Why the Sublime Schtick of Sid Caesar Still Matters

Sid Caesar is making his way to a small stage in a banquet room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pasadena. The occasion is the annual Television Critics Association Awards and a few weeks ago when you heard Caesar was getting their Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to television you took a moment to wonder, if the TV critics are just getting around to giving him the award this year, who in the world did they give it to last year.

Your Show of Shows, written by a team of unknowns with names like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Imogene Coca and Allen Stewart Konigsberg -- a kid from Brooklyn who signed his checks Woody Allen -- was television's first great television show. The only thing Caesar was better at than physical comedy was language. His characters, whether a world-renowned professor of nothing in particular or an incompetent waiter in a snooty restaurant, frequently spoke rapid fire languages of dubious origin. Joseph McCarthy thought Sid Caesar was very dangerous. Sid Caesar didn't care what Joseph McCarthy thought. It was on.

You remember a story you once heard. During the height of Your Show of Shows, Caesar was shaving in his bathroom mirror when his seven-year-old daughter took up a position in the doorway.


Dad, what's you name?


You know my name, sweetheart. It's Sidney.


Sidney Caesar.





You're Sid Caesar?!

But right now, as he makes his way to the stage in front of a banquet room full of people dressed in "festive business attire" as instructed on their invitations, Sid Caesar isn't looking like someone you want to be.

He's in very poor health. He needs an escort to help him to the podium and that's going to take a little while. You want to lean over to Allison Janney, seated next to you, and whisper, "I can't remember, has he had a stroke?" But you don't.

You think about whether it was hard for him to tie his necktie tonight and wonder how long it's been since he drove himself somewhere in a car and that he probably misses that.

You worry that this entertainer -- for whom language was like a baseball coming at you from Satchel Paige -- you worry that he probably can't get a clear sentence out of his mouth.
"Don't worry," you implore him telepathically, "all you have to do is make it to the podium and thank the TCA and then you'll get another standing ovation like the one you're getting now."

And now he's at the podium and his escort steps back out of the light and Caesar stands there wordlessly for a long, long moment, which has everyone a little nervous. Until he raises his arms and thanks the TCA.

In French.

But not really.

You can't believe it. He's thanking the TCA, with grand and precise gesticulation, as The Man Who Almost Speaks French. You can't remember the last time you were with a group of people laughing this loudly and this sincerely. He goes on for a minute and a half (a lifetime on stage) and when he's done he starts thanking the TCA all over again in Almost German.

Your table -- the whole gang from The West Wing -- has completely lost control, as have the rest of the five-hundred or so people in attendance. You look over to your friend, Brad Whitford, who's looking back at you and holding an arm toward the stage -- Are you seeing this? -- and just in case there was anyone left in the room who was feeling sorry for him because he needed help walking to the stage or tying his tie, Caesar starts all over again in Almost Italian.

And you're so happy that you get to work in television.

I come from a long line of people who came after Caesar. There was Playhouse 90 that brought us Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. James L. Brooks who wrote the best episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. Norman Lear -- responsible for All in the Family -- passed the baton to Larry Gelbart who created M*A*S*H and M*A*S*H paved the way for Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, David Milch, David Chase, Larry David, Phil Rosenthal, Steve Levitan, Greg Daniels, Matt Weiner and dozens of others.

I hope as the Huffington Post launches its coverage of television they remember that at any given hour in the day, there are about 600 choices of what to watch. 599 of them will be bad -- one of them will be Sid Caesar.

Which is which is entirely up to you.