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Caesar hails his comic life

Caesar's Hours My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter Sid Caesar with Eddy Friedfeld PublicAffairs: 310 pp., $26

November 02, 2003|Gerald Nachman | Gerald Nachman is the author of "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s."

From his lower middle-class boyhood in Yonkers, N.Y., through his later post-stardom traumas, Sid Caesar was perceived as inarticulate and painfully shy, nothing like the brash, comically eloquent on-camera personality that made him an icon in TV's now-dwindling pantheon of certifiable geniuses. He was really born too late -- a silent comic, more visual than verbal, capable of flickering comic moods, who tamed TV to fit him.

In his new memoir, "Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter," written with Eddy Friedfeld, the legendary comedian doesn't fall silent, but he is too discreet, too eager to please, to speak ill of anyone, so there are a lot of things left unexplained. Yet he's a sage on comedy, sharing shrewd lessons on the getting of laughs, on how to film a sketch and not squelch the joke, and on the danger of over-rehearsing, killing comedy's vital spontaneity. His TV shows, he notes, were closer to theater than movies or standard TV. Caesar refused to syndicate his shows lest lengthy sketches be diced up for commercials.

"Caesar's Hours" is a textbook on the almost extinct art of sketch comedy, with asides on how the laugh track and the dirty joke dumbed-down TV comedy, making it too easy and automatic, and on the strictures of '50s comedy (no sex jokes, no mocking live politicians), limitations that pushed writers to be more inventive.

The unsurpassed visual comedy that Caesar & Co. (Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris and later Nanette Fabray) so memorably practiced for much of the 1950s, defies translation into print. For all of Caesar's canny explanations of how sketches were devised and executed -- with large chunks of old scripts reprinted -- even his most famous routines die on the page. You had to be there or have a vivid memory.

"Your Show of Shows" has its own hallowed mythology (captured in the 1982 film "My Favorite Year," in Neil Simon's 1992 play "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," and in "Caesar's Writers," the 1996 PBS reunion of Caesar's gagmen), so readers may know many of the stories that make up the well-burnished legend. But Caesar sprinkles a few new savory crumbs: Rudy Vallee was so cheap a guest star that he ate alone, fearful of getting stuck with the tab; Carl Reiner was partly hired because producer Max Liebman obeyed an ancient dictum that a straight man must be taller than the comic; Albert Einstein wanted to meet Caesar but died before the unlikely rendezvous; and while Caesar and Coca were a match made in revue-sketch heaven, both were so shy offstage that they mainly communicated through comedy on camera.

Caesar, now 81, neglects to give us a vivid sense of the creative friction and human juices that went into the shows. It seems all a little too fondly and bloodlessly recalled, given the fevered, crazed nature of comedy writers and comics, and of the star's famous manic temperament. Despite the incredible tension of producing a live 90-minute show every Saturday night on NBC (an ordeal he calls "hilarious torture"), grinding out six sketches in three days for 39 weeks, nobody in the memoir ever gets angry, no tempers flare, no one stomps out. Caesar has come to praise, not bury -- a lovely personal trait but, to quote Sam Goldwyn, "from a polite meeting comes a polite picture." Or memoir.

What does comes through clearly is Caesar's honesty and modesty about himself and the demons of booze, pills and self-hatred that he later conquered and detailed in a 1982 memoir about his 20-year lost weekend, "Where Have I Been?" He blames only himself yet never sounds self-pitying, petty or self-aggrandizing. He writes, "I enjoyed the laughs but never the stature." He couldn't accept his huge success, believe it or handle it; it all came so swiftly, surprisingly and overwhelmingly.

Caesar finally cracked after seven years of starring in the TV equivalent of a weekly Broadway show, drinking after but never on the job to help him sleep when he would lie awake nights revising sketches in his head. He never wrote but he ran the writer's sessions, rapidly approving or shooting down ideas shouted at him with a pretend gun. ("There was no veto power -- I was Vito, godfather of the show.") He opened meetings with "All right, let's hear the brilliance."

Caesar all but threw or drank away a great career, but, in perhaps this memoir's most glaring lapse, he doesn't reveal how it felt to slide from one of America's leading comedians to a man without a career, just a reputation, reduced to small roles in movies like "Grease," "The History of the World: Part I" and "Silent Movie."

He was not a natural-born clown, never "on," but a skillful comic actor who refused to crack up on camera. Despite his noisy, bruising style, he was a quiet observer, not a tummler; laughs for him needed to be rooted in reality, instigated by a funny premise -- like the housefly he once portrayed contemplating a feast of dinner scraps.

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