Earle Marsh, veteran television historian, describes Sid Caesar’s status unequivocally: “He’s probably the first television-bred comic TV genius,” Marsh says bluntly. “He really didn’t have an earlier career.” Indeed, Caesar confirms, he never did radio, never did vaudeville. Instead, the mega-star who lit up “Your Show of Shows” credits classic movie comedians and the Catskills as his inspirations.
“Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton. They were my heroes,” Caesar says. “They were gods. I used to get chills watching them.”
A kid musician, playing saxophone and clarinet, the 16-year old Caesar left Yonkers, N.Y., after high school to work full time in the Borscht Belt hotels in the Catskill Mountains.
“We did Clifford Odets plays, we did skits. This was my college. This is where I honed my acting skills,” Caesar explains. Although only 23 when he made his “Show of Shows” debut, Caesar had already begun to find his own characters.
“By then,” he says, “your own personality comes across.”
There was no time, he jokes, to contemplate the legacy they were creating (and which is available for sale, digitally restored, on his Web site: wwwsidcaesar.com).
“We were fighting for our lives, believe me,” Caesar says. “It was scary. We didn’t have time to look at the kinescopes.”
Those shows made a difference, however, because everyone in the family could enjoy them, he says.
“We couldn’t even say damn, and I think that was good, because the censorship forced us to think, and that made the skits funnier.”
Recently given the TV Critics Assn.’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Caesar describes those magical early TV years in musical terms.
“We had a rhythm,” he says, “A good show, followed by a better show, then a better show. Then you’d crash, because you can’t keep topping yourself.”