This new memoir by TV-legend Sid Caesar explores many subjects. Among them are Caesar’s upbringing, his wondrous marriage, his meteoric rise to fame, the behind-the-scenes of his three hit shows (“The Admiral Broadway Revue,” “Your Show of Shows,” and “Caesar’s Hour”) and the years that followed his retirement from prime-time TV. What is not explored is the author himself.
The introduction to “Caesar’s Hours” is written by the brilliant Larry Gelbart, who, intentionally or not, puts his finger on the problem. He writes of Caesar’s inability to “articulate, or in any way reveal, the inner man, the real Sid Caesar.” This inability is no disgrace in a performer; in fact, it is practically a given — especially in one blessed, like Caesar, with a genius for chameleon-like transformation.
In an autobiographer, however, it is a serious shortcoming. Caesar’s authorial voice is by turns sweet, folksy, professorial, prudish, nostalgic, compassionate, even a bit immodest, but it is never penetrating. Yet lovers of Caesar’s work, devotees of the Golden Age of Television, and aspiring comics will certainly be content with what is offered. There are scores of charming anecdotes, featuring the countless great performers and writers who crossed Caesar’s path. Classic sketches are reprinted in their entirety. Mid-century New York City is evoked with a wistful, loving eye. It is the reader looking for more than a superficial treatment of Caesar’s mad comic genius who will be disappointed.
In his introduction, Gelbart mentions that as “crazy as Sid was, we, his writers, were even crazier about him.” It is precisely this craziness which Caesar is either unwilling or unable to explore. In fact, his alcohol and barbiturate addictions are hardly mentioned in the chapters that deal with his comedy. They are discussed only much later (along with a few dozen platitudes about his recovery), as though they were somehow divorced from the rise and fall of his career, when they were surely central to it.
Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Caesar, a gentleman to the core, to expose himself in any serious and complex way this late in the game. Maybe one should be thankful for what one gets, which is not so much an incisive examination as a genial monologue. One can imagine Caesar delivering the same words to a young fan sitting next to him on a trans-Atlantic flight, especially if he wanted to amuse and enlighten the fan, without risking the loss of his admiration.
(Allison Burnett’s novel, “Christopher,” was recently published by Broadway Books.)