I didn’t grow up watching Your Show of Shows, but the sort of comedy featured on the variety show that starred Sid Caesar, alongside Imogene Coca and a host of other performers, was all around me growing up. And though many young people wouldn’t even recognize Caesar’s name, his influence continues on contemporary comedy is immeasurable.
Caesar, who passed away yesterday at 91, was part of the postwar show business version of the New York Yankees Murderers’ Row, a group of writers and performers who changed entertainment forever. Your Show of Shows wasn’t the first show of its kind, but Caesar worked on it alongside an unbelievably talented staff that included comedians Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, as well as playwrights Neil and Danny Simon, and Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for the musical version of Fiddler on the Roof. Later, Caesar would employ Woody Allen and M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart to write for Your Show of Shows‘ successor program, Caesar’s Hour.
The Your Show of Shows formula was steeped in the Borscht Belt brand of Jewish-influenced humor that was inching its way into the mainstream when the show first came on the air at the start of the ’50s. The old “take my wife — please“-style jokes that might seem quaint and unfunny by today’s standards morphed into the sketches on the show, mostly acted out by Caesar himself, translating the written work of his staff into live action. Whether it was cracking jokes, playing it straight, impressions, or physical comedy, Caesar was unlike anybody or anything else on television at the time, and he helped elevate everybody involved to new levels.
Just like any comedy from the black-and-white days, when you watch these old clips, it takes a moment to adjust your point of view and see how we got from that point to our current one. Comedy has taken on new forms, most recently the viral videos that now have the power to make people stars. Caesar and his generation’s comedy might at first seem purely like a product of its era, but a few seconds of watching any given skit from this Eisenhower-era cornerstone, and it becomes easy to see just how embedded Caesar and the people he worked with are in the DNA of what makes us laugh today, from sitcoms to Broadway shows to Judd Apatow films. He was one of the comedic greats, but if there is any one specific legacy that should outlast him, it won’t be a character or a skit; it will be the fact that Sid Caesar was part of something so big that its influence will never fade.