Two years ago, I had the pleasure of joining a group of funny men who meet for lunch and lively conversation every other Wednesday at Factor's Famous Deli on Pico Boulevard. A documentary about their meeting, aptly titled "Lunch," was making the rounds of festivals, and I was invited sit in with the veterans and soak in the experience.
Sid Caesar, who died Wednesday at age 91, had the place of honor at the head of a table that also included Monty Hall of "Let's Make a Deal" fame, Gary Owens from "Laugh-In" and the Oscar-nominated director of "Love Story," Arthur Hiller.
At this point in Caesar's life, the legendary star of the groundbreaking 1950s comedy variety series "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour" was frail and in a wheelchair. He didn't speak during the interview. But Hall said Caesar would never miss these lunches. "You know, when he walks in, we say, 'The king is here.' He loves that."
Though he didn't participate in the conversation, Caesar was very aware of what was going on. I don't think I'll ever forget his exchange with Hall, who always sat next to the comic, as Caesar was being wheeled out of the room. Caesar grasped Hall's arm and gave a nod with his head. It was his way of saying, "Goodbye, I'll see you in two weeks."
Eleven years earlier, I had the opportunity to talk with Caesar on the phone for the Showtime documentary "Hail Sid Caesar! The Golden Age of Comedy," which featured clips of the classic sketches from his comedy series, as well as interviews with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner.
Caesar was in a particuarly reflective mood during the interview because Imogene Coca, his partner in comedic crime on "Your Show of Shows," had died the week before. "I loved Imogene. I really did," he said quietly.
Caesar didn't mince words when it came to his feelings about contemporary comedy or how he was treated by the networks during his heyday.
Excerpts from that interview:
Do you think comedy shows are as creative today as "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour"?
I am not saying there is no creativity today -- there is -- but it is not as flourishing as it used to be. And the language that is allowed to be used -- I think it's degrading. It has taken television down.
How did you find such terrific young writers for "Your Show of Shows" like Simon, Brooks and Gelbart?
I heard about them, or somebody would introduce them. I would talk to them. I would let them work for a couple of days and then I would judge them. I was very, very lucky. I had the best writers around.
Did the networks rely as much on ratings in the 1950s as they do today?
It's always ratings. But they didn't appreciate talent in those days. They said, "He's sick. Get another comic." I had a problem with drinking and pills. I did that so I could go to sleep. I would lie down and couldn't shut [the show off]. So you could drink yourself to sleep and take pills. They didn't turn around and say, "How can we help you?" They said, "We got to let you go. Your ratings are down. Goodbye." Isn't that nice? Not even a thank you.