Sunday, February 26, 2012

Boomer Comedy in the Beginning: Sid Caesar

Sid Caesar had a series of television comedy shows in the 1950s and 1960s. He's definitely an early baby boomer hero. He was an amazing comedian, a real connection between the then-fading worlds of vaudeville and stage comedy, and the world of television-dominated comedy he was helping to create.

Sid Caesar was a brilliant comedian in so many ways.  He was verbally adept--one of his most famous skills was the ability to "doubletalk" in foreign languages: to make what he said sound like Italian or French and also make it funny.  He was a physical comedy genius, who used his whole body, including his eyes and eyebrows.  One standard feature of his shows was the pantomime, in which he and a partner (Imogene Coca was the best) would do an entire scene without speaking. But he also used his voice as an aspect of physical comedy.  He was musical.  He had the timing that could turn parody into pathos and back again.
the famous "From Here to Eternity" parody

I was a child when Sid Caesar was a fixture on television, but I watched him whenever I could. I could stay up later on Saturday nights, but still, it might require me to be very quiet so my parents wouldn’t notice I was still up. I remember Your Show of Shows (1950-54), and the team of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. I remember that she got her own show for awhile. But I more clearly remember Caesar’s Hour in the mid 50s, including individual sketches.

It's said that his brand of comedy began to fade when television outgrew New York and became national. His comedy was "too urban." But as a child I didn't see it that way. For instance, the foreign movie parodies he did, which Middle America wasn’t supposed to like because they never saw foreign films. We sure didn't have any in my small western Pennsylvania town. I didn’t see a foreign language film until college, but that didn’t stop me from seeing those parodies as funny. They were just funny, partly because they were strange. I’m sure knowing the movies made them funnier, but the level of satire wasn’t always that deep. They were just funny situations, and opportunities for Caesar to do his doubletalk, which doesn’t require knowing the language in question to appreciate it.

But some of what he did was relevant to where I lived--a new neighborhood just outside the small town limits, among other working class becoming middle class families-- and what I was seeing around me.. Caesar’s Hour had a regular segment called "the Commuters." The suburban flight that would transform New York and pretty much end New York theatre (leading to the Broadway for tourists of today) was introducing people to the new culture of suburbia. There were new manners, expected behaviors. These sketches—some lasting almost the entire hour—explored these in the Caesar way. For example, I clearly remember a moment in one from seeing it once as a child. The couples were out together at a restaurant. They were all sitting in a booth and talking. A waiter brought a salad bowl. Carl Reiner told Sid to “toss the salad, Bob.” Sid did one of his series of takes—he didn’t understand what he was supposed to do. Carl kept talking to someone, only to say again, more insistently, “toss the salad!” So Sid tossed it up in the air, lettuce leaves falling on everyone.

Toss the salad” was a new concept to a city guy, probably from a poor immigrant family. It was part of middle class suburban manners. But it also happened to be a new concept to me. I was vaguely aware that the people on television were richer and more sophisticated than anyone I actually knew. So I saw it perhaps as something “ritzy” people said and did. But it also seemed possible that it was something I would need to know, or something I should know—something that adults knew.

When you’re a kid just about everything “adult” is strange-- tossing a salad as much as foreign movies. You spend a lot of time trying to imagine why adults do and say things, and what they mean. Sid Caesar’s humor was often based on exaggeration, and on taking something literally that wasn’t meant to be taken that way. It’s exactly the kind of humor that appeals to children, because we often make those mistakes, and we also often think adults are strange and don’t make much sense. Sid Caesar represented us.

Now the exaggeration in those sketches can also be appreciated for the variations, the lines of logic and the moments in which the logic jumps the tracks (the classic sketch "The Recital" is a good example.) But there’s still something wonderful about their kinship to the imagination of childhood. [continued in following posts]

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