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Sid Caesar, King of Comedy Television

Published: April 21, 2016


Writing, rehearsing, and putting on a live, 90-minute sketch comedy show every Saturday evening takes energy and determination. Saturday Night Live has been doing this successfully for more than 40 years, but it wasn’t the first show to use the format. In the early 1950s, when SNL creator Lorne Michaels was still in elementary school, Sid Caesar was blazing the trail that SNL would follow into the 21st century.

His weekly broadcast, Your Show of Shows, successfully translated vaudevillian comedy for the small screen. It featured satirical sketches that highlighted human foibles and failings. Its production schedule, however, taxed the talents of its young writing staff, which included upstarts Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and, later, Woody Allen.

Creating 90 minutes of TV from scratch each week was a grueling task, and no one felt the stress more than the show’s principal figure, Sid Caesar. And people recognized it. As the Post’s Maurice Zolotow put it in the following portrait of Caesar, “for three years, experts have expected him to crack.”

The “mad pace” of Caesar’s professional life eventually took its toll. By 1960, Caesar was off the airwaves and struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Mel Brooks, Caesar’s friend and cowriter, later wrote, “Nobody’s talent was ever more used up than Sid’s.”

But in 1953, when we first published “TV Gives Him Nightmares,” Caesar and Your Show of Shows were still going strong. That show and its successor, Caesar’s Hour, changed the nature of TV humor and America’s sense of what was funny, and it served as a standard for later variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show, Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, and even The Muppet Show.

 

TV Gives Him Nightmares

Sid Caesar

Sid Caesar

By Maurice Zolotow

Originally published May 16, 1953

 

For his 90-minute Saturday-night stint on TV, Sid Caesar trains like a boxer, suffers horrible torments in recurrent dreams, lives in a state of tension that normal men would find unbearable. For three years, experts have expected him to crack — but his mad pace still goes on.

A horrible dream regularly torments Sid Caesar, the powerfully built gentleman with a nervous twitch in his personality who headlines a Saturday-evening television extravaganza entitled Your Show of Shows. In the dream, Caesar suddenly awakens at 9 p.m. on a Saturday. He is stricken with terror, realizing that his program is already on the air. In a panic, he dresses himself and runs outside to catch a train to the studio. Alas, after racing for several miles, he finally arrives at the station just as the train is leaving. Something Caesar is constantly afraid will actually happen has taken place in the nightmare — he has missed a show — he has frustrated 20,000,000 televiewers.

This nightmare turns up periodically to scare Caesar out of his extremely witty wits. The vision dramatically symbolizes the terror and the tension that beset the hardest-working performer in television today, a man who, for three years in a row, has been named “best comedian in television” in nationwide polls of radio editors, and whose collection of awards, statuettes, plaques, scrolls and medals would choke a Third Avenue curiosity shop. Everybody in show business considers it a sheer miracle that after so many years, Caesar is still able to keep up the mad pace. No other comedian has dared to take on the challenge of a 90-minute show week after week. The prospect of just having to memorize and rehearse six new sketches every week literally terrifies older comedians, especially stage comedians, who are used to building up effects slowly, often over a period of years. For instance, Bobby Clark’s leering caricature of Robert the Roué from Reading, Pa., has been gradually sculptured to perfection in 15 years.

Actually, in temperament, physique, and technique of operation, Caesar represents a new species of comedian, completely unknown to the entertainment world up to now. This new breed has sprung up in response to television’s rapacious craving for new material hurriedly contrived, speedily rehearsed, swiftly staged. Gone are the leisurely days when comedians performed the same routine for years without changing one syllable.

Every seven days Caesar has to come up with an entirely new act. I was once discussing this problem with Bert Lahr, one of the greatest of all living revue comics. Lahr mulled over Caesar’s complications and then he flatly announced, “It’s impossible.”

Caesar himself is often convinced the whole thing is impossible. “On Monday morning,” he recently remarked, as he chewed on a long, slender cigar, “I ask myself: Is it possible we’ll really do a show this Saturday? No, it’s not possible. This is the week we’re dead. This week we don’t go on. We got no show. This week from nine to half past ten they put on the old Rod La Rocque picture or wrestling matches from Queensboro Stadium.”

As he fumes away, Sid strides nervously up and down, weaves from side to side like a caged polar bear and buttons and unbuttons his coat. Caesar is no happy-go-lucky jester, full of sound and gaiety. His forehead is etched by deep frowns, his large liquid brown eyes are as morose as a cocker spaniel’s, his chin drags and he constantly exhales mournful sighs.

Theoretically, Caesar makes lots of money. But even his salary is like the pay in a wild nightmare. This season he got $15,000 a week, and in 1953–54 he will be raised to $25,000. But he never sees the big money. NBC sends the $15,000 check to Max Liebman, his producer; Liebman sends it to the William Morris office, Caesar’s agent, and they deduct 10 percent and send the balance to Milton Mound, Caesar’s attorney and personal representative; Mound takes his 10 percent cut and then ships most of the balance to an address on Lexington Avenue, which happens to be the location of a convenient and friendly branch of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

The first requirement of the 1953 comedian is that he must have no interest in life except television, to which he is completely enslaved. In the legitimate theater, a performer has huge stretches of free time — his afternoons, except on matinee days, are his own to enjoy, and he can lounge around until two or three in the morning and sleep till noon. And during the halcyon days of big-time radio, comedians like Jack Benny, George Burns, Edgar Bergen, and Bob Hope were able to do a show in one day of rehearsing.

Caesar’s pattern of living is almost ascetic. From Monday to Friday, Caesar is in one or another of the rooms at Liebman’s offices, either sweating out material with his four writers or rehearsing. He labors from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. On Saturday he is at work from 1 p.m. until almost 11. By the time he staggers home and puts away a heavy dinner, he has only strength enough to slump on a couch, where he stretches in exhaustion until about midnight. Caesar lies barefooted and wearing only a silk robe: As he lies supinely on the couch he stares grimly at a television screen opposite. He watches all the programs every night. He must keep abreast of what his competitors are up to. Maybe one night a week he goes out, but even his evenings out must provide grist for his programs. He and his wife will dine in a French, Italian, Chinese, German, or Greek restaurant, and then he will see a foreign picture. Caesar likes to cavort in double-talk routines in which he plays Italians, Germans, or Frenchmen, and he finds that he keeps his accent and intonations legitimate by listening to European waiters.

The next requirement of the television comedian is that he be husky and healthy. Television is no medium for frail and emaciated men. Caesar has the physique of a Notre Dame tackle — he stands six feet one, with broad shoulders, a muscular chest, a firm stomach, biceps like iron, legs like steel columns, and his weight is a solid 195 pounds. Since boyhood he has been working out with barbells and dumbbells. He can heft a hundred-pound barbell 10 times above his head.

Since a weekly television program takes a terrific toll on the human body, the video buffoon must have a healthy appetite. He must be able to consume enormous meals no matter how intense the pressure. Caesar meets this requirement perfectly. The man loves to eat. On a recent day, for instance, he started out with a breakfast of freshly squeezed juice of four oranges, two eggs, a rasher of bacon, a kippered herring, three slices of stale white bread— he hates the fresh kind — and two glasses of yoghurt. He hates coffee. Caesar is a big yoghurt drinker and often takes a pint with every meal. He also is crazy about rice, in every form. At 11 o’clock he had an egg-salad sandwich and a cherry soda. For lunch he put away a whole turkey leg, plus a wing and neck. This was washed down with a bottle of celery tonic. At 3:00 he had four frankfurters and two glasses of chocolate milk. For dinner he ate lightly— just shrimp cocktail, cream-of-tomato soup, sirloin steak, and home-fried potatoes, apple pie, and yoghurt.

Max Liebman relates that when he goes into a restaurant with Caesar, the comedian orders everything double — double Scotch, double lobster, double sirloin steak, double lamb chop. “One night there was a half broiled spring chicken on the menu, and he asked for a double order of that. I told him, ‘Why not simplify it—and just order a whole chicken?’ He took me seriously and ordered the whole chicken, and then finished half a porterhouse steak I hadn’t been able to do justice to. I remember his playing a date at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis — a two weeks’ engagement. He ate all his meals in the hotel dining room and he had the waiters staggering under heavy trays bringing his orders. On the last night, the manager of the Chase said that in appreciation for all the business Caesar had brought in, he would like to make him a present, and asked if there was anything Sid needed. Sid said, ‘Cancel our food bill.’ The manager smiled and said he would be delighted. A few hours later, he came back and said, ‘Mr. Caesar, I’m afraid it will be impossible. If I cancel your food bill, the hotel will show a loss for the entire month.’”

Another basic secret of Caesar’s success in television is that he conserves his energy by talking as little as possible. He can sit around at a party all night without saying 10 words. Even with close friends, he stares off into space for hours, lost in a fog of his own meditations. “A hello from Sid is a big conversation,” one of his friends said. “I once drove him from Forest Hills to New York and he didn’t say a thing. He’s got no talent for small talk; also he’s always brooding about his program and is very busy looking around for material he can adapt.”

His personal physician, Dr. Irving Somach, claims Caesar has abnormal powers of observation and a brilliantly retentive memory. “ He can go into a room in which he’s never been,” Somach says, “and look around him for a few minutes and he’ll be able to describe everything in the room, even small details like the color of an ash tray or the number of lamps.”

In place of language, Caesar relies upon grunts and grimaces to express a vast range of ideas and emotions. This naturally saves his writers a great deal of trouble and they do not have to invent as much material as they might otherwise have to do. Mel Tolkin, one of Caesar’s writers, explains, “If we do a sketch where Sid is stuck with a girl who’s not so pretty — well, if I was writing for Berle or Hope, I would have to produce a line like, ‘My girl is so thin that when she drinks tomato juice she looks like a thermometer.’ Sid just has to look at the dame with a nauseous expression and grunt ‘Yugh,’ and right away you know she’s the homeliest female on earth.”

Unlike other comedians, Caesar is never presented with a finished script which he then proceeds to memorize. Caesar has never studied a script in three years. He helps to write the sketches by talking them out with his writers, and he memorizes the words as he goes along and any time the mood is upon him he simply changes a sentence or inserts something new. Caesar is responsible for 25 percent of the material. Caesar hates to memorize, hates to rehearse and hates to do the same lines night after night. He is ideal for television. He was driven out of his mind when he played in Make Mine Manhattan, a Broadway revue which ran for 10 months. He had to repeat the same words at every performance.

Another advantage that Caesar has is that he is an adept pantomimist. He has an uncanny ability to project the quality of an object or the feel of an action — like unscrewing a jar lid or putting on a belt — by adroitly going through motions in empty air without any props. Some of the best sketches he has done are not written down at all. The script merely reads: “Sid does man coming home from business mad.” This naturally saves everybody a great deal of wear and tear.

He is also a shrewd mimic of foreign languages and domestic actors. One of the choicest items in his repertoire is a German professor who is an expert on everything from the mating habits of guppies to the flora of Patagonia. Recently, as Professor Siegfried von Sedative, he was an authority on sleep. He is being interviewed by a reporter:

INTERVIEWER: Doctor, would you explain to the audience in simple language the basis for your theory of sleep?

PROF. VON SEDATIVE: Yab. Schleep is vunderbar. Schleep is beautiful. But schleep is no good to you if you is vide avake. . . . I haff a friend vunce, he could schleep anywheres. In der boiler factory, in der foundry, in a shtock yard. He could go on a train and right avay he fall aschleep. Pass all the stations.

INTERVIEWER: That’s wonderful.

PROF. VON SEDATIVE: It was lousy. He was the engineer. He wrecked more trains, dot friend of mine.

A very important reason that Caesar has been able to keep his head above the airwaves for so long is that, unlike other comedians, he doesn’t just rely on human characterizations. Whereas Red Skelton knocks himself out concocting bits like Clem Kadiddlehopper and San Fernando Red, and Milton Berle knocks himself out concocting Milton Berle, Caesar has portrayed such interesting personalities as a gum machine, a whitewall tire, a lion, dog, punching bag, dial telephone, elevator, railroad train, herd of horses, a piano, a rattlesnake, and a soda-water bottle. Other comedians may groan that television is a monster which devours gags and comedy ideas faster than you can dream them up, but Caesar never has to worry about new material, since there is an infinite number of objects and things in the world. Recently, for example, he did a nine-minute routine of life as seen through the eyes of a fly.

He got the idea one Friday night while having a drink in a Greek restaurant, when he happened to notice a specimen of Musca domestica hovering around a tray of canapés on the table. Caesar stared at the housefly as it crawled around on the tray and finally settled on a chunk of goat’s-milk cheese.

“I studied this fly,” Caesar recalls. “ He kept hopping on that crumb of cheese. I figured he was gloating, ‘It’s mine, all mine,’ like a guy who gets a brand-new convertible he’s wanted for years. So I come into Max Liebman’s office on Monday and everybody is sitting around looking sick and miserable, and one of the writers is staring out the window like he wants to take a dive because Monday is bleeding-to-death day on the show. The floor is covered with gallons of blood. So I say, ‘Fellers, this week I wanna do a fly.’ They all look nauseous. I say, ‘It’s gonna be great because he flies around and that’s it.’ I’d been working it out in my mind all Sunday, and I figured out the psychology of the fly, so I showed them the thing, and I started rubbing my wrists, wrist against wrist, you know, the way a fly keeps washing his claws or whatever they call his feet, and then I showed them the fly buzzing and whishing through the air, so they agreed it had possibilities and we went to work on it.”

We see him waking, yawning, rubbing himself, cleaning his wings and murmuring through rounded lips, “Ah, it’s morning.”

FLY: Look at the sun coming in through the window. What a house I live in. It’s my house. I was so lucky to find this house. Always something to eat. Crumbs on the table, banana peels on the floor, lettuce leaves in the sink. … What a nice sloppy house. Well, I’m hungry. I’ll see what there is in the sink.

He folds his insect feet and buzzes to the sink. The sink is empty. Nothing is left on the table. There aren’t even any crumbs under the toaster.

They cleaned up the house. It’s disgusting! They must be expecting guests. … Oh, well, why should I aggravate myself? So I’ll eat out today. It won’t kill me. But I hate restaurants. That greasy food. I can’t stand greasy food. I keep slipping off, I can’t get a hold on it, and it gets on my wings, makes me sluggish and I can’t fly good.

On his way to a restaurant, the fly encounters a moth.

He’s crazy, that guy. Eats wool, blue serge … All that dry stuff. Yugh. And then every night he throws himself against an electric light bulb, knocking his brains out. He’s crazy!

Flying downtown, he is happily humming a song when he suddenly sees a sign that depresses him.

Look at that. ‘Get the new powerful DDT, Kills Flies Instantly!’ The fly frowns and solemnly remarks: Oh, my, there’s a lot of hatred in the world.

If you are planning to become a television comedian, it is advisable never to study the art of humor. Do not say funny things or be the life of the party when you are a young man. Master a wind instrument, like the trumpet or saxophone, as this will develop your lungs and your vocal cords, strengthen your lips, and teach you to improvise — all of which are very important to the television clown.

Caesar was born in Yonkers, New York, on September 8, 1922, the youngest of three sons. His father, Max Caesar, operated a one-arm cafeteria, the St. Clair Lunch, near the railroad depot in Yonkers. He had a sardonic sense of humor. He was the type of individual who, if he came home from business and Mrs. Caesar inquired how things were down at the St. Clair, would reply, in a serious tone, “Business is marvelous. I’m making so much money I expect to buy out Horn and Hardart tomorrow, and The Waldorf-Astoria next month.”

Once, when he was about 8, Sid went to the movies and stayed through three showings of Frankenstein. It was after dark when he walked into the restaurant.

“Where you been, Sidney?” papa asked, smiling pleasantly.

“To the movies.”

“All afternoon?”

“Yes, papa,” Sidney replied.

“How nice,” Mr. Caesar genially said. “And now how’s about a little supper, and then I’ll give you a quarter and you could go back to the movies and see the picture a couple more times, yes?”

He put his hand in his pocket as if he were searching for a coin. Sid was delighted with the entire plan and extended his hand for the quarter. At this point his father pulled out his hand and, instead of a coin, Sid received a terrific swat across the face that jolted him against a wall.

Caesar is a master of this kind of ironic bitterness. In a recent married-life sketch in which he and Imogene Coca portray a married couple named Doris and Charlie Hickenlooper, Charlie was trying to pacify his wife, who is planning to leave home and get a divorce. He says:

Let’s talk this over. We’ve been a normal, happily married couple. We’ve had our little spats, sure. We’ve had a few fights. We’ve had the doctor over a few times for a few simple fractures, and a couple of times we needed a specialist, but outside of that, we’re a normal, average married couple.

At the age of 8, Sid fell in love with the saxophone, and he blew it like a fanatic three and four hours a day until, at the tender age of 12, he became the outstanding hot tenor sax player in lower Westchester and was working in swing bands for a dollar a night. Later on, he played in the saxophone section of such eminent jive aggregations as Claude Thornhill, Charlie Spivak, and Art Mooney. All his life, Sid wanted only to be a great musician, to play the Debussy, Glazunov, and Ibert concertos written for the saxophone, to compose serious music. He hated comedy and comedians, and always avoided cabarets, Broadway shows, and Hollywood pictures which were funny. Until he was around 18, he is never known to have done or said a single amusing thing. He was a serious, morose, introspective person.

One of his teachers is amazed at his success. “Sid Caesar was one of the dumbest pupils I ever had,” she recalls. “He struck me as being one of the slowest-witted human beings I ever encountered. It shows you how deceiving appearances can be.”

In the summer of 1940, Caesar was playing in a six-piece dance band at the Vacationland Hotel in Swan Lake, New York. The social director of this hotel, Don Appel, was expected to put on a show every Friday and Saturday night. The budget didn’t allow for professional actors. Appel was compelled to draft anybody he could. “He’d even shanghai the guests,” Sid says. “Like some poor guy would come up for a two weeks’ rest, and then Don would talk him into playing a bit in Flugel Street, and the guy would be rehearsing all day long in the casino and never see the sun and go home more tired and paler than when he arrived. He approaches me one morning and said how would I like to do a few comedy bits? I said, ‘No, thank you.’ So Appel says if I help him out with the shows, I’ll get out of playing music during lunch because we’ll be rehearsing.”

Since making with funny faces was a lot less strenuous than blowing a horn, Caesar thenceforth became a comedian in the summer and a musician the other nine months. Two years later, at another Swan Lake resort, the Avon Lodge, he was introduced to the children’s governess, a vivacious blond beauty named Florence Levy. Sid’s description of how the emotions of love stirred him are worthy of a monologue on Your Show of Shows.

“I looked at her,” he reports, “she looked at me. An explosion took place. Right away I ask her, ‘Can I sit with you at lunch? Can I take a walk after lunch? I want all the dances with you tonight. Let’s go to the village for chow mein tomorrow, and how about a swimming session next Saturday?’ We don’t know each other five minutes, and I’ve got every hour of her summer planned out already. When I learn she’s got a date with some guy a week from next Tuesday, I go nuts and do the Othello bit. But she’s in love with me. In two weeks we’re engaged.”

They were married the following summer and now live in a sumptuous eight-room apartment on Park Avenue, with two beautiful children — a boy and a girl — also a governess, a cook, a housekeeper, and some fine paintings by Vlaminck and Rouault.

Between 1942 and 1945 the comedian spent several monotonous years in the United States Coast Guard. In the Coast Guard variety show, Tars and Spars, Caesar did one routine — a satire of airplane war films. Max Liebman directed Tars and Spars, and he sensed the latent talent in Caesar’s personality. The two formed a close association, and under Liebman’s encouragement, Caesar quickly flowered into a top-ranking comedian. By 1949, at the age of only 27, he was one of the two first-string comedians in television. The other was, of course, Berle. At this point in his fantastic career, Caesar had actually had only about seven months of professional experience when he toured night clubs and hotels with a 30-minute act. Since Caesar was never a comedy veteran before television, he didn’t know that it was impossible to do a brand-new revue every week. Later he found out it was impossible, but by then it was too late.

All really great comedians are not just actors playing imaginary characters invented by gag writers. Their comedy triumphs are essentially a crystallization and an elaboration of their real personalities. Sid is as harassed, haunted, compulsive, bewildered and frustrated in private life as he is in the various sketches he plays on television. When he took up tennis two years ago, he was on the court all day long until he became good enough to give the pros a game. Golf was his obsession in the summer of 1952, which he spent at the Concord, a luxurious retreat in the Catskill Mountains. He was on the links from 7:30 in the morning until dinnertime and managed to break 90 by the end of the summer. When he took up hunting, he immediately acquired a collection of fine guns worth several thousand dollars, which now repose unused in a gun rack in his den. For a while he hunted every Sunday; then he suddenly lost interest, as he did in golf and tennis. One story is that he lost interest as soon as he shot his first deer and saw the poor animal bleeding away. Another version, which comedian Jack Carter tells, is that Sid was hiding in some bushes in the Adirondacks waiting for game, and suddenly some hunter started shooting at him. Sid jumped up, twiggled his fingers against his ears and yelled, “Look, no horns! I swear I’m not a deer!” But the shots kept coming anyway, and Sid quit.

He has tried fishing. A friend of his, Milt Chasin, who operates a chain of appliance stores, owns a big yacht. Sid still goes on yacht cruises during nice weather, but he doesn’t fish any more. Once he caught a striped bass and then, as it lay in the boat, he suddenly saw the situation from the bass’ viewpoint

“Please,” he moaned, pretending to be a fish, “throw me back. I’m suffocating. I need a little water, just a little water. What do you need me for? You’re rich. You got everything. I got nothing. Don’t be selfish. Throw me back.”

Two summers ago Caesar decided on a European jaunt. A travel agency booked an elaborate journey for him through France, Italy, and Spain. He and Florence flew to Paris. The second day in Paris, while they were at a race track, Sid glowered, frowned, chewed nervously on a cigar, and muttered, “Florence, let’s go home.” She thought he meant home to their hotel, the George V. It wasn’t until he started packing that she realized he meant home to New York. Four days after they left they were back in America, one of the shortest European tours on record. “The whole trouble is you can’t get a glass of clean, fresh water in Paris,” he explains.

When his wife was pregnant with their first child, Sid was more jittery than she was. On the morning she felt labor beginning, she quietly arose and dressed, and then she roused her husband. Sid panicked and ran to the closet.

“We gotta call a cab!” he cried. “We gotta get to the hospital on time!” The hospital was only nine blocks away. “What suit should I wear? I don’t know what suit to wear,” he muttered. It took him 10 minutes to pick out the proper suit. Then he ordered two cabs, in case the motor of one conked out. They arrived at the Le Roy Sanitarium. The doctor wasn’t there yet. Sid started frantically phoning the doctor’s office. Finally, the doctor, an obstetrician named Ralph Hurd, got there, and Caesar ran to the entrance, grabbed him by the lapels and rushed him to the elevator. “Hurry, doctor! Please hurry!” he screamed.

“Go away for several hours, Mr. Caesar,” the doctor said.

Sid went to a newsreel movie. Then he phoned the hospital. They said he had a daughter. Exultant, he went into a drugstore for breakfast. The counterman said, “You’re Sid Caesar, ain’tcha?”

“Who’s he?” Caesar replied blankly.

“I watch your show on television all the time,” the man said.

“Show? Show? I got a show to do. I forgot all about the show. I got to call the show,” he said. He ran to a telephone booth. It was occupied. He dragged the occupant out of the booth.

“It’s an emergency,” he said. “I’m a father. I gotta do a show. I got a daughter.” The man cringed away from him in terror. He started dialing the number until he realized he didn’t have a dime. He went outside and intimidated the man whose booth he hail stolen into giving him a dime. He telephoned Max Liebman.

“Max, listen; this is Sid. I know I gotta do a baby, but Florence had a show, and will it be all right if I miss rehearsal today?”

“It’s all right, Sid; don’t worry Just relax and don’t be excited.”

“Who’s excited?” screamed Sid.

He then went to the hospital and briefly saw his wife and daughter. The hospital is at 61st Street near Madison Avenue. Outside, Sid began sympathizing with his wife. Poor girl, he thought, what hell she went through. Gotta do something nice for her. Gotta buy her something. A basket of flowers? No. A fur coat? No. Something fabulous. I got it. I’ll buy her a necklace. That’s it. By now he was at 58th Street and Madison.

He hailed a cab and yelled, “Tiffany’s and step on it!”

The driver went one block south and one block west and let Caesar out. “We’re here already?” Caesar asked suspiciously.

“Sure, it’s only two blocks away.”

“Why didn’t you tell me, you thieving rat? I could have walked it quicker.”

“I figured you were an inspector from the company and I didn’t want to get into trouble.”

Caesar entered Tiffany’s and informed a salesman, “My name is Sid Caesar and my wife just had a baby and my lawyer has an account here and I’m looking for a beautiful necklace.” The man showed him a strand of fine Oriental pearls. “It’s great,” Caesar said. “Wrap it up, charge it, and that’s it.” As he was leaving with the package, he suddenly asked, “By the way, how much is it?”

“Eighty thousand dollars, including sales tax,” the salesman said blandly. Sid whipped around and trotted back to the counter. He finally settled for a $4000 diamond-studded wristwatch. As he handed over the bauble, the salesman remarked, “You certainly are a very comical fellow. I had always imagined you were just making believe on your program, but now I know different, sir.”

Caesar says he didn’t have the heart to disillusion the salesman by revealing that he had been playing it straight. “It was the real me,” the comedian says, sighing.

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  • What a brilliant article Mr. Zolotow wrote for the POST in 1953 on Sid Caesar. I knew he was a very funny, gifted comedian, and one of early TV’s true pioneers. What I didn’t know was about his life before ‘Your Show of Shows’ and what he endured, and the constant fears during the run of the show. It’s completely understandable.

    He certainly had some of the best and funniest in the business working with him, including Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and even Woody Allen. Imogene Coca was fantastic too. I REALLY want to buy these shows on DVD.

    Andy, I get the comparison with SNL, and yes it has lasted over 40 years, but has been largely unwatchable since about ’93. The last era where it was really good overall was the 1986-’93 generation that included Dana Carvey, Jan Hooks, Jon Lovitz, Kevin Nealon, Nora Dunn, Phil Hartman and Julia Sweeney.

    I can DVR SNL now and get through the entire show in 15 minutes, and that’s being kind. The skits are one trick ponies that you only need to watch a minute and skip the rest. It’s a lot of immature bathroom/toilet level humor that never would have gone over 25-30 years ago.

    The thing is, it doesn’t matter how horrible the show is because it gets decent enough ratings no matter what because it’s “SNL” and after nearly 41 years enough people still watch it by rote for that reason. It’s one of those never-ever-going-away shows that also include ‘Survivor’ and ‘The Bachelor/Bachelorette’. SNL should have gone away many years ago, and for all intent and purposes did exactly that.