Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Remembering TV's 'King Of Comedy,' Dead At 91

The early days of television marked a period of innovation and groundbreaking entertainment that we are not likely to see again.

Yes, everything was in black and white and yes, it was all shown on a 12 or 14 inch screen - something called a picture tube. It was grainy and often hard to adjust and more round than square. If you were lucky, you maybe had a 17 inch TV but that was it.

Nearly all shows aired live and almost everybody on TV wore special makeup -- a sort of whiter makeup for the face and an almost black color for the lips. Live TV was daring, sometimes crude, often funny and almost always both compelling and unpredictable.

The great media guru and communication philosopher Marshall MacLuhan said that we remained mesmerized by the new medium of TV because it compelled us to literally "connect the dots" -- all of the little dots of light on the screen (tube) that made a tight mosaic that created a moving image.

"The medium is the message," MacLuhan quipped.

But somehow, we got the message too -- whether the message was news, drama, sports, music, dance or comedy.

In the 1950s and early 60s, Sid Caesar was the King of TV comedy.

A Borscht Belt veteran, saxophonist, world-class double talker and comedy genius, Caesar was the master of live sketch comedy -- quick vignettes that often featured pratfalls, sight gags, wisecracks, satirical takes, fast talking characters and even pantomime. With a small reparatory company of performers and a first-rate team of writers Caesar triumphed over anyone and everyone in his path.
He was a veritable force of nature.

And the creative team responsible for "Your Show of Shows" "Caesar's Hour" and Sid's many TV specials were some of the most respected, and funniest voices in the entertainment industry. They included Mel Brooks, Howard Morris, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Danny Simon, Neil Simon and Mel Tolkin. Often performing with Caesar were Morris, Reiner, Imogene Coca and Nannette Fabray.

One of most ambitious and demanding of all TV enterprises, Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" consisted of 90 minutes of live, original sketch comedy airing every Saturday night And it was on the air 39 weeks a year -- not eight or 13 or 26. Many feel that this pioneering show was the prototype for every U.S. TV sketch comedy series that followed, including "Saturday Night Live."The show and its successor, "Caesar's Hour," became a hothouse for some of the greatest comic minds in U.S. show business.

But no show lasts forever. So in 1962, Sid Caesar began to brach out and made the leap to Broadway. Because he could also be inattentive (perhaps ADHD) and rambunctious (maybe bipolar) and because he struggled with his own deamons (alcohol and barbiturates) many felt that this move was a risky gamble, to say the least.

But the show that was created for Caesar (Little Me) was constructed as a series of sketches built around comedy and music - something that Caesar had already mastered. Caesar played seven roles with multiple stage accents and frequent costume changes as he depicted all of the heroine's husbands and lovers. 

In short, the show was segmented into chapters depicting memorable events in the life of the fictional "great star of stage, screen and television, Belle Poitrine." This diced format allowed Caesar to deliver a series of sendups in manageable portions.
We saw the original Little Me in tryout in Philadelphia and we can tell you that Broadway has never seen anything like Sid Caesar before or since. He was nothing less than incredible.

Caesar could be demanding. But he was not a prima donna. He did not act out in public.

Ceasar was known to have a terrible temper. But he was fiercely loyal to friends and he was married only once,  to his wife of 70 years, Florence.

He was unquestionable a Big Star but he never forgot who he was and where he came from -- the son of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants born in Yonkers, NY. in 1922.

"He was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed," Carl Reiner has said of his friend. "His ability to double talk every language known to man was impeccable."

Sid Caesar, a veteran of World War II and a member of the greatest generation, dead today at 91.

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