That Old Feeling: Hail, Caesar!

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Comedian Sid Caesar

As Marlon Brando was to dramatic acting, Sid Caesar was to comedy. Look today at his work on the four shows he anchored in TV's infant days — "Admiral Broadway Revue" (1949-50), "Your Show of Shows" (1950-54), "Caesar's Hour" (1954-57) and "Sid Caesar Invites You" (1958) — as they are preserved in the six pearly videos that constitute "The Sid Caesar Collection." And there, in "live" sketches whose wit, drive, sophistication and narrative shapeliness put to shame all that came after, you will see the first and greatest Method comic. Caesar's physicality calls to mind no other comedians; he summons images of Robert De Niro (even to the mole on his cheek), Nicolas Cage, James Gandolfini. Sid dominates, he broods, he hulks. A large man, not really handsome but imposing, with huge hands and barely controllable strength, he intimidates the small screen, fills all its space, sucks out its energy.

He was actorish in another way. He lacked the laugh-at-me, love-me assurance of the stand-up comic; Sid, introducing "Show of Shows" each Saturday night, had exactly the poise and flair of his Sunday-evening counterpart, Ed Sullivan. "Without a character to hide behind, Sid was lost," Caesar writer Larry Gelbart noted in "Laughing Matters," his autobiography. "Sid simply did not know how to play Sid." At a 1996 Writers Guild reunion of the Caesar staff, Sid tried to describe working with his "Show of Shows" co-star Imogene Coca: "As soon as we met, there was a certain, ah — uh — camaraderie. A certain — I — ya can't —there's no name for it." Next to him, Mel Tolkin, Caesar"s longtime head writer, mutters helpfully, "Try 'spark.' That's as good as anything." He fits the image of the big-lug serious actor, inarticulate but sensitive.

And given to fits of rage — as Gelbart says, "Sid and rages were a perfect fit" — especially in the writers" room, where the weekly script was prepared. Neil Simon recreated that tension in his 1993 Broadway comedy "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," with Nathan Lane as TV comedian Max Prince. Here's Simon's description of Max: "He dominates a room with his personality. You must watch him because he's like a truck you can't get out of the way of." In the play, Max puts his fist through a writers' room wall, then has the hole framed in Tiffany's silver. In real life, according to Gelbart, "Sid yanked an offending washbasin out of a wall with his bare hands." A few months ago, Caesar was asked by a Toronto Sun reporter if it was true that in a fury he'd seized little Mel Brooks and hung him from an 11th floor window. He replied, "Nooo. It was the 18th floor." And was Mel funnier when Caesar hauled him back in? "Nah, but he was grateful."

You wouldn't know it from the reminiscences, but "Your Show of Shows" was not, strictly speaking, a comedy show. It was an old-fashioned vaudeville bill, new each week — what Variety, the trade paper, called "vaudeo" — and perhaps half of the 90-min. show was consumed by musical acts. Bill Hayes and Judy Johnson crooned pop tunes, Marguerite Piazza sang opera, the Billy Williams Quartette offered suave rhythm stylings, the Hamilton Trio or the duo of Bambi Lynn and Rod Alexander performed a dance number. Those parts of the show were the property of Max Liebman, its producer and a Ziegfeld of the 12-inch screen, who put the whole thing on for a miserly $64,000 a week. (When Sid mentioned this at the Writers Guild reunion, Caesar writer Sheldon Keller snapped, "I saw the same show at Kmart for $28,000.") You also wouldn't know, from studying the Sid-vid cassettes, who actually directed these shows. For the record, the names are Greg Garrison and Bill Hobin for "Your Show of Shows," Clark Jones for "Caesar's Hour."

You might also not know, unless you were (like me) a comedy-crazy kid at the time, the gifts of Caesar's supporting cast. Carl Reiner, who was also a writer, and earned TV immortality for creating "The Dick Van Dyke Show," was the main foil, invaluable for keeping a straight face through Caesar's preemptive ad-libbing. In skits he had the height and stern visage to play the villain. He also had a hilarious and acute tenor wail, too rarely displayed.

Howard Morris (later a director of many sitcoms, including "Van Dyke"), had an endearing elfin verve; of all the Caesar players, he knew best how delicately a gesture could be pitched to the camera — though as Uncle Goofy in the famous "This Is Your Story" sketch he went gloriously bonkers, clinging to Caesar's leg and, in one inspired moment, jackknifing from his backward sprawl over a couch arm up into Sid's clutches. He and Reiner were both adept in foreign-language double-talk; they could keep up with Caesar in the Italian, German, French and Japanese parodies that provided the shows with their most dizzying comedy.

Of Sid's leading ladies, Imogene Coca (1949-54) played her tiny stature cunningly against Sid's bulk; she was a superb pantomimist whose deft mugging surely served as the model for Carol Burnett. On "Show of Shows" she got nearly as much solo time, in musical and comedy bits, as Caesar; none appear on the Sid-vid cassettes. Her successor, Nanette Fabray (1954-56), could pass for pretty much more easily than Coca. Her perky looks, easy glamour and a trained soubrette soprano helped enlarge the scope of the parodies the writers could attempt, as on the "Shadow Waltz" sketch, where she sings Harry Warren's lilting waltz while Sid loses his fake mustache and swats a fly that has landed on her face. It's a tonic to see Fabray, still vital at 80, chip in with her memories on the Sid-vid tapes. (Janet Blair took over in 1956; I haven't seen her work since then, so will plead ignorance.)

Most people, though, think of early sketch TV as a writer's medium. Indeed, the Caesar shows may be remembered less for their terrific sketches than for the later careers of the people who wrote them. Gelbart: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" on Broadway, "Oh, God!" and "Tootsie" in the movies, "M*A*S*H" on TV. Tolkin: "All in the Family" (he wrote 36 episodes). Aaron Ruben directed "The Phil Silvers Show," produced "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Sanford and Son." Gary Belkin wrote scripts for "Newhart" and "Sesame Street." Lucille Kallen wrote the C.B. Greenfield mystery novels. Selma Diamond became a familiarly rasping voice on Jack Paar's late show and lots of cartoons. Joe Stein and Mike Stewart went to Broadway; one wrote the book for "Fiddler on the Roof," the other "Bye Bye, Birdie," "Hello, Dolly" and "Barnum." Brooks and Simon and Reiner you've heard of; and Woody Allen, who came in toward the end of Caesar's nine-year reign.

The very phrase "Caesar's writers' room" conjures up a maelstrom of comedy competition. Looking back, the survivors sound proud and grateful. They say writing for Caesar was like playing for the Yankees, or in Duke Ellington's band. Neil Simon called it "the Harvard of comedy." But the reality was closer to a grudge handball match. Says Gelbart: "It was very much like going to work every day of the week inside a Marx Brothers movie." Some writers were businesslike (Tolkin), some quick and professional (Gelbart), some were quiet (Neil Simon would mumble a fine gag sotto voce, and Carl Reiner, sitting next to him, would pitch it). And one was nuts. If Caesar focused the writers' fear and awe, Brooks channeled their fury. "He was always late," says Gelbart. "He'd come in with a Wall Street Journal and a bagel. He wanted to be a rich Jew." Brooks recalls it differently: "I should've been impressed but I wasn't, because I was a cocky kid, and I was filled with hubris and this marvelous ego. I thought I was God's gift to creative writing — and it turned out I was."

Here is the voice of the tummler, the wise-ass Jewish kid. For many watchers of early TV, the Caesar spectacle provided their first taste of sophisticated Jewish wit (Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor and Jerry Lester walked a lower road). The writers' room didn't contain that many college graduates, but the comedy aspired to be simultaneously high and low, elite and vulgar, educated and vigorous. Their skits in German double-talk (which are surprisingly free of Holocaust guilt-mongering) typically use Yiddish for the punch lines. Indeed, almost anything could sound Yiddish. Consider this skit, set in an Indian restaurant, with Sid as a customer and Carl the waiter:

Sid: What have you got to eat?
Carl: Klochmoloppi. We also have lich lop, slop lom, shtocklock, riskkosh and flocklish.
Sid: Yuck!
Carl: We have yuch too. Boiled or broiled?

"We were just a bunch of very gifted, neurotic young Jews punching our brains out," Gelbart says. And Caesar, who supervised this menagerie and had final say over their offerings, rewarded the writers by letting both their manic wit and their ingenuity run amok. "Everything, every subject, was fair game," Gelbart writes. "Nothing was too hip for the room. He had total control, but we had total freedom. We were satirizing Japanese movies before anyone ever saw them, fashioning material for him that sprang from our collective backgrounds, our tastes in literature, in film, in theater, music, ballet, our marriages, our psychoanalyses."

In the 50s shrinks were blooming all over New York; and smart showbiz types who were paid good money to make jokes about their mothers-in-law then paid some Sigmund even better money to listen to them talk about themselves. "Nearly everyone on our staff at 'Your Show of Shows' was in analysis," says Caesar in "Where Have I Been," the story of his 25-year dependency on pills (e.g., chloral hydrate) and booze. As Simon writes of Max/Sid in "Laughter," he "gets into his limo every night after the show, takes two tranquilizers the size of hand grenades and washes it down with a ladle full of scotch."

The addiction is understandable; he was in front of the camera, selling their skits and himself in 60- and 90-min. shows that went out live each week. To quote again from "Laughter," "We WRITE comedy. Max DOES comedy. It's his ass out there in front of the cameras every week." Caesar was the boy who has the nerve to stand up in class and say rude things the smarter kids have whispered to him. He also had the gumption to do comedy about his weaknesses. In "A Drink There Was" he enacts the ravages of demon rye; in "The Sleep Sketch" he gets hooked on a stimulant he thinks is a tranquilizer and spazzes into a manic jazz dance to the tune of "Piccolo Pete."

So there is something of the tragic hero in Caesar the great. As Ira, the Mel Brooks character in "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," says of his boss: "He was Moses, for crise sakes. The man is a giant. He's Goliath. Maybe he's Goliath after David hit him in the head with a rock, but there's fucking greatness in him, I swear." Watching these sketches today, I swear Ira's not exaggerating.

Comedy is hard. It's also personal. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the domestic sketches (in which Sid and Imogene were a couple called the Hickenloopers, then Sid and Nanette were the Victors), though some have great moments: a 75-sec. closeup of Sid bringing himself to tears as he contemplates the price of a fur coat Coca has just bought; or his and Nanette's attempt to serve dinner for six in a tiny apartment, which accelerates into a "Night at the Opera" stateroom scene. I can certainly do without the Professor sketches, in which Reiner interviews the ignorant, ever-bluffing clown played by Caesar. The bits try to get laughs from vaudeville rhythms, not canny writing; Reiner and Brooks would show how it's done in their later "2000 Year Old Man" skits.

But there's lots of priceless stuff on the new tapes. Here are my ten favorites, in order of their airing, with the "Sid Caesar Collection" cassette on which each appears.

1. "Five Dollar Date"; November 26, 1949 ("Admiral Broadway Revue"); on "The Magic of Live TV"

Caesar boils down one of the skits he performed, and he and Liebman wrote, for the 1948 Broadway revue "Make Mine Manhattan." At the start, Sid, standing in front of the curtain, already looks disheveled; his collar curls in and his jacket looks too large, as if he had already sweated down several sizes before coming on stage. Well, he knew what he was in for. The skit describes a young man on two dates: one in 1939, when everything is inexpensive and idyllic and he ends the evening with change from his $5; the other a decade later, when inflation and bad manners dominate. On each date he hails a cab, picks up his girl, puts her in a second cab, takes her to a French cafe, a third cab, an Italian restaurant, a fourth cab, a movie and show, a hansom cab ride through the park and home. Sid plays the young man, the girl, the French and Italian restaurateurs, a movie usher and all five cab drivers. Twice. In six minutes. And it all rhymes. This magnif tour de farce is a showcase for Caesar's reckless, almost rapacious comic energy. To watch it is a wearying treat. treat.

2. "The Grand Disillusion"; May 31, 1952 ("Your Show of Shows"); on "Love and Laughter"

The "movie parodies," especially of foreign films, often were not specific but generic. The 1956 "U-Bet-U" sketch takes its title from the Kenji Mizoguchi masterpiece "Ugetsu," but its plot was a mix of samurai movies, "Madame Butterfly" and "The Mikado"; and "Ugetsu" wasn't a musical. Here the title, alluding to the classic Jean Renoir film, is just a gag. The sketch, in double- talk German, is about Mata Hari (Coca); the scene is a cafe; and her inquisitor is rigid General Richenflichter (Caesar). The skit nicely re-warms a lot of stale shtick: the bracelet down the bodice, the champagne surreptitiously tossed aside, the old cigarette-extinguished-in-a-cupped-hand bit. It ends with the German reveals himself as a Frenchman and embracing the petite spy. "Mata!" he murmurs. "Harry!" she gushes.

3."The Clock"; September 15, 1953 ("Show"); on "The Magic of Live TV"

Danny and Neil Simon wrote this wordless skit for the four leads, who play mechanical figures who appear each hour on a large clock in the German village of Bauerhof. Sid hits the anvil, Carl hits Sid's hammer, Howie pumps the billows as Imogene cools the hammer with water. By the third hour the springs have sprung and Sid keeps getting Coca's water in his face. As chaos increases, so does the quartet's, er, clockwork precision.

4. "The German General"; September 26, 1954 ("Caesar's Hour"); on "Inside the Writers' Room"

Simple: Howie, as a German military aide, dresses his superior, Sid, in the uniform of a German officer. Howie breathes heavily on his boss' monocle ("Das monocle ist geschmutzik!") a little too hard, until it's "schlippery from schaliva!" He takes off the General's robe and scarf, slips a tunic on him, buttons it and polishes the buttons, clips his collar too tightly ("Du hasta klipt der shkin!"), flicks the strands of epaulets ("Epaulets flicken!"), attaches the braids ("Ba-raid rest!"), slips a glove on each of the General's hands, proceeds with "brushin' der Prussian" ("Du hasta jinglen der medalen?"), attaches the sword belt with some difficulty, moves on to the "perfume spritzen" and puts on the cap. Now the General is "der schlickest one of all" and ready for work — a lovely capper, which I won't spoil here. Each of the 16 applications has its own lovely gag, beautifully played and spoken, in ersatz German, by the imperious Caesar and the efficient, loving Howie. After studying it a dozen times, I aver that it's the most cannily conceived and handsomely performed nine minutes in skitcom history.

5. "Argument to Beethoven's Fifth"; December 27, 1954 ("Caesar's"); on "Creating the Comedy"

In mime, a man (Sid) and a woman (Nanette) have a fight that nearly ends their marriage, all precisely orchestrated to the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. A few words can be lip-read (He: "Your mother!" She: "My mother?" and later a flurry of no's and yesses), but most of the story is inferred from a masterly series of gestures, Sid humphing, Nanette fluttering. She finds a(n invisible) hair on his lapel; it's not hers. Get Out! She retreats to the solace of the family pet. Stroking the animal, she realizes it was the hair of the dog that bit her. He returns, and they reconcile in a climactic hug. It sings!

6. "The Haircuts: 'So Rare' and 'Flippin' Over You'"; April 25, 1955 ("Caesar's"); on "The Magic of Live TV"

In the early days, hip TV types didn't know how to treat rock 'n roll, except with contempt. But Sid, Carl and Howie couldn't help bringing their goofy energy to this musical parody. The Haircuts are a blend of two kinds of pop vocal groups: white (the Crewcuts) and black (the Treniers). Their first number, a power ballad that Caesar and Tolkin wrote in less than a minute (it took that long?), features Sid's Johnny Ray-style screamin' bridge. The uptempo "Flippin'" had three terrific dance turns, with Howie dervishing in circles on his back, Carl making wild windmills as his jacket straitjackets his arms, and Sid practically stomping through the floor with elephantine grace.

7. "Gallipacci"; October 10, 1955 ("Caesar's"; on "The Professor and Other Clowns"

The Pagliacci story rendered as a 20-min. musical: eight songs (including "Begin the Beguine," "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and, why not?, "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"), all in fake-Italian, with an enormous cast. Sid is the clown Gallipacci, Nanette his duplicitous beloved Rosa; at the end he sings "Yellow Rosa Texas." The highlight is Sid's Italianate aria, to "Just One of Those Things," as he applies a tear to his right cheek with a mascara pencil. But on the air the pencil tip broke, making a long line on his cheek instead of a rounded tear. So, while singing — and remaining in character — Sid picked up a brush, drew another vertical line, then two horizontal ones, creating a tic-tac-toe grid. He applied a few x's and o's, finally drawing a line through three x's just as he completed the song. This was ad-libbing at its most admirable, sure comedic grace under live-TV pressure.

8. "Aggravation Boulevard"; December 16, 1955 ("Caesar's"); on "Inside the Writers' Room"

In this Gary Belkin scenario, suggested by "Singin' in the Rain," Sid is silent- movie idol Rex Handsome, happily married to femme star Mara Bara (Nanette) for "ten glorious days." His arrival on the set, for his new film "The Sheik at Oxford," is eagerly awaited by the crew: "He should be here any minute now. The front part of his car passed through the studio gate 20 mins. ago." Announced by his assistant (Howie), Rex enters with a brace of wolfhounds, and his adoring director (Reiner) puts him and Mara into the scene. "Now slink over to him," he instructs Mara. "Slink, slink, that's it. Slinkier! Slinkier! Oh, that's fine, you really slunk it." An underling interrupts the scene with news that talking pictures have just come in. "At last!" Rex squeaks in an idiot soprano voice. "The world will hear Rex Handsome talk! And talk and talk and talk..." The premiere is a disaster, with audiences giggling derisively at his dialogue, and Rex waits fruitlessly by the phone in his mansion for four years hoping for an offer. Assistant: "Perhaps they've forgotten your number, sir." Rex: "Forgotten my number? My telephone number is CRestview 1!" In this flawlessly staged epic, Sid is magnificent: regal at first, then baffled but still proud, exaggerating old-time star quality just a smidge until it is both grotesque and awe- inspiring. As Mel Brooks aptly noted of Caesar's Rex: "Chaplin couldn't have done it."

9. "A Drunk There Was"; January 16, 1956 ("Caesar's"); on "Love and Laughter"

This silent-movie evocation begins in bliss for young Sid and his wife Nanette: It's his birthday, her birthday, their anniversary and she's pregnant. Sid's boss Howie proposes a toast; Sid doesn't drink but, at Howie's insistence, tries just one. Licking it, like a cat at a saucer of milk, he is instantly hooked. His addiction affects his job as a stamp-licker; he sneaks booze from an inkwell, a flower vase, the bowl of a kerosene lamp, the hollow leg of his desk and his typewriter roller. Having consumed too much liquor to be a licker, he is fired, and on his way out, he upends a hat rack, removes the antlers and drinks from the stem. It ends many years later with a scene filched from "Stella Dallas" - played straight, for maximum poignancy. This parable on the evils of alcohol, from a Neil Simon idea, has an extra poignancy for those aware of Caesar's drinking problem at the time. For those not in the know, it's only great.

10. "Progress Hornsby on 'People to People'"; September 25, 1957 ("Caesar's"); on "Creating the Comedy"

Jazzman Progress Hornsby — a combination of Dizzy Gillespie, Ernie Kovacs' Percy Dovetonsils and probably several people I don't know — was seen in an earlier skit asking the musical question, What is jazz? ("Jazz is a pencil sharpener. Jazz is a frying pan... Jazz is a beautiful woman whose older brother is a po- lice-man.") This parody of Edward R. Murrow's weekly interview show "Person to Person," with Progress quizzed by Reiner's Ted Burrows, has some of the sharpest writing in the series. Let's listen:

Ted: You have a most unusual hairstyle.
Progress: Yes, it does have a touch of the Ming Dynasty, doesn't it?
Ted: Progress, how do you get your barber to cut your hair?
Progress: I insult him. And this is his revenge.
(Ted asks what Progress does with his old hair)
Progress: I'm wearin' it. This suit is me. You've heard of mohair? This is me- hair.
(Ted asks Progress to list his favorite musicians, and Progress speaks of the legendary Fats Fidelio.)
Progress: Fats blew a high M.
Ted: An M? I thought the scale stopped at G.
Progress: Not for the brave, sir.
(He introduces his band. One fellow's instrument is "radar." Radar?)
Progress: Trs necessaire, sir. Whenever we play, we must be warned in case we approach the melody.

It had to end. No one, not even the mighty Caesar, could perform this mammoth battle, an exhausting mixture of love and war, every week. By 1958, not even he could carry a comedy show angled to the smarty-pants portion of the audience, which declined in proportion as more people bought TV sets. In the beginning, as Gelbart notes, "The audiences were smarter. It was an earlier time in television: sets were more expensive, only the most affluent people bought them, and most of them were better educated. The audience has been dumbed down to a great degree, and so has the comedy — so they'll get it."

The Dream Team of Comedy broke up. Over the decades, parts of the franchise would occasionally reunite. Reiner hired Keller to write scripts for "The Dick Van Dyke Show"; Stein wrote a Broadway adaptation of Reiner's memoir "Enter Laughing," then the two wrote the movie version. Gelbart and Keller wrote for "M*A*S*H" on TV. For Caesar, Simon wrote the Broadway show "Little Me" (eight roles in one) and cast him in "The Cheap Detective." The writers frequently returned to the trope of lauding and kidding old films: Reiner and Ruben with "The Comic," Gelbart and Keller with "Movie Movie," Brooks and Caesar (as a supporting player) with "Silent Movie."

Brooks worked with Belkin on "Get Smart"; he gave Caesar roles in "Silent Movie and "History of the World, Part I." In another movie, Brooks memorialized an incident from the Caesar legend: as Gelbart tells it, Sid "once punched a horse in the face, knocking it to the ground because the animal had had the audacity to throw his wife off its back." Brooks gave the bit to Alex Karras as the lumbering Mungo for one of the most memorably audacious moments in "Blazing Saddles."

Caesar never regained his huge stride. He had startled, with movie-actor threat and menace, in a medium that came to prize miniature likability, that relied on little stars whom the audience could welcome, like a docile dinner guest, each week into their living rooms. He starred in "Little Me" on Broadway, but on TV, at 36, he was finished. He never again fronted his own series on American TV; his film appearances were guest shots except for starring roles in two lame William Castle mystery-comedies of the mid-60s, "The Spirit Is Willing" and "The Busy Body." Old fans would see him in the corners of "Grease" and "Airport 1975" and wonder what happened to Sid; kids would ask, Who is that man? Or, rather, they wouldn't ask. They didn't notice. The man who was too big for TV had become invisible in movies. Caesar thus became the first in a long line of skitcom geniuses (Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman) whose short-form talents were wasted in indifferent films.

Now he's back, marketing his glorious past. Sid turns 79 next week, and it appears that conquering his addictions took a lot out of him. In the interview segments of his video compilations he looks frail and gaunt: great Caesar's ghost. Only his voice reminds us of the frantic majesty he brought to TV a half- century ago. His voice, and these fabulous tapes — six so far, and lots more to be mined. I'd love an entire cassette of mime pieces, and two, three, four hours of movie parodies. Can a child of the 50s be greedy for what was wonderful then? Sketch comedy, like so much else, has devolved into easy crudity. We have to be archaeologists to find the good stuff. And to come across "The Sid Caesar Collection" is to feel the exultation of Schliemann when he unearthed ancient Troy. "Caesar's Hour" is dead, but on video, Caesar's ours.