(CNN) – Sid Caesar, who died Feb. 12 at 91, didn’t saunter, glide, bounce or skip into your living room the way other comedy TV stars did. He came at you like a football lineman, charging, roaring, enveloping your senses and tickling them relentlessly with sounds and expressions you either didn’t expect or had never heard before.
It’s hard to believe that someone who was so mercurial and explosive a physical presence could become so beloved and influential an icon of the “cool” medium of television in its early years.
And yet, at the peak of his fame in the early and mid-1950s, Caesar’s audience was broad enough to encompass both working and thinking classes. Imagine what could happen if a great silent-film comedian had passed a crash course in Borscht-belt patter with flying colors, slinging words as he executed pratfalls.
Then again, don’t imagine. Watch any vintage black-and-white video excerpt from Your Show of Shows (1951-1954) or Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957). You’ll see Caesar in sketches where his characters speak a faux-foreign dialect that, though it’s gibberish in at least two languages, makes hilarious sense throughout. You’ll see his big fleshy face in tight close-up forcing tears out of his eyes as the fiscally challenged suburban husband whose wife just charged a mink coat to his account. Watch the contortions he puts himself through as he plays a frantically reluctant featured guest on a spoof of the This is Your Life TV show.
You say you’re not old enough to remember that vintage TV show? Doesn’t matter. It may help to know something about the wretched excesses of 1950s pre-rock ‘n’ roll pop music to recognize what’s being satirized by “The Three Haircuts,” a trio of pompous, pompadoured vocalists played by Caesar and sidekicks Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. But if you don’t, it won’t keep you from laughing yourself silly at the routine.
By the same token, you don’t need to have seen the 1953 Oscar-winning movie From Here to Eternity to appreciate the beautifully timed expression on Caesar’s face at the climax of the parody version when he realizes – never mind. Just watch it.
Great comedy is evergreen, no matter what color it’s shot in. Though the razzmatazz culture of post-war America inspired Caesar’s all-star teams of writers, it was those same writers – including Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Mel Tolkin – who went on to establish and inspire American comedic standards for the remaining decades of the 20th century and into the next one. Your Show of Shows, after all, aired live on NBC on Saturday nights just as Saturday Night Live has for almost 40 years.
When you watch a classy contemporary sitcom, whether it’s ABC’s Modern Family or HBO’s Veep, the character-driven, sophisticated slapstick has its precedents in many of the domestic sketches and satiric skits of the Caesar shows.
Caesar’s roughneck persona seemed an unlikely vessel for such versatile, urbane humor. But along with his slam-bang agility, he displayed the instincts and timing of a classically trained musician. Much like the leader of a jazz ensemble, Caesar had a cultivated ear, willing to listen carefully and generously to both his writers and his fellow ensemble members Reiner, Morris, Imogene Coca and Nanette Fabray, who became as invaluable to the success of those classic shows as Caesar himself.
He was also moody and temperamental. To the end of his life, he regaled interviewers with the story of how, one night in Chicago, he became so enraged at Mel Brooks that he dangled him from an 18th-story window. Brooks, apparently, didn’t resent him for it, and cast Caesar in his 1976 Silent Movie, which showcased the great man’s genius for wordless wit.
The years between the last Caesar’s Hour in 1957 and Silent Movie were erratic and not always happy ones for Caesar. He subdued addictions to alcohol and pills, but never caught another wave like the one he rode in the Eisenhower years. Still, he lived long enough to savor the resounding impact he and his work would have on several generations of comics, most of whom, talented as they were, couldn’t explode the way Sid Caesar could.
Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.