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February 12, 2014

Father of TV sketch comedy Sid Caesar dies at 91

NEW YORK — Milton Berle was the funnyman whose pioneering presence in the nation’s living rooms earned him the title Mr. Television.

But Berle echoed the past. His wildly popular wisecracks and cavorting were repurposed from his burlesque days for the brand-new miracle of TV.

Sid Caesar was different. Arriving on Berle’s heels in 1949, Caesar was the future of TV comedy — a future that was evergreen and, with his death on Wednesday at 91, is certain to survive him. To put it simply: Caesar invented TV sketch comedy and gave it stature as a funhouse mirror of the everyday.

“Saturday Night Live,” to name the most obvious example, is a weekly homage to his creation.

To do it, Caesar gathered a dream team of fellow performers and writers — among them Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen — whose own impact on comedy will likewise be lasting.

“From my vantage point,” said Reiner, “which was sometimes no further than an inch from his face, and one time nose on nose, he was inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist and single sketch comedian who ever worked in television.”

“He was one of the truly great comedians of my time, and one of the finest privileges I’ve had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him,” Allen said.

Caesar was a brawny young man with a beetle brow, rubber face and distinctive mole on his left cheek whose first comedy-variety show, “The Admiral Broadway Revue,” premiered in February 1949 and was off the air by June. Its fatal shortcoming: unimagined popularity. It was selling more Admiral television sets than the company could make. Admiral, its exclusive sponsor, pulled out.

But the audience was primed for Caesar’s subsequent efforts. “Your Show of Shows,” which debuted in 1950, and “Caesar’s Hour” three years later, drew as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million annually at a time when $5, he recalled, “bought a steak dinner for two.”

When “Caesar’s Hour” left the air in 1957, Caesar was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: He relied on booze and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy.

It took decades for Caesar to hit bottom. Then in 1977, he went cold turkey, “which turned me into a wild turkey,” he wrote in his memoir, “Where Have I Been?” With his wife, Florence (who died in 2010 after more than 60 years of marriage), by his side, recovery had begun.

After his golden days of live TV, Caesar found success in films (”It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” as well as Brooks’ “Silent Movie” and “History of the World: Part One,” and the musical “Grease”), on Broadway (Simon’s “Little Me”) and even scored in a nonsinging role with the Metropolitan Opera in its 1987 production of the operetta “Die Fledermaus.”

On “Your Show of Shows,” Caesar staged 90 minutes of skits, revues, pantomime and satire that his audience found not only hilarious, but also vividly relatable. His comedy style, while often antic, was rooted in reality.

His humor — observational, humanistic — exposed the telling truths of everyday life. How friends fight over a restaurant check. How a schoolboy at his first dance musters the nerve to talk to a girl. How a gum ball machine behaves when fed a coin (one of Caesar’s countless impersonations). Or how someone, like his double-talking German professor, manages to pose as an expert despite expertise in nothing.

“Real life is the true comedy,” he said in a 2001 interview with The Associated Press. “Then everybody knows what you’re talking about.” Caesar brought observational comedy to TV before the term, or such latter-day practitioners as Jerry Seinfeld, were even born.

In sketches, Caesar played an unsuspecting moviegoer getting caught between feuding lovers in a theater. He dined at a health food restaurant, where the first course was the bouquet in the vase on the table. He was interviewed as an avant-garde jazz musician who seemed happily high on something.

Some compared Caesar to Charlie Chaplin for his brilliance at blending humor with touches of pathos.

Caesar went into left field with such co-stars as Howard Morris and Nanette Fabray, but his most celebrated collaborator was the brilliant Imogene Coca on “Your Show of Shows.”

Coca and Caesar performed skits that satirized marital spats, inane advertising, strangers meeting and speaking in clichis, a parody of the Western “Shane” in which the hero was named “Strange.” They staged a water-logged spoof of the love scene in “From Here to Eternity.” “The Hickenloopers” husband-and-wife skits became a staple.

Caesar was born in 1922 in Yonkers, N.Y., the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife. His first dream was to become a musician, and he played saxophone in bands in his teens. But as a youngster waiting tables at his father’s luncheonette, he liked to observe as well as serve the diverse clientele, and he recognized the humor happening right before his eyes.

His talent for comedy was discovered when he was serving in the Coast Guard during World War II and got a part in a Coast Guard musical, “Tars and Spars.” He also appeared in the movie version. Wrote famed columnist Hedda Hopper: “I hear the picture’s good, with Sid Caesar a four-way threat. He writes, sings, dances and makes with the comedy.”

Then he broke into TV. He was signed by NBC executive Pat Weaver, who later created “Today” and “Tonight.” Weaver asked what he wanted to do: a half-hour, an hour or 90 minutes?

“Let’s do the hour-and-a-half,” replied Caesar, figuring more was always better. He gave little thought to the burden he had taken on: 90 minutes live for 39 weeks a season — and, unlike the present-day “Saturday Night Live,” no cue cards.

“We had an hour and a half of, ‘Boy, it worked!”’ he later recalled. “And then, after you had a couple of drinks: ‘You know, we’ve got to do that allllll over again (starting) on Monday.”’

“Caesar’s Hour” left NBC’s Saturday lineup in 1957, done in by the “champagne music” of ABC’s high-rated competition, “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

His glory years would be preserved by his former comrades in works of their own. Reiner based his 1960s “Dick Van Dyke Show” — with its fictional TV writers and their temperamental star — on his experiences with Caesar. Simon’s 1993 “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” was likewise based on the Caesar show.

Of course, it wasn’t all laughs for Caesar, who later looked back on those years as painful ones. Demons he would wrestle with included remorse about the flared-out superstardom of his youth — and how the pressures it brought nearly killed him.

But over time he learned to view philosophically his life of ups and downs.

“You think just because something good happens, THEN something bad has got to happen? Not necessarily,” he said with a smile in 2003, pleased to share his hard-won wisdom: “Two good things have happened in a row.”

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