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Large as Live

Q & A With Sid Caesar

May 09, 1998

Sid Caesar, the real-life model for Max in Neil Simon's "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," dominated network television in the '50s with Milton Berle, Groucho Marx, Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers and Jack Benny.

"Your Show of Shows," Caesar's NBC program (1950-54) nurtured the best comedy writers--among them Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart, who all went on to stage and screen careers, and of course Simon, our most successful commercial playwright.

Caesar's accent is a Brooklyn-Bronx amalgam. He speaks of "Show of Shows" in the present tense, like a Damon Runyan character, as often as in the past. It isn't because, at 75, he's confused after his many years of alcohol and drug abuse--often referred to in the play and from which he has long since recovered. It's just the way he speaks, vividly and without pretense.

Indeed, nobody knows better than Caesar the gulf that separates the early 1950s from the late '90s. If he had to sum up the difference, he could do it in two words: Joe McCarthy. In fact, Simon's play memorializes Caesar's heroic but ultimately losing battle against McCarthyism, censorship and network avarice as much as it salutes his generosity toward his writers.

When Caesar picked up the phone for a recent interview from his home in Los Angeles with staff writer Jan Herman, he momentarily excused himself, as though he'd been interrupted. Sometimes his comebacks could have been mistaken for serious replies, when they were, in fact, deadpan jokes.

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Question: Did I catch you in the middle of something?

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Answer: Did you catch me doing something? I'm not home alone. There are plenty of people here.

Q: What do you think of "Laughter on the 23rd Floor?"

A: Well, it's a funny play. It's almost true.

Q: Why almost?

A: All those things went on. [But] not in one night.

Q: Did you ever put your hand through the wall as Max does in the play?

A: Yes.

Q: Out of anger and frustration?

A: What do you think?

Q: Just checking. I heard you put pictures up in odd places to cover up the holes, just as Max does in the play.

A: You gotta understand. Today "live" is a different animal.

Q: Is it dead?

A: Not only dead. Nobody can do it. That's what I'm talking about. It wasn't just 22 minutes. It's 1 1/2 hours. Not only 20-22 weeks. It's 39 weeks--and every week for 10 months--"live." No cue cards. No TelePrompTers. That was it.

Q: What about "Saturday Night Live?"

A: They tried. They had some good sketches. They had some good people. But they had cards. They had this and that. I never believed in cue cards. You lose eye contact, it really becomes a sketch--because you don't believe in it. If you don't have cards, you have to look the other actors in the eyes. And they're going to help you if you go up [flub your lines].

Q: How did the week go?

A: The show was on Saturday night. Monday we came in with nothing. Nothing was written ahead of time. There was no time. It's very businesslike, very professional. Everybody came in at 9:30 in the morning, except Mel Brooks. We hollered for him. There was screaming. We go to 6 o'clock at night. If we're lucky, we break for lunch. If not, we send out for sandwiches.

Q: Did you get along with Mel Brooks?

A: Are you kiddin'? Of course.

Q: Who gave you the biggest headache?

A: When you have six to eight people with that kind of talent, you're going to have a few arguments. That's natural.

Q: Who won the arguments?

A: What was funny won the arguments. I could have said, "It's my candy store, that's it--I win."

Q: Samuel Goldwyn used to do that.

A: If something else was funnier, hey, that's it. What am I going to do, fight myself? I didn't take everything. I played straight [man] for a lot of people. You can't be funny for 1 1/2 hours. You have to lay it off.

That's why Seinfeld is funny. He himself is not that funny; but the people around him are. He's very calm. Everything runs around him. This is what you do if you're smart. Jack Benny did the same thing. He had funny people on. Like I did--Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris. They're funny people. They're not just stand-ins.

Q: What happened on Tuesday?

A: Tuesday we keep working. The show had to be written by Wednesday evening. The whole show: two sketches in every half hour and we had three half-hours. Six sketches every week. Sometimes we had to go over, past 6 o'clock. But everybody stayed because all the scenery had to be started by Wednesday night, and by Thursday all the orchestrations had to be done. You had to turn out costumes, makeup, sound effects.

Thursday morning was the first time we put it on its feet. Sometime we have to change it, because it doesn't work. So we have to rewrite it right there.

Q: Great training for playwrights and comedy writers.

A: That's what made these boys. You get under fire like this, you understand what writing is. Not only pressure, but the extent of pushing your talent. The writers are there all the time. They're in on everything.

Q: Presumably, you were living in New York?

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