foreign language skits on his shows, in which he impersonates a wide array of languages in dialogues that sound like the real thing to non-speakers but are really all gibberish.
Caesar said he developed his unique skill through his frequent visits to his father’s restaurant in a blue-collar Yonkers neighborhood during his boyhood years.
“Men used to come in – there was a French table, a German table, a Russian table and an Italian table,” he says. “By taking up dishes during lunch hour, I’d pick (languages) up. You know, the first thing they teach you is the dirty words.”
In fact, Caesar recalled how his short-lived 1980 show “Pink Lady” revolved around two Japanese women, pop music sensations in their native land, who spoke very little English.
“It was a series that nobody knew and nobody will know,” he says. “I did sketches with them in Japanese. They spoke real Japanese.”
In one of his “Pink Lady” sketches, Caesar played the girls’ father.
“I was the father and they were going out on a date and they came back late. That’s all you need,” recalls Caesar, flowing effortlessly back into a refrain of his gibberish Japanese.
While “Pink Lady” barely merits an asterisk in prime-time television, Caesar has certainly earned a place as one of the medium’s greatest contributors. He said his work was special because its comedy was character-based, unlike the more gag-oriented sketch comedy of today.
“It’s a different kind of comedy,” he says. “It’s based on belief, because you’ve got to believe…. No matter how crazy it gets, if we start off believing, you’ll believe it. That makes it more, because (the audience is) rooting for somebody.”
Caesar lists Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton as among the greatest influences on his own brand of distinct humor.
“Those are my giants because they were funny,” he says. “You believed them. When you saw a Charlie Chaplin movie, you believed it. He always dealt from truth.”
Caesar said “Show of Shows” sketches were longer and had intricate story lines, typically running eight to 10 minutes each, than contemporary sketch comedy whose skits last only a few minutes.
He blames the proliferation of commercials for what he sees as the dumbing down of the genre, as today’s comedians resort to quick gimmicks such as bad language and dirty references whenever possible in order to get a laugh.
Whereas his shows had about nine minutes of commercials for each hour, the more contemporary show comes closer to 20 minutes, leaving less time per skit before each break.
“Hello, goodbye – that’s the sketch,” Caesar says. “Or hello, hello – different versions of that. If they can end with a dirty word or situation, even better. It’s a shame. It really is.”