It Hurts So Good — Sid Caesar and The Essence of Laughter
Fabulous creations, beings whose authority and raison d’être cannot be drawn from the code of common sense, often provoke in us an insane and excessive mirth, which expresses itself in interminable paroxysms and swoons.
—Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter”
It’s all there — the violation of common sense, insane and excessive mirth, paroxysms, and swoons — Baudelaire must have been looking over my 13-year-old shoulder as I watched Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. While I may never have actually swooned over the antics of Caesar and his team, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and, later, Nanette Fabray, there were times when I had to walk away, trying to keep down a full dinner of laughter, and now that I think of it, “swoons” comes pretty close to how it feels to be laughing so hard your forehead’s in a sweat and you’re close to passing out.
Sid Caesar, who died February 12 at 91, seemed bigger than any other comedian. With those bull-moose shoulders, he towered over everyone; it was an instant sight-gag just to see him in close proximity to tiny mortals like Howard Morris and Imogene Coca (in his 2003 autobiography, Caesar’s Hours, he mentions making tailors rich “by ordering handmade suits with the broadest possible shoulders”). It seemed a minor miracle that our little TV with its eight-inch port-hole of a screen could contain him. He sprawled and swaggered and roared. Yet to leave it at that would be to misrepresent an artist whose touch could be as warm and human as Chaplin’s (Alfred Hitchcock, of all people, compared Caesar to the early Chaplin). His primary goal, as he puts it in Caesar’s Hours, was “to extract humor out of everyday life …. The guy in trouble is a very funny guy.”
The New York Times obituary, which listed Albert Einstein as well as Hitchcock among Caesar’s fans, rightly called him “a comedic force of nature.” There he was, week after week, performing live, without a net, thriving on the tension that infused his style: it was in his nervous cough, the constant clearing of his throat, you could almost smell his sweat; he didn’t just clown, he struggled, fought, lived, and died, throwing himself on the mercy of the audience. At times it was as if he and his accomplices were beating the laughs out of you.
He implies as much in Caesar’s Hours: “I was a very physical comedian and I needed a sidekick who was not only funny but was a person I could pick up with one hand.” Cue the imp of perverse delight Howard Morris; when Morris “first came to audition,” Caesar “reached out, grabbed him by the lapels, lifted him up, and did the scene.” The comedy of scale was played no less effectively with hulking Sid and petite Imogene. “Working with her,” Caesar recalls, “was like working with somebody you’d known your entire life from moment one …. Our instincts and timing were so well aligned that it was as if Imogene knew exactly what I was thinking.” The feeling was mut-ual, as the unholy ghost of Show of Shows Mel Brooks would put it decades later in Young Frankenstein (the old show lives on in Dr. F. and the monster’s song and dance rendition of “Putting on the Ritz”). Years after they went their separate ways, “Immy” is quoted by Sid to the effect that she “would run twenty miles in sheer joy” for the chance to work with him again.
When people remember the shows, they not only remember the comedy, they remember their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. They remember a time when everyone was together and everyone was laughing … whatever was going on at home, for at least an hour and a half on Saturday night, people got to laugh and they got to see their parents laugh.
—From Caesar’s Hours
When I read about Sid Caesar’s death, my first thought was of my father and his proclamation that he would never allow a television set to darken our apartment doorway. We were living in New York that year in a second-story walk-up in the 200 block of East 53rd Street. I finally wore out the austere, above-it-all professor by devising a mantra based on Hickory 6-4000, the phone number of Sunset Appliances in Brooklyn, which I knew by heart from commercials aired during radio broadcasts of Brooklyn Dodgers baseball games. I chanted the mantra several times a day throughout the month of August (“they’re giving it away! they’re giving it away! free delivery! Hickory 6-4000!”) until my dazed father picked up the telephone, dialed the magic number, and ordered the smallest, cheapest set Sunset offered. Because the “useless” object was not allowed into the living room, it was duly situated on a shelf at the foot of my bed, the idea being that no rational adult would come near it.
One Saturday night soon after the set’s arrival, the antics of Sid and his cohorts had me laughing so hard (think “paroxysms and swoons”) that my parents had no choice but to come make sure I wasn’t in need of emergency care (remember the Monty Python skit about the joke that kills?). From that point on, I had company. My father and mother weren’t getting along all that well at the time, but at least for an hour and half on Saturday night “everyone was together and everyone was laughing.”
My mother’s laughter was a pleasantly familiar sound, mellow, throaty, redolent of whiskey and cigarettes. But to hear my buttoned-up father laugh was a revelation. Here was the stern professor my friends found so intimidating, with his dark-framed spectacles and severe expression. Here was a man who, to all appearances, kept his distance from life. But when Sid Caesar was on, whether it was Your Show of Shows or Caesar’s Hour, the professor would be shaking, sweating, giddy with glee, besieged by a passion of laughter. Those were precious, amazing moments, my father and I laughing together, laughing ourselves silly to Sid Caesar.
Happy Birthday, Jackie
Part of the fun of watching television that year in New York was knowing that programs like Your Show of Shows originated just a few long blocks west of us at Rockefeller Plaza. I used to walk past the RCA Building and Radio City Music Hall on my way home from school, fondly hoping I might catch a glimpse of Sid or Imogene. In fact, my only celebrity sighting happened when I was walking up Central Park West from the subway one schoolday morning and encountered Sid Caesar’s most formidable rival Jackie Gleason, who was born 98 years ago today. As soon as he saw me recognizing him, he smiled and said, “Hiya, kid!” When I saw The Great One at the CBS Theatre doing Ralph Cramden and Reggie van Gleason and “Awaaay we go” live on The Jackie Gleason Show, I was sitting so far back, he looked even smaller than he did on that pint-sized set. Since there’s not room enough in one column for two such giants, I’ll just say the obvious, that if Gleason had done nothing else (and he did a great deal, including giving Elvis his New York television breakthrough), he created and inhabited Ralph Kramden, one of the truly enduring characters in show business America’s human comedy. And don’t forget his dancing. If you ever need immediate cheering up, just google Gleason Dancing. As a tripper of the light fantastic, no one can touch him; tear up the list, it’s Jackie.
Since The Sid Caesar Collection DVD at the Princeton Public Library has been checked out ever since February 12, my watching of Caesar and company was done on YouTube, where a goodly assortment of key episodes is available. Probably the most celebrated of the lot is the all-out, no holds barred take-off on the Ralph Edwards sobfest, This Is Your Life. The challenge was to satirize something that’s already the epitome of sentimental overkill. Some of the comic passion driving This is Your Story may be due to its being among the last programs before Show of Shows closed its run on June 5 1954, after almost 160 episodes. Call it what you will — the cast gone wild, emotional pandemonium, Carl Reiner the flailing, embattled host — it’s beyond “insane and excessive” when Howard Morris’s Uncle Goopy leaps into the arms of Caesar’s Al Duncey to be hugged and kissed and lugubriously manhandled by the reluctant guest of honor who had be dragged out of his seat and carried bodily to the stage by a troop of ushers; the madness keeps coming in waves, they can’t tear themselves away, as the howling little man and the roaring big man grovel and grope and slobber on one another and then Aunt Mary and Mr. Torch, the kindly fireman; it’s in your face, take it or leave it, there’s really no resisting the relentless bludgeoning assault on complacency, sobriety, and the code of common sense.
After a YouTube tour, I find that the topical parodies of films like From Here to Eternity, Shane, and On the Waterfront are less fun now than the skits featuring Sid and Imogene as a couple dealing with “the humor of everyday life,” like the battle of wills that develops after the wife cooks her heart out and the husband arrives bearing Chinese take-away. Since he refuses to eat her steak and she won’t touch his chow mein, the outcome is pure lunacy with Imogene offering her meal to the neighbor directly below and tossing the steak out the window, followed by the trimmings, while Sid counterattacks by inviting the next door neighbor (Carl Reiner) to dispatch the Chinese take-away, which he does in a gross delirium of gluttony, stuffing his face, chopsticks flashing.
Some of Caesar’s most ambitious and extended work is on Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957), featuring Nanette Fabray, who talks about her Emmy-winning years on the show online at the Archive of American Television (www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/nanette-fabray). Her favorite number was “The Shadow Waltz” and anyone looking for insights into how it was to do live comedy with Sid Caesar should Google her account of all the things that went right and wrong with Sid and his disappearing mustache. Oddly enough, Fabray can’t remember doing one of their most celebrated numbers, the husband-and-wife argument mimed to Beethoven’s Fifth. The way they react to each nuance of the music is extraordinary — Chaplin would have tipped his bowler hat.
Although Imogene Coco died in 2001 and Howard Morris in 2005, two of Sid Caesar’s partners have outlived him: Fabray, 94, and Carl Reiner, who is 92, and calls Caesar “the ultimate … the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed.”