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September 8: Sid Caesar

September 8, 2014

sidcaesar11200Sid Caesar (Isaac Sidney Caesar), who introduced “sketch comedy” to television with Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, was born to an immigrant family who ran a 24-hour restaurant in Yonkers, New York on this date in 1922. Working in his parents’ establishment as a boy, Caesar picked up the accents of New York and developed the skills at mimicry, pantomime, slapstick, doubletalk, and physical humor that sixty million Americans would eventually watch him exercise on the tube each week. He began performing as a saxophonist and comedian in the Borscht Belt at age 14, and then in military reviews while serving in the Coast Guard. He and his lifelong companion Florence took to Hollywood in 1942, and Caesar found his way into film before breaking out with Your Show of Shows, which debuted on February 25, 1950. The live, 90-minute program ran for 160 episodes, mixed lengthy sketch comedy, monologues, send-ups of popular movies and television dramas, musical performances, and large-scale song-and-dance production numbers. Numerous Hollywood stars guest-starred, and some of America’s most influential comedians and comedy writers got their chops working with Caesar, including Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Imogene Coca, Neil Simon, Steve Allen, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Lucille Kallen. Caesar was famous for talking in accented gibberish: “Every language has its own music,” he said. “... If you listen to a language for 15 minutes, you know the rhythm and song.” Yet he actually spoke only Yiddish and English. Throughout the 1950s, Sid Caesar’s satiric tear-ups on television were so popular that Broadway producers petitioned NBC to switch the show from Saturday night to a weekday night so that theater audiences, home watching Caesar, would return. Yet after the decade was through, he burned out, fell into alcoholism and sleeping-pill addiction and out of show business. Caesar ultimately wrote two memoirs before dying at age 92. To see him performing “The German General” skit with Howard Morris, look below. To see him performing a spoof of “This Is Your Life” with Morris and Carl Reiner, look below that.

“In between goals is a thing called life, that has to be lived and enjoyed.” —Sid Caesar