NEW YORK, Dec. 12 (JTA) – When the dean of Jewish comedy took the stage Monday night, he spoke French, German, Italian, Japanese and Yiddish.
The problem is, Sid Caesar doesn’t really speak any of these languages. He just imitates their sounds perfectly.
That comic genius Monday earned Caesar the Third Annual Alan King Award in American Jewish Humor, sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.
Caesar earned the adoration of millions of television viewers in the early 1950s – the Golden Age of Television – when his “Your Show of Shows” aired on Saturday nights.
Caesar was known for an impeccable sense of timing, and for his intelligence and versatility.
“You only had to tell him that you needed a Hindu with a bad back, sore feet and a twitch, and that was it,” comedian Alan King said. “There was nothing he couldn’t do – from an Italian actor to a gladiator to a baby.”
A live variety show with no TelePrompTers, “Your Show of Shows” set a standard for excellence that some believe has never been equaled.
“It makes ‘Saturday Night Live’ look like a kindergarten Christmas pageant,” said Rabbi Andrew Bachman, who is helping to create a Jewish comedy Web site at yap.cat.nyu.edu.
Caesar’s story is similar to those of so many great Jewish entertainers of the 20th century.
He was born in Yonkers, N.Y., to immigrant parents from Poland and Russia. In the summer of 1942, while performing as a saxophonist, he began performing comic routines.
During World War II, he wrote and performed musical comedy revues for the U.S. Coast Guard in Brooklyn, and by 1947 he was headlining at New York’s Copacabana.
Asked if being Jewish had something to do with his comedic talent, Caesar bristled.
“You can be Jewish and be bad” at comedy, he said.
Some of the more than 350 spectators at Monday night’s event could be excused if they didn’t agree. Famous Jewish performers, many of whose careers were launched by Caesar, honored their mentor.
Mel Brooks, who was one of Caesar’s writers, presented Caesar with the award, as Jerry Stiller, who most recently played George Costanza’s father on TV’s “Seinfeld,” looked on. Actor Carl Reiner paid tribute by video, as did writer Larry Gelbart, who helped to create the television series “M*A*S*H.”
Woody Allen and playwright Neil Simon also worked for Caesar.
As Caesar’s fellow stars took the microphone, the shtick came fast and furious.
Actress Joy Behar, who is Italian, joked, “Everyone thinks I’m Jewish. My mother calls me up a few years ago and says, “Happy Chanukah. I said, ‘Ma, I’m not Jewish.’ “
But for all the Borscht Belt-style routines, there was a bittersweet edge to the celebration at New York’s tony Pierre Hotel.
Caesar himself was known to be an intense, difficult person to work with.
He would sometimes punch through walls with his fist, and once reportedly punched a horse in Central Park that was giving his wife a rambunctious ride. Brooks said he once told Caesar he needed a breath of fresh air, and Caesar obliged by picking him up and hanging him outside the 11th-floor window.
The tension of producing a live show eventually got to Caesar, and he struggled for years with addictions to alcohol and pills.
Caesar rarely performs anymore. He is little known to people under 50, though that may change with a three-part video and DVD of his work,”The Sid Caesar Collection,” just released.
In more recent years he underwent heart bypass surgery, and his once-robust figure has shriveled.
And when Caesar himself took the stage to receive his award, he needed assistance because of a broken hip. The audience responded in a way that the comedy maestro understood and appreciated – with a standing ovation.