On Feb. 25, 1950, NBC premiered a 90-minute live comedy series entitled "Your Show of Shows," starring a rising 27-year-old comic named Sid Caesar and produced by former Borscht Belt impresario Max Liebman. Television was never the same.
Over the next four years, half of all Americans who owned TV sets tuned in each week to watch the hysterical antics of Caesar and his cohorts-in-comedy Imogene Coca, Howard Morris and Carl Reiner. In 1954, NBC gave Caesar his own series, "Caesar's Hour," which also starred Reiner, Morris and Nanette Fabray.
From his lower-middle-class boyhood in Yonkers, N.Y., through his later post-stardom traumas, 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.
"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.
In his 2003 memoir, "Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter" (written with Eddy Friedfeld), 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 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 the most glaring lapse of his 2003 memoir, 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."
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 died Feb. 12, 2014, at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 91.