Sid Caesar passed away on Wednesday at the age of 91. I never met the fellow. The closest I came to it was knowing Larry Gelbart who wrote on the Caesar's Hour TV show, and enjoying Sid Caesar's talent, from his larger-than-life performances to his remarkable ability to do double-talk in fake languages and fill in the rest in between. I did see him perform twice, though that's sort of an inexact description, since he was largely being himself.
The first time was when I attended a panel at the Writers Guild Theater of "Caesar's Writers." It is without exaggeration to say it was perhaps the funniest evening I've ever had in a theater. An edited-down version was shown on PBS, called Caesar's Writers, and released as a video, which is now finally available on DVD. As hilarious as the video is, the longer live-in-theater version was even funnier, not lagging for the length. About 2-1/2 hours of non-stop laughter. But then consider: the panel included Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon -- not shabby. Yet that wasn't all, it also included Mel Tolkin (a writer for years on All in the Family), Aaron Ruben (who wrote for the Andy Griffith Show and created Gomer Pyle), Sheldon Keller (longtime writer for the Dick Van Dyke Show), Gary Belkin (with over 150 episodes of The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson), and Neil Simon's brother Danny, a very successful writer for over three decades, as well, and considered one of the best teachers of comedy writing -- not to mention the real-life subject matter for two Neil Simon plays -- Come Blow Your Horn and The Odd Couple). That was some panel. What made is so wonderful is they all were in a roomful of their peers, clearly trying to top one another. Okay, mainly it was Mel Brooks trying to top most everyone, but the others got their gems in, to fight back. And often, Sid Caesar (periodically with Carl Reiner) even recreated a bunch of most famous sketches.
(I was seriously impressed how he remembered so many of them. Later, though, Larry Gelbart told me that Caesar actually spent a lot of time watching the old shows. As a result, they were fresh in his mind.)
The other time that I was in a theater with Sid Caesar was when, sadly, Larry Gelbart passed away. There was a huge, and wonderfully affectionate memorial evening for him held at the Motion Picture Academy Theater. It was jammed-fulI, perhaps 800 people or whatever the Academy holds. Throughout the night, speakers would come up on stage to talk about Larry, and it was all richly entertaining.
Sid Caesar was there among them, but in very bad health. So poor, in fact, very weak, that he couldn't make it on stage. Instead, he stayed in his seat in the audience and a microphone was brought to him. He started to tell some reminiscences -- at least that's how it seemed, or started to be. But it was so rambling and got worse. It was difficult to tell the point of what he was saying, and clear that there wasn't an end to this in sight. After all, how do you tell Sid Caesar to sit down? You could palpably feel the discomfort of the audience -- loving Caesar, thrilled he was there, but awkward at seeing him a shell of himself and out of it.
But then --
But then, came the miracle. Someone in the back of the audience -- I don't know who, but he should get some sort of award for brilliance -- had one incredibly amazing idea. What he did was shout out over the crowed in a booming voice, so loud that Sid Casar, regardless of his condition, could hear -- "Do it in Italian!!!!"
And Sid Caesar heard him. And knew exactly what was being asked of him -- to perform. And Sid Caesar loved to perform. And immediately he stopped rambling and turning on a time instantly began speaking in fake Italian double-talk. And it was freaking brilliant. Absolutely hysterical. The entire theater was uproarious. Laughing in utter joy, and doing so for two reasons.
One, because it was pure funny. And the other, because we all knew we now had this memory now given to us, and the old, bad one wiped out: not of an elderly, feeble Sid Caesar, but of the brilliantly funny man we all loved him for.
But mainly because it was pure funny.
And the cheers he got when he was done was the biggest joy of all.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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