Hail the late, great Sid Caesar, the funny man’s funny man
He truly was one of the greats, says Woody Allen of his mentor and television's pioneering comic
Sid Caesar invented television sketch comedy, gathering a dream team of performers and writers - among them Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen - whose own impact on comedy will be lasting.
"He was one of the truly great comedians of my time, and one of the finest privileges I've had in my entire career was that I was able to work for him," Allen said of Caesar, who died on Wednesday aged 91.
Your Show of Shows, which debuted on US television in 1950, and Caesar's Hour three years later, drew 60 million viewers weekly and earned its star US$1 million a year. When Caesar's Hour left the air in 1957, Caesar was only 34. But the unforgiving cycle of weekly television had taken a toll: He relied on alcohol and pills to sleep so he could wake up and create more comedy.
It took decades for Caesar to hit bottom. Then in 1977, his recovery began. Caesar found success in films ( It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World as well as Brooks' Silent Movie and History of the World: Part One, and the musical Grease), on Broadway (Simon's Little Me) and even scored in a non-singing role with the Metropolitan Opera in its 1987 production of Die Fledermaus.
His humour - observational, humanistic - exposed the telling truths of everyday life. How friends fight over a restaurant bill. How a schoolboy at his first dance musters the nerve to talk to a girl. "Real life is the true comedy," he said in a 2001 interview. "Then everybody knows what you're talking about." Some compared him to Charlie Chaplin for his brilliance at blending humour with touches of pathos.
Caesar was born in 1922 in New York state, the third son of an Austrian-born restaurant owner and his Russian-born wife.
His comedy talent was discovered when he was serving in the coast guard during the second world war and got a part in a coast guard musical. He also appeared in the movie version. Famed columnist Hedda Hopper wrote: "I hear the picture's good, with Sid Caesar a four-way threat. He writes, sings, dances and makes with the comedy."
Then he broke into television. He gave little thought to the burden he had taken on: 90 minutes live for 39 weeks a season - and, unlike the present-day Saturday Night Live, no cue cards.
"We had an hour and a half of, 'Boy, it worked,"' Caesar later recalled.