Cae­sar’s Hours: My Life in Com­e­dy, With Love and Laughter

Sid Cae­sar with Eddy Friedfeld

  • Review
By – November 10, 2011

Dur­ing the ear­ly 1950’s, Sid Cae­sar was an Amer­i­can pop cul­ture icon of unpar­al­leled emi­nence. He was one of the high­est paid enter­tain­ers of his day, pulling down close to $1 mil­lion a year at a time when movie tick­ets cost less than 50 cents. Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and Albert Ein­stein active­ly sought him out. And movie pro­duc­ers lob­bied to have their lat­est releas­es par­o­died on his live TV show, know­ing that a Cae­sar par­o­dy vir­tu­al­ly guar­an­teed huge box office receipts. 

Today, how­ev­er, the pub­lic has lit­tle direct knowl­edge of Cae­sar. Like the fig­ures at the mouth of Plato’s cave, he is gen­er­al­ly per­ceived by the shad­ows he has cast. His writ­ers’ room” — which includ­ed such lands­men as Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Carl Rein­er and Woody Allen — is far bet­ter known today than its pre­sid­ing genius. More Amer­i­cans have prob­a­bly seen any one episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (which was cre­at­ed by Rein­er, based on his expe­ri­ences in the writ­ers’ room) than would be able to iden­ti­fy Cae­sar from a photograph. 

The obvi­ous rea­sons for this are easy to enu­mer­ate. Caesar’s best work was done in the ear­ly days of an essen­tial­ly ephemer­al medi­um. Although kinescopes of his TV shows have sur­vived, their tech­ni­cal qual­i­ty is ques­tion­able (although they are now being dig­i­tal­ly restored). More impor­tant­ly, sketch­es on Caesar’s shows some­times ran more than 30 min­utes in length, and Cae­sar will not per­mit them to be inter­rupt­ed by com­mer­cials, so syn­di­cat­ed rebroad­cast­ing is out of the ques­tion. Final­ly, Caesar’s career as a come­di­an did not suc­cess­ful­ly extend beyond his achieve­ments in live TV. He has appeared in a long string of minor roles in most­ly undis­tin­guished films, and while a com­pi­la­tion of kinescoped sketch­es was released under the title Ten from Your Show of Shows” in the 1970s, it did not find a broad audience. 

There is a cer­tain pathos to this, which suf­fus­es Caesar’s Hours. On the sur­face a stan­dard, anec­dote-strewn celebri­ty auto­bi­og­ra­phy, it bare­ly con­ceals a deep­er agen­da: to restore Cae­sar and his work to their right­ful place in the com­ic pan­theon. It does not real­ly suc­ceed at this. Caesar’s extend­ed descrip­tions of his more note­wor­thy sketch­es don’t read very well; the book directs read­ers to a web­site where DVDs of the dig­i­tal­ly restored kinescopes are on sale, as if to acknowl­edge that a book is no sub­sti­tute for the orig­i­nal expe­ri­ence and an inad­e­quate place to argue its value. 

Cae­sar con­curs with many peo­ple who worked with him that he was painful­ly shy in per­son and could only func­tion con­fi­dent­ly behind the mask of a char­ac­ter. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the book gloss­es over this attribute and his relat­ed strug­gle with alco­holism and drug addic­tion. Even as he shines the spot­light on him­self, Cae­sar remains a large­ly shad­owy figure.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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