If you’ve laughed at something on TV lately, you can thank Sid Caesar. That may be a slight exaggeration, but Caesar, who has died at the age of 91, was present for the birth of TV as a mass-medium and as a mass comedy-delivery device. And even if you’ve seen little of his original work, any family tree of modern comedy branches back to Caesar, through the writers and actors he worked with, the works they went on to create, and the sketch-comedy format that the chamelonic performer Caesar defined.
Caesar, born in Yonkers and educated by way of the Catskills Borscht Belt, had his first TV appearance on Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, the variety show launched in 1948 that was television’s first killer app. Not long after, he went on to star in Your Show of Shows, which ran from 1950 to 1954 and proved the possibilities of the then-new medium as a nimble platform for spoof and satire. (In 2007, I named it to this magazine’s list of the All-Time 100 TV Shows.)
Like the sketch shows from Saturday Night Live on down that would follow it, Your Show of Shows could be anything, and it needed a star who could be anyone. Dynamic, motormouthed and versatile, Caesar (co-starring with Imogene Coca) delivered monologues, created zany characters and spoofed celebrities. The show (and his follow-up Caesar’s Hour) produced parodies that proved TV’s funniest subject could be itself; they presaged sitcoms like The Honeymooners; and they helped launch the careers of writers — Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and more — who would shape TV, movie, and stage comedy for decades.
Many of those writers’ later works would end up better remembered and more widely repeated than Your Show of Shows, which was in some ways TV’s first “comedians’ comedy,” remembered in awe by those who worked on it and those who later worked with them. But Caesar’s playful, adventurous work lives on in the muscle memory of TV comedy, from sitcoms to Comedy Central to late-night talk and variety shows. Seizing the greatest microphone that technology had yet invented, Sid Caesar became TV’s man of a thousand voices. Listen close enough, and you can still hear each of them today.