Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Billy Crystal and Eddy Friedfeld took to the Paley Center Wednesday to salute the late, great Sid Caesar in a panel discussion full of love and laughs following the comedian’s passing in February.
“It’s the dream of a lifetime to honor one of my idols and closest friends with three of my other idols,” said Friedfeld, who worked with Caesar on his autobiography, “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter,” and moderated the panel. “This is the Mount Rushmore of comedy,” he exclaimed.
The panel gave the four the opportunity to talk about Caesar, share stories and show the audience why Caesar was the legend he became. “It’s very emotional,” said Brooks, on what the evening meant on a personal level. “It’s a little overcoming because we not only worked for him — worked with him — but we loved him. It’s like loving a family member.”
It was clear to the audience that the statement is not an exaggeration.
Brooks and Reiner dominated the conversation, and with the support of Friedfeld and Crystal, shared story after story about their friend. Phrases “by the way” and “there’s a story” began more sentences than could be counted as the two repeatedly jumped off of one another, offering highlights of their relationships with the man they have dubbed the “greatest sketch comic of all time.” They recounted behind-the-scenes moments of some of Caesar’s greatest skits including “This Is Your Story” and “The German General,” that highlighted the late comedian’s talent.
The panel lit up at the memory of Caesar’s legendary double-talk, the core element of the “German General” skit, and were vivid in telling how that skill and Howard Morris’s presence as a “brilliant little third banana,” according to Brooks, evolved into the notable sketch. Reiner added of “This Is Your Story,” that the sketch was never rehearsed, and grew from being a shorter, 5-minute performance “because Sid ad libbed!,” adding running and fainting bits to the scene, as well as hitting Reiner with a coat. Caesar’s ability to turn a new joke on the spot was a popular subject for the friends, and Reiner never missed a cue to tell a story of a surprising on-set moment.
Endlessly referencing time at “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour,” with fellow players Morris and Imogene Coca, Brooks and Reiner commented on Caesar’s ability to melt into his characters, spark brilliant sketches, and to bring families together through his comedy.
Crystal, himself, was introduced to Caesar’s work at a young age by his father, and remembers studying “the genius.”
Having Caesar visit “700 Sundays” was an experience that still leaves Crystal stunned. “I just lost it,” he said, remembering his visit with Caesar after the show, which had been scheduled specifically so the man could attend. “Because we had changed places — now he was watching me. The whole thing was so surreal.”
“When someone makes a big fuss like this it’s nice,” added Reiner from the red carpet. “But we really do the work because we have to.” The straight man to many a Caesar character, he also added that Caesar was “a very giving man. Many times there were sketches where he’d say ‘Let Carl do that.’” Reiner won his first Emmy in 1957 for his work on “Caesar’s Hour,” “because Sid decided I should do the part.”
“Sid always raised the material with his wonderful understanding of humanity,” he said.
After the second run of “Your Show of Shows,” Brooks had approached Caesar with the opportunity to get into the movies, passionate that his friend Sid’s great talent should be immortalized on film. “If you go down the street and say ‘Charlie Chaplin,’ kids will know. If you say ‘Sid Caesar,’ they won’t know,” he exclaimed, noticeably unsettled by the lack of recognition for Caesar, and the lack of lasting recordings of the comic genius.
Caesar ultimately decided to stick with television, because as Brooks put it, “He knew where everything was. He knew what bits of what sketches worked. What monologues, what characters, and he knew he could do musical bits, he knew just how talented he was in that environment.”
Throughout the evening the panelists noted that Sid was quite different from his larger-than-life characters. “He was shy. He was not a public personality, he was not a glad-hander,” said Brooks during the panel.
“Sid Caesar was never comfortable with life,” he commented, recognizing the gravity of the statement. “Life was very hard for him, but he was very very happy to be those characters — to be in play mode. He was just so energized, even in rehearsal he was so happy.”
“He loved being in front of an audience,” added Friedfeld. “He loved making people laugh.”
When asked how his friend would feel, knowing that Brooks, Reiner and Crystal were honoring him with an event, Brooks sighed lovingly. “He would’ve said ‘Aw, you don’t have to do this. Don’t bother doing this….but try to be good, you know?” he added with a laugh. “‘Don’t embarrass me,’ he would’ve said.”