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Sid Caesar: A Tortured Genius's Long Legacy

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Celebrities invariably fade into obscurity, but Sid Caesar faded more dramatically than most. He had been invisible for longer than just about any celebrity in the history of television. When he died on Wednesday at the age of 91, the first reaction of many was surprise: surprise that he was even still around.

But Sid Caesar was television's first great creation, as well as its first victim. For nearly a decade, before the medium's insatiable appetite for fresh material and his own demons consumed him, Caesar was the brightest, and most original, and multi-talented, and indefatigable performer on the air. And for long, long after that, even as drugs and alcohol and his own insecurities put him out of commission, he was its most influential. Arguably, he still is.

Some of his contemporaries from television's childhood in the early 1950s, like Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, had higher ratings. But Caesar was far more refined. He did not crack jokes or do shtick. In the sketches and pantomimes and soliloquys of Your Show of Shows, all performed live for ninety unforgiving minutes every Saturday night, he probed the human condition. Childhood, courtship, marriage, parenthood: to all, he brought astonishing insight, sophistication, poetry. People loved him because they saw truth in whatever he did. And still inventing itself, still fumbling to fill in time, still not cynical enough to dumb itself down, television let him do it.

Tuning in to watch him on NBC, on Caesar's Hour once Your Show of Shows ended, was an instant emblem of intelligence. Even if you hadn't seen the French or Italian movie he was spoofing or watched "A Streetcar Named Desire" or "From Here to Eternity" or had yet to try your first Indian restaurant or never heard the 1812 Overture, he made you laugh, though of course you laughed all the more, and with an insider's smugness, if you had. J. Robert Oppenheimer watched him. So did Albert Einstein, who once called him up: he understood the world of physics, he explained, but could Caesar help explain to him the human one? To Isaac Asimov, Caesar was the only thing on television worth watching. Millions of others simply tuned in to laugh.

Not surprisingly, Caesar attracted - indeed, insisted upon - the best comedy writers and talents of his day: Mel Tolkin, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and, at the tail end of his run, the very young Woody Allen. Countless others, like Dick Cavett, watching in Nebraska, simply watched and, without necessarily realizing it, learned. M.A.S.H., Blazing Saddles, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly: all were his children. Indeed, it's hard to think of what Caesar didn't influence. His famous domestic scenes with Imogene Coca anticipated The Honeymooners. The movie spoofs presaged everything from Mad Magazine to Saturday Night Live.

Caesar's humor was never topical. He steered away from anything political or controversial. The name "Eisenhower" may have been mentioned twice on his programs, if that, and the Cold War even less. But if his themes were eternal, they were also contemporary, chronicling all the newfangled strains of post-war affluence: everything from hiring one's first maid to eating in a health food restaurant to fiddling with the antennas of the very television set around which people had gathered to watch him.

Caesar himself was the unlikeliest of performers. Out of character, he was awkwardly, painfully shy. The hardest part of his show, for him and his viewers alike, was the beginning, when he introduced the weekly guest host: invariably, he stepped on his very simple lines. He thrived only when he was not himself. He could not wait to get back behind the curtain and into whatever role he was playing -- the bedraggled German professor (an expert on mountain climbing one week, on love or child rearing or magic the next), the hen-pecked husband, a gumball machine or a dog or a baby or a house fly.

No comic was ever more fluent in multilingual gibberish, be it French, German, Russian, Spanish, or Russian, none of which he actually spoke. It was a talent that originated from waiting tables in his father's luncheonette in Yonkers, where the workers sat down and dined by nationality. But his facility with sounds stemmed not only from his background, but his uncanny ear. Along with everything else, Caesar was a talented musician. The poet Robert Pinsky credits Caesar with making him a poet: Caesar, he has said, taught him to savor the sound of language, even if that language wasn't a language at all.

Of course, it could never last. As the coaxial cable reached the hinterlands, tastes, and demands, changed: when Caesar was finally bumped off the air in 1958, it was by, of all people, Lawrence Welk. (Welk was funnier than Sid, Carl Reiner once explained.) And Caesar had run himself into the ground. His sidekick and disciple, Mel Brooks, had urged him to go into movies and, thereby, produce something more permanent. But hooked on the instant high that live television provided (and, not inconsequentially, on a salary of $25,000 a week) Caesar had resisted. Short of forty years old, he had burned himself out.

Preserved only on grainy kinescopes (though not by NBC, which had chucked them), Caesar's creations were never recycled. So millions of viewers today don't know of his legacy. Or think they don't. In fact, they see it every night.

David Margolick is working on a book about Sid Caesar and Your Show of Shows for Nextbook. He is welcome to hearing from readers at margolick@gmail.com with thoughts or experiences from the program.