Got news? The one and only Caesar of Jewish humor

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Remember all of those nasty charges by anti-Semites through the years that The New York Times is controlled by Jews and that it’s pages have been dominated by Jewish concerns?

Yes, I know about the Sulzberger family.

But if the Times team views the world through some kind of Jewish prism, then explain the following passage from the newspaper’s lengthy obituary for the truly great American comedian Sid Caesar:

Albert Einstein was a Caesar fan. Alfred Hitchcock called Mr. Caesar the funniest performer since Charlie Chaplin.

Television comedy in its early days was dominated by boisterous veterans of vaudeville and radio who specialized in broad slapstick and snappy one-liners. Mr. Caesar introduced a different kind of humor to the small screen, at once more intimate and more absurd, based less on jokes or pratfalls than on characters and situations. It left an indelible mark on American comedy.

And that’s that?

What about the fiery post-Holocaust rage of Caesar and his brilliant writers Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Mel Tolkin, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbert and, later on, a young Woody Allen? Oh for some bull-session YouTubes out of that room!

So his work left an “indelible mark” on American humor?

What about his role in mainstreaming a sharp-edged Jewish sensibility right into the heart of the emerging, coast-to-cast mainstream television culture? Talk about a religion, or at least religious culture, ghost in a story!

The Times obit does include this one tiny nod to the obvious:

“If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of ‘All in the Family’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’” Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times when he was its chief theater critic, “check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”

Sidney Caesar was born on Sept. 8, 1922, in Yonkers, the youngest of three sons of Jewish immigrants, Max Caesar and the former Ida Rafael. Max, who emigrated from Poland, owned and operated a luncheonette with his wife, who had come from Russia; young Sid Caesar developed his foreign-sounding double talk by listening closely to the luncheonette’s multinational clientele.

But if you want the complete picture, you need to head over to The Forward and read its fine feature, under the headline: “Sid Caesar, Brought Jewish Humor to Middle America, Dies at 91.” Read it all, folks.

Take it away, Benjamin Ivry:

Despite his landmark star status on TV, Caesar’s talents were essentially those of a stage performer, with a rage fueled by early family conflict, amplified by service in World War II. Although he was sheltered from combat in the Coast Guard, Caesar experienced the Holocaust like all American Jews, and only a few years after the war ended in 1945, he was repeatedly ridiculing Germans on TV, with characters prefiguring Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” and Brooks’ 1980s remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be.”

On his early “Your Show of Shows” (1950–1954) and later shows, Caesar surrounded himself with all-Jewish writing teams who were personally experienced in the traumas of modern Jewish history. …

Discussing his sources, Caesar told “The Jewish Chronicle” in 2010: “There’s a lot of fun that you can bring out in being Jewish. But I didn’t want to make fun of being Jewish. There’s a fine line. … I used to see people davening in shul and they’d snap the book shut when they’d finished. Like they’d won a race. Then look around to see if anyone else had finished. I used to find that very funny. … Jews appreciate humor because in their life it’s not too funny. We’ve been trodden down for a long time, thousands of years. So we’ve had to turn that around because if you take it all too seriously you’re going to eat yourself. And we’re very good at being self-deprecating. Either we do it or somebody’s going to do it for us. We might as well do it first.”

Caesar’s demons drove him off television, but his genius made him an irreplaceable, unforgettable talent.

Obviously. A towering, brilliant influence on American humor and life. How do you write about his work without discussing his Jewish mind and heart?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tmatt

    Wow. Powerful interest in Jewish issues. And brilliant entertainers!

    • Ira Rifkin

      As a boy I loved, loved Your Show of Shows. Watched it every Saturday night, religiously, I could add. (Yeah, I know there wasn’t much else on anyway.) But I never thought of Sid and the gang as Jewish comedians. Perhaps I was just too young or so steeped in Jewish culture to know better, but I just saw him and his crew as no different from Ernie Kovacs, Red Buttons and other non-Jewish comedians of that long ago era. I actually assumed Caesar was Italian, probably because of his name.

      As for GR readers, perhaps Caesar didn’t penetrate Middle America as deeply as it’s assumed. Or they’re just too young.

      • tmatt

        Or do not know the connection to Brooks, Reiner, Simons, Allen, etc.

        Sid was a giant.


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