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Sid Caesar, Who Got Laughs Without Politics Or Putdowns, Dies At 91

Comedian Sid Caesar, one of early network TV's biggest stars, died Wednesday morning at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 91.

Caesar didn't do smut, putdowns or smarmy remarks. Instead, he did skits: grown-up, gentle comedy for the whole family.

In one skit, Caesar was the smarter-than-anyone German "professor." Carl Reiner played a movie executive with money problems. The professor's solution? Make a musical — and get the greatest composer in the world. He is shocked to discover that his top choice won't be available.

"Beethoven, dead? Ludwig is gone. This is a shock. Look at that, you don't pick up a paper a couple of days, you don't know what's going on."

In another skit — again with Reiner as the sidekick — the professor was asked about the theory of flying. "What keeps the birds in the air?" he said. "Courage."

Gisele MacKenzie plays bride to Sid Caesar's German professor character, as Greg Garrison directs the scene, Nov. 21, 1963.
Anonymous / AP
Gisele MacKenzie plays bride to Sid Caesar's German professor character, as Greg Garrison directs the scene, Nov. 21, 1963.

Ruling A Room Full Of Comedy Stars

Caesar was 27 when he launched Your Show of Shows — TV's first and greatest live comedy. His writers became comedy royalty: Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Mel Brooks.

"Everybody thinks that Sid waited to be pumped up with intelligence and with material from his writers," Brooks said. "They thought that he was just like — he'd sit there like a crazy empty balloon and that we would come in and we would pump him up and make, you know, we'd make a human being out of him. His tongue would stick out and he would talk and be funny, you know?

"But, believe it or not, Sid was one of the funniest guys, even away from the writers and the writing room."

Writer and performer Reiner said Caesar ruled the writer's room. Life — and laughs — depended on a nod from the boss.

"Sid was the flame," Reiner said. "Every writer was a moth who wanted to hang around that flame. There wasn't a writer in television who didn't want to be licking around that flame."

Every Saturday night, from 1950 to 1954 on NBC, Your Show of Shows brought skits, laughs, musical routines and dance numbers to American families. The comedy troupe included Imogene Coca and Howard Morris. And it was all live. Here's a story Caesar loved to tell, about answering audience questions about his work:

"And the first guy stood up and said, 'Mr. Caesar, we understand that the show is done live and it took an hour and a half. Now, could you tell us how long did it take to shoot the hour and a half?' I said, 'About 90 minutes.' "

His Most Difficult Role: Sid Caesar

The only person in the world he did not know how to play was Sid Caesar.

In 1954, Caesar's Hour was also live, and funny. The show started with a greeting from the host: "Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and welcome."

Opening the show, Caesar looks stiff, uncomfortable. Larry Gelbart — who went on to create TV's M*A*S*H after writing for Caesar — said the comedian was painfully shy.

"The only thing we knew that Sid would not be sure of was being able to say good evening to the audience as Sid Caesar," Gelbart said. "Once he got into any sketch, any prepared material, once he could do a monologue, once he could do a mime, once he could play a character, he was fine. The only person in the world he did not know how to play was Sid Caesar."

By the age of 32, Caesar was a millionaire. By the time he was 35, Caesar's Hour had been canceled; he was off the air, and drinking too much. More TV followed, as well as various films and, later, two books — about his career and his struggles with liquor and barbiturates.

Caesar won those battles, but his glory days were over. Those hysterical, exhilarating NBC times were in the past, though they were still celebrated — in Neil Simon's comedy Laughter on the 23rd Floor and the film My Favorite Year.

Brooks says there were lots of reasons to celebrate Caesar.

"He could do everything," Brooks says. "[Charlie] Chaplin could not have done what Caesar did. Chaplin could not have done it. He could not have done 39 shows a year for five years and done seven or eight comedy sketches. No one in the world could have done that."

Naive, Good-Natured, Hilarious

Caesar sparked the laughter of my childhood. He taught me, and so many others, what really funny could mean: good-natured humor, with no putdowns, no politics, no sexual innuendo (the censors of the '50s wielded real power). Just innocent, brilliant humor.

"The way I look at things is in a naive way. I like to look at it in a naive way; to me it has more fun," Caesar said. "We have enough of reality in the news. I mean, you're inundated with news all day long from the newspaper, from the radio, from the television.

"Reality is overpowering, so you like to escape a little bit and naivete lets you escape. You don't have to have the reality hitting you all the time. That's what comedy is — to take you away into a little fantasy."

And throughout television's golden age, Sid Caesar's naive fantasies defined humor.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.