"The guy who invented the ﬁrst wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three? Now, he was a genius." ~ Sid Caesar
He was the last one left. And I will miss him deeply.
This week, comedian, writer and television pioneer Sid Caesar died at his home in Beverly Hills -- my old neighborhood. He was 91 years old.
The countless tributes that have been running since Wednesday are a testament to the seismic impact Sid had on the entertainment industry. From his landmark TV program, "Your Show of Shows" -- which pretty much wrote the book on how to bring funny to television -- to the countless zany characters he embodied on nightclub stages across the country, Sid not only knew where the funny bone was, he was a sharpshooter in hitting it.
And his appeal was universal. As the New York Times aptly noted this week, Alfred Hitchcock and Albert Einstein both found him hilarious. Talk about range.
But for all the public testimonials about his place in the canon of show business greats, Sid's passing hits close to home for me. He was one of "The Boys" -- my father's close-knit circle of friends -- and they were a constant presence in our house when I was growing up.
Milton Berle. George Burns. Jack Benny. Phil Silvers. Joey Bishop. Jan Murray. Dad. Sid.
And now they're all gone.
My childhood dinner table was like a writers' roundtable, with each of my father's pals taking his turn trying to top the others. They were always attentive, and never heckled one another as each one "took the ﬂoor." Some jokes were told, but many of the biggest laughs came when they made fun of themselves.
After the meal, their wives would retire to the den to talk "girl talk," while The Boys sat in the living room smoking cigars, telling jokes and sharing road stories. That's the room I wanted to be in; and I'd sit on the floor and listen to them for hours until I dropped to sleep.
But for all my childhood memories of The Boys, I got the greatest insight into their love of their work when Sid, Milton Berle and my father -- by then, well into their 70's -- teamed up to form a new act called "The Legends of Comedy," a traveling show that celebrated the work of these three comedy giants. I went to see the show in Atlantic City and sat in the audience spellbound. They had all been huge headliners in their day, and now they had found a way, in their later years, to continue to do what they did best: stand up and get laughs. And doing it together, it was obvious they were having a ball. It was an emotional experience for me to watch them share the stage.
It was also like attending a one-night, crash-course in comedy, as these veterans tore up the stage, each in his own unique style.
Milton came on ﬁrst, exploding with energy -- banging out one-liners, walking on the sides of his feet, making faces, crossing his eyes -- a master of Berlesque burlesque. The audience adored him and he adored them back. Next was Dad, Mr. Sleek, in his pressed black tuxedo with his red satin pocket hanky. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said, then immediately launched into one of his signature stories. Dad loved making an audience laugh, but he also loved bringing them to a hush. He used to tell me that a good storyteller knows how important the silences are, and is never afraid of them. He controlled his audience like an orchestra conductor. He was Mr. Cool.
And then came Sid, who couldn't have been more different from his two friends. No rat-a-tat zingers, no gentlemanly welcome to the audience. Instead, he came out in character -- a German professor -- then quickly morphed into another character, and another, and another: a henpecked husband, a Russian General, a hip, jazz musician. The audience was transﬁxed.
His characters often spoke in foreign languages, and you would have sworn at first that Sid was fluent -- but he was really just talking gibberish. I once asked him where all those voices came from, and he told me that, like my father, he was the son of immigrants who'd grown up in the same kind of melting-pot neighborhood as Dad. His father owned a small restaurant in Yonkers called the St. Claire Buﬀet and Luncheonette; and when he nine years old, Sid worked there after school as a busboy -- for a quarter a day. As he went from table to table, he'd hear the customers chattering in a smorgasbord of accents -- French, Italian, German, Polish, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian and Yiddish -- and he liked to mimic them. He picked up the rhythms, the intonations, the musical nuances of each dialect, then talked back to each group in his own double-talk version of their language.
At first the customers thought Sid was actually speaking to them in their language, but soon they realized that this little pisher was faking it. They loved it -- and Sid loved making them laugh. He had found his way into a comic device that would become a signature of his career.
On stage that night in Atlantic City, we never saw the man, Sid Caesar, until the final moment of the evening, when all three came on stage together to bid us "Goodnight." And that's when he looked and sounded like the Sid I remembered from my childhood -- sweet, and a little shy. All three of them took their bows to cheers from the audience, their faces happy and glowing, knowing they had given the people a good show. I'll never forget that.
I spoke with Sid from time to time. We had a sad talk after he lost his wonderful wife, Florence. They'd been married for 67 years. "I keep expecting her to walk through the door," he confessed. We also talked about his friendship with my father.
"I really loved him," Sid told me.
"I know, sweetie," I said back. "And he truly loved you."
But once a comedian, always a comedian. Before we hung up, Sid told me a favorite joke:
There were mice running all over the synagogue, and everyone was in a panic. Women were terrified, kids were hiding, and the men didn't know what to do.
"Don't worry," the Rabbi announced. "I'll take care of it."
Sure enough, the next day all the mice were gone. The people in the shul were astonished! Finally, an older gentleman stood and asked, "Rabbi, how did you do it? How did you get rid of all the mice?"
"Easy," the Rabbi answered. "I bar mitzvahed them. And as everyone knows, once they're bar mitzvahed, they never come back."
Farewell, dear Sid, and thank you for a lifetime of laughter. Please give Daddy a big hug for me. I know you'll be seeing him.