‘He was not even a Jew or a person; he was a force’ — Sid Caesar at 100


By Benjamin Ivry, The Forward

The centenary of American Jewish comedian Sid Caesar, who was born Sept. 8, 1922, is a good occasion to look back and see how Yiddishkeit influenced his artistry. Some of his oldest friends and colleagues, like Mel Brooks, whom he employed as a writer, discounted the Jewish aspect of his comic spirit. During a February 2014 appearance on Conan O’Brien’s talk show, Brooks declared that Caesar “was not even a Jew or a person; he was a force.”

Caesar himself explained the absence of explicit Jewish characters or sustained references in his shows to The Jewish Chronicle in October 2010. He “didn’t want to make fun of being Jewish,” he said. He turned down the ultra-Jewish role of Al Jolson in a 1946 biopic. And he demurred when a Jewish Telegraphic Agency interviewer tried in 2000 to link his humor to his family roots, snapping that it was entirely possible to “be Jewish and be bad” at comedy.

His audiences too were largely unaware that this strapping muscular jokester could be Jewish, according to historian Karen J. Harvey. Apparently they were accustomed to more diminutive Semitic comics. M. Avrum Ehrlich’s Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora concurred that Caesar played many foreign characters, but “none of them specifically Jewish.” Literary critic Norman Simms even likened Caesar to the Marranos in his onscreen discretion about his origins.

And yet, his legendary 1950s programs “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” inevitably echoed Jewish humor insofar as Caesar employed such writers as Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Selma Diamond and Woody Allen, among others. Far more than injecting an occasional Yiddish term, Caesar’s comedy exuded omnivorous cultural preoccupations.