When Sid Caesar’s father came to the United States in the late 1800s as a 9-year-old from Poland, he was handed that name “Caesar.” It was the sort of joke officials at Ellis Island often played on the immigrants they processed.
Still, nothing less in a surname would have done justice to Sid a half-century later. In the emerging empire of television in the 1950s, he reigned as a Caesar with his troupe of fellow performers and writers — among them Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, Carl Reiner, Nanette Fabray, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks.
Caesar ruled America on Saturday nights.
He was a brawny young man with a beetle brow and rubber face 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 everyone was ready for Caesar’s subsequent efforts. “Your Show of Shows,” which debuted in February 1950, and “Caesar’s Hour” three years later, reached as many as 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star $1 million annually at a time when $5, he writes in his new memoir, “bought a steak dinner for two.” When “Caesar’s Hour” left the air in 1957, he was still only 34.
Today, Caesar betrays the aches and pains of an 81-year-old man — a frail, goateed shadow of that conquering hero of comedy — as he squirms to find a comfortable position in a wing chair in his Manhattan hotel suite. He is visiting New York to discuss his book, “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy.”
“This wonderful piece of carpentry is drilling a hole in my back,” he says, then adds, with perfect timing, “no extra charge.” He shrugs. “It’s got to LOOK nice.”
But then, Caesar always had an eye for detail.
Whether played out in a sketch, pantomime or a full-blown revue, 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.
“The best thing about humor is that it shows people they’re not alone,” Caesar writes. That is the essence of his comedy: We’re all in this together, so we might as well laugh together.
It was never about jokes. “All my comedy was character- and plot-driven,” he writes. “I always believed that in art and life, it’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it; it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it. In the doing, you’ll find your strengths and weaknesses, and you will find your art.”
In “Caesar’s Hours,” he tells of his beginnings just up the Hudson from New York in Yonkers, then a working-class town where he was born the youngest of three sons to Max and Ida Caesar, who ran a luncheonette that was open around the clock.
As a child, Sid got hooked on music and, after graduating from high school, headed to New York City with his saxophone to find work in a band.
But before long, music gave way to comedy. Sid found growing success in the Catskills, then Hollywood (in an armed-forces musical called “Tars and Spars” — he sang a song called “I Love Eggs”) and on Broadway, where he performed in a revue, “Make Mine Manhattan.”
Then he landed his first series on the infant TV medium. 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 — while giving 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).
“Caesar’s Hours” shares some of the funny business of creating those shows. It takes readers into the Writer’s Room, where the star presided over what was perhaps the best collection of comedy writers ever assembled in the history of television.
“When you did a good show, everything worked: ahhhhh, joy!” recalls Caesar, who has just released a new collection of sketches in his “Buried Treasures” series, digitally restored and available online in VHS or DVD format.
Among the gems: from 1951, an unsuspecting moviegoer getting caught between feuding lovers in a theater; from 1953, a couple’s first meal at a health food restaurant, where the first course is the bouquet in the vase; and from 1957, Caesar interviewed as an avant-garde jazz musician who seems happily high on something.
“They look pretty good, I’m proud of them,” Caesar says with some understatement. “Why not? You got a right to pat yourself on the back sometime, instead of chewing yourself out.”
In his glory days, Caesar chewed himself out a lot. He even felt the gnawing between Saturday night’s telecast and Monday morning, when a new cycle began — six more sketches due in three days, followed by the staging and performing of another live broadcast.
He describes the toll this took on him (Topic A in his 1982 memoir, “Where Have I Been?”): his reliance on booze and pills for sleep every night so he could wake up and create more comedy. And he pays heartfelt tribute to Florence Caesar, his wife of 60 years, who helped him weather his demons and eventually kick his habit.
“In those days, you couldn’t just go to some facility for help,” she says as she looks in on her husband from the suite’s bedroom.
It took decades for him to hit bottom. In 1977, he was onstage in Regina, Canada, doing Simon’s “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” when, suddenly, his mind went blank. He walked off stage, checked into a hospital and went cold turkey, “which turned me into a wild turkey,” Caesar writes. But recovery had begun.
He wrote the book with Eddy Friedfeld in a process that mimicked his old Writer’s Room routine.
“I don’t like to work by myself,” explains Caesar, his forefinger typing on an invisible keyboard. “I like to talk back and forth.” And that’s how it went with Friedfeld, a 42-year-old entertainment writer who had become a Caesar fan through his grandmother.
But Friedfeld found that Caesar, a shy man offstage, wasn’t always at ease with self-disclosure: “More than once I had to say, ‘Sid! You got to make believe we’re talking about someone else.”’
Apart from their memory sessions, Friedfeld immersed himself in screening Caesar’s shows and even visited the old Writer’s Room in the City Center on West 55th Street — the hallowed site that inspired the 1982 film “My Favorite Year,” Neil Simon’s 1993 Broadway play, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” and Carl Reiner’s classic 1960s sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
That space now accommodates a physical therapist’s office. “Even so, I was seeing Mel Brooks jumping up and down on (producer) Max Leibman’s desk, and Max throwing his lit cigars at Mel.”
In a phone interview, Brooks vividly recalls that era as the wild child who elbowed his way into the pack and, initially, was paid from Caesar’s own pocket. The mighty Caesar “was strong in every way,” says Brooks, and did “nothing but lift your material. ... When we gave him a sketch, he shoved it right up to the stars.”
After those 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”), on Broadway (the musical “Little Me”) and even scored in a nonsinging role with the Metropolitan Opera in its 1987 production of the operetta “Die Fledermaus.”
More importantly, he overcame remorse about the flared-out superstardom of his youth — and how it nearly killed him.
“You think just because something good happens, then something bad has got to happen? Not necessarily,” smiles Caesar, pleased to share what he finally learned: “Two good things have happened in a row.”