By Robert Gluck/JNS.org
The recently deceased Sid Caesar made America laugh, and in so doing, revolutionized television comedy. His trailblazing style was infused with Jewish influences, according to Eddy Friedfeld, co-author with Caesar on his biography “Caesar’s Hours: My Life in Comedy, With Love and Laughter.”
“Sid was part of the Jewish tradition of storytelling,” Friedfeld, who gave a eulogy at Caesar’s funeral in February, told JNS.org. “The difference was his was not joke telling, it was comedy based on character. His sketches were stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. That was not coincidentally a function of the Jewish influence.”
The youngest of three sons born to Jewish immigrants living in Yonkers, NY, Caesar’s father Max emigrated from Poland, and with his wife Ida, who had come from Russia, operated a luncheonette. Young Sid developed his foreign-sounding double talk by listening closely to the luncheonette’s multinational clientele.
Friedfeld, who teaches courses in comedy at Yale University and New York University and worked several years with Caesar on the biography, said Caesar had a strong Jewish identity. According to Friedfeld’s book, after graduating from Yonkers High School in 1939, Sid left home intent on starting a musical career. He arrived in Manhattan and worked as an usher and then a doorman at the Capitol Theatre. He was ineligible to join the musicians’ union in New York City until he established residency, but he found work as a saxophonist at the Vacationland Hotel, a resort located in the Catskill Mountains. Mentored by Don Appel, the resort’s social director, Caesar played in the dance band and learned to perform comedy, doing three shows a week.
“His family [members] were proud and aware Jews. Sid went to cheder, the after-school [Jewish] program. Sid claimed he was the first to introduce the word chutzpah into the American vernacular,” Friedfeld told JNS.org.
Unlike previous comedy that was rooted in immigration and financial depression, Caesar’s brand was about a new, post-World War II America, prosperous and hopeful in the era of suburbs, skyscrapers, and space travel. The U.S. at the time needed smart, fresh, optimistic, and cutting-edge comedy, with an infusion of culture and satire.
Friedfeld said Caesar was a master of character and dialect, and he transformed himself into classic characters such as the put-upon husband Charlie Hickenlooper; feudal lord Shtaka Yamagura; stoner jazz musician Progress Hornsby; Tony Towers, the inventor of the Towers Trot; the Gangster Moose in “Bullets Over Broadway,” who had ears like a hawk; Al Duncy, who was reluctantly and literally carried onto the stage to have his life story told with Uncle Goopy and a parade of other crazy relatives in front of 5,000 people; and the German General, who fastidiously avoided jangling his medals as he prepared to be a fancy hotel’s doorman.