Caesar hails his comic life

Gerald Nachman is the author of "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s."

From his lower middle-class boyhood in Yonkers, N.Y., through his later post-stardom traumas, Sid Caesar was perceived as inarticulate and painfully shy, nothing like the brash, comically eloquent on-camera personality that made him an icon in TV's now-dwindling pantheon of certifiable geniuses. He was really born too late -- a silent comic, more visual than verbal, capable of flickering comic moods, who tamed TV to fit him.

In his new memoir, "Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter," written with Eddy Friedfeld, the legendary comedian doesn't fall silent, but he is too discreet, too eager to please, to speak ill of anyone, so there are a lot of things left unexplained. Yet he's a sage on comedy, sharing shrewd lessons on the getting of laughs, on how to film a sketch and not squelch the joke, and on the danger of over-rehearsing, killing comedy's vital spontaneity. His TV shows, he notes, were closer to theater than movies or standard TV. Caesar refused to syndicate his shows lest lengthy sketches be diced up for commercials.

"Caesar's Hours" is a textbook on the almost extinct art of sketch comedy, with asides on how the laugh track and the dirty joke dumbed-down TV comedy, making it too easy and automatic, and on the strictures of '50s comedy (no sex jokes, no mocking live politicians), limitations that pushed writers to be more inventive.

The unsurpassed visual comedy that Caesar & Co. (Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and later Nanette Fabray) so memorably practiced for much of the 1950s, defies translation into print. For all of Caesar's canny explanations of how sketches were devised and executed -- with large chunks of old scripts reprinted -- even his most famous routines die on the page. You had to be there or have a vivid memory.

"Your Show of Shows" has its own hallowed mythology (captured in the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," in Neil Simon's 1992 play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," and in "Caesar's Writers," the 1996 PBS reunion of Caesar's gagmen), so readers may know many of the stories that make up the well-burnished legend. But Caesar sprinkles a few new savory crumbs: Rudy Vallee was so cheap a guest star that he ate alone, fearful of getting stuck with the tab; Carl Reiner was partly hired because producer Max Liebman obeyed an ancient dictum that a straight man must be taller than the comic; Albert Einstein wanted to meet Caesar but died before the unlikely rendezvous; and while Caesar and Coca were a match made in revue-sketch heaven, both were so shy offstage that they mainly communicated through comedy on camera.

Caesar, now 81, neglects to give us a vivid sense of the creative friction and human juices that went into the shows. It seems all a little too fondly and bloodlessly recalled, given the fevered, crazed nature of comedy writers and comics, and of the star's famous manic temperament. Despite the incredible tension of producing a live 90-minute show every Saturday night on NBC (an ordeal he calls "hilarious torture"), grinding out six sketches in three days for 39 weeks, nobody in the memoir ever gets angry, no tempers flare, no one stomps out. Caesar has come to praise, not bury -- a lovely personal trait but, to quote Sam Goldwyn, "from a polite meeting comes a polite picture." Or memoir.

What does comes through clearly is Caesar's honesty and modesty about himself and the demons of booze, pills and self-hatred that he later conquered and detailed in a 1982 memoir about his 20-year lost weekend, "Where Have I Been?" He blames only himself yet never sounds self-pitying, petty or self-aggrandizing. He writes, "I enjoyed the laughs but never the stature." He couldn't accept his huge success, believe it or handle it; it all came so swiftly, surprisingly and overwhelmingly.

Caesar finally cracked after seven years of starring in the TV equivalent of a weekly Broadway show, drinking after but never on the job to help him sleep when he would lie awake nights revising sketches in his head. He never wrote but he ran the writer's sessions, rapidly approving or shooting down ideas shouted at him with a pretend gun. ("There was no veto power -- I was Vito, godfather of the show.") He opened meetings with "All right, let's hear the brilliance."

Caesar all but threw or drank away a great career, but, in perhaps this memoir's most glaring lapse, he doesn't reveal how it felt to slide from one of America's leading comedians to a man without a career, just a reputation, reduced to small roles in movies like "Grease," "The History of the World: Part I" and "Silent Movie."

He was not a natural-born clown, never "on," but a skillful comic actor who refused to crack up on camera. Despite his noisy, bruising style, he was a quiet observer, not a tummler; laughs for him needed to be rooted in reality, instigated by a funny premise -- like the housefly he once portrayed contemplating a feast of dinner scraps.

Caesar became an accidental comedian after playing saxophone in the big bands of Claude Thornhill and Charlie Spivak. It was music, he says, that gave him perfect pitch for the delicate rhythms of comedy (he studied at Juilliard). Later, in Catskill gigs, he volunteered for sketches in resort revues produced by Max Liebman. Through his friendship with composer Vernon Duke, he got a solo spot in a World War II Coast Guard revue (and later film), "Tars and Spars," produced by Liebman, who steered Caesar to TV stardom on "The Admiral Broadway Revue," a 1949 warm-up act for "Your Show of Shows" in 1950 and its wilder and woollier 1954 successor, "Caesar's Hour," which everyone now blurs together.

Liebman invented the topical satirical video revue, giving it a theatrical polish that TV critic John Crosby said was as good as anything on Broadway, maybe better. That it was all done weekly on $124,000, sans cue cards, with four rehearsals, makes Caesar's shows not just comic milestones but weekly broadcasting miracles. "We didn't know we couldn't do it," one of the show's sketch writers, Mel Brooks, has said, "so we did it." Caesar became an overnight sensation, Milton Berle's hip, sophisticated comedy opposite.

The book comes most alive as Caesar recalls bouncing ideas off his later-celebrated staff (Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Reiner, Brooks and, in specials, Woody Allen, along with the lesser known Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, Michael Stewart and Lucille Kallen). He was a hands-on comedy star who actually liked his writers, unlike, say, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton, who resented their writers as necessary evils.

Caesar, like Benny and Hope, realized his writers were his lifeline, paid them well and ate with them (food plays a cameo role in the book, fueling Caesar's gargantuan appetites). They rewarded him with inspired movie parodies and inventive premises: Caesar as a white-wall tire on a junk heap; Caesar and Fabray arguing in perfect synch with the Fifth Symphony; Caesar as a terrified victim on a parody of the TV show "This Is Your Life" who runs screaming up the aisles; and Caesar's endless German professors (the blueprint for Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man), exploiting his trademark dialect gibberish in the foreign film send-ups that appealed to the urban elite who owned most of the TV sets then.

Before Caesar, there was no TV satire. His show brought a level of wit to TV sketch comedy rarely duplicated, but was later deemed too inside for the new mass TV audience, and his smart satire was sunk by ABC's "Lawrence Welk Show." NBC, in its great corporate wisdom, busted up the popular team, a greedy move to exploit the show's success by giving Coca, Caesar and Liebman their own series -- like casting the Marx Brothers in three separate movies. Coca's show flopped and she too never clicked as well again as she had with Caesar.

All great show biz collapses are fascinating, and Caesar's was one of the most complete and calamitous. What was it like for him to watch his former zany groupie, Mel Brooks, become a movie star/mogul? How does a TV legend deal with decades in TV exile? And what's with all those guns he toted? Caesar doesn't say. He rarely mentions his troubled family life but praises older brother Dave, a lifelong booster, and his own wife, a patient, prescient woman, who, when Liebman predicted her husband would be a big star, said, "Can't he be just a little star?" Caesar, alas, never came back as even a medium star, despite a later Broadway triumph playing seven roles in "Little Me," a sweet victory lap.

Maybe it still hurts too much to relive those dark, humiliating days. Near the end, he reveals the restored positive guy he's finally made friends with via a 20-year regimen of psychoanalyzing himself into a tape recorder. His interests today are not eye-rolls or spit-takes but history and physics. Caesar says now that he smells roses most people can't even see, and in this memoir he's gathered many of the rosier moments from his fertile comic past. *

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