Hail Caesar! Celebrating a career of pratfalls and hilarity

PBS honors star comedian Sid Caesar with a month-long special that showcases his original sketches

"Your Show of Shows" really was breakthrough television – and not just for 1950.

Star Sid Caesar and comedians Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, and Marguerite Piazza, among others, brought sketch comedy to a pitch of hilarity that "Saturday Night Live" has never matched – and without nasty innuendo or mean-spiritedness. They also did it with the best comedy writers: Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Neil Simon.

When Mr. Caesar satirized Hollywood movies – or egos, for that matter – he did it with great goodwill and wit. So, hail Caesar! PBS presents "The Sid Caesar Collection" during its August pledge drive (check local listings). Featuring original comedy sketches in a digitally restored format from "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour," the special also includes interviews with the famous writers behind the shows.

Asked in a recent interview which of his sketches he loved the best, Caesar couldn't choose just one. After all, in 450 live 1-1/2 hour programs over four years, he has "a lot of favorites."

For Caesar and company, the joke was as much in the telling as in the punch-line. There were lots of sight gags, lots of pratfalls, and lots of story. The silent film idol, suddenly faced with talkies, has a high squeaky voice, and his film-star wife struggles to get him back into pictures. The German general, prepared for a parade by his valet, turns out to be a doorman at a grand hotel. A husband and wife throw a dinner party in their New York apartment, and can't get the main course through the kitchen doorway.

He and his crew worked a lot harder than TV sketch comics do today: They memorized their scripts."I don't see how you can act without looking at the other actors," he says of those who read from cue cards or teleprompters. "The audience has to believe you – they have to go with you. And they do when you are [performing] live, as if it were the first act of a Broadway play."

His comedy heroes were stars of the screen, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields. They were all silent film stars first, and superb actors. "That was my background," says Caesar. "They were the foundation of silent comedy – the giants. [With] radio ..., all you need is a microphone and a script, but you go on television, they're going to see you. If you can get laughs with lines and with physical [comedy], that's the best."

Caesar's heroes were clowns who could bring audiences almost to tears just before the big laugh. And that was what they taught Caesar. "Laugh and cry at the same time, then you're touching them. When you make them feel for the guy, then you're working both sides of the street."

Two of his best sketches had heartbreaking sources: "The General" was based on two tragic German films, and "The Silent Movie Star" was based on the life of John Gilbert, a great silent actor who could not make the transition to talkies.

Caesar saw the humor in human foibles – but he didn't despise his characters, he felt for them. Among the younger generation of comics, he admires Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, and Billy Crystal.

"You see, they aren't just doing jokes. They can do character, they can act. They can touch you. Comedy is so brash and cutting today," he says. "There's no room for warmth.... Just look at the language. We couldn't say 'pregnant' on air.

"What we have now is 'insult comedy.' Why do they do it?"

Caesar says people are looking for instant gratification. He laments the throwaway culture – where even marriage can be dissolved too easily. He himself has been married for 59 years.

"I never even thought of divorce. Never. You make friends with yourself and you make friends with your wife. Life is much, much easier. Love is the underpinnings, but you can't bicker – 'Why do you butter your toast on that side?' You can't do that."

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