The Deep Jewish Roots of Television’s Caesar
Tablet, Feb. 14, 2014There was nothing conspicuously Jewish about Your Show of Shows. There were no Jewish jokes or Jewish characters, as there were, say, on The Goldbergs (at least the original Goldbergs). Only occasionally did some Yiddish word slip in, and it was always well-camouflaged, either appearing as pidgin-German or tossed off sotto voce in some rapid-fire dialog.Of all the languages Sid Caesar imitated, Hebrew most certainly wasn’t one. Not once in its four-year run were words like “Jew” and “Jewish” ever uttered. The State of Israel, newly born, went unmentioned. Caesar and his colleagues saved their Jewish material for private moments, far off camera. America never got to hear Caesar’s imitation of a Jewish labor leader riding the subway to a strike. When Carl Reiner interviewed Mel Brooks’ 2000-Year-Old Man, it was strictly at parties, for friends.But a point predictably omitted from all the tributes to Caesar, who died Wednesday at the age of 91, is the fundamental Jewishness of his work. At its core, nearly everything about Your Show of Shows, the seminal program on which Caesar shined from 1950 to 1954, was Jewish, including its very desire not to look that way.The personnel, of course, were Jewish. The producer, the Viennese-born Max Liebman, was a Jew. So, too, with one late exception (Tony Webster, an Irish Catholic), were all of its writers. That included its first two, Mel Tolkin (born in the Ukraine) and Lucille Kallen, and extended to Mel Brooks, the Simon brothers (Neil and Danny) and Joe Stein. So, too, were three of its four stars: Caesar himself, along with Carl Reiner and Howard Morris.
And so was much of its audience. In its early days, television was largely an East Coast, urban phenomenon. That meant, to a significant extent, New Yorkers, sophisticated New Yorkers, which meant Jews. Saying you watched Your Show of Shows was a way to kvell. Jews elsewhere embraced it as the work of landsmen. When Tolkin, the head writer, wanted to get his wayward troops in line, he knew what to say. “Gentlemen, we’ve got to get something done!” he would declare. “Jews all over America will be watching Saturday night!”
Its themes were Jewish. It was, for instance, forever poking holes in stuffed shirts. In many of its sketches, the pompous look ridiculous or get their comeuppance. Tight-assed, aristocratic Englishmen mumbling unintelligibly were a regular target. So were the kinds of pretentious salons where, were its humor coarser, a Margaret Dumont might have appeared. One classic sketch has Caesar, in tie and tails, disrupting a snooty musical recital—one Miss Rose Weed singing “Lo, Hear the Gentle Lark”—by coming in late, treading noisily, cracking his knuckles, winding his watch, fidgeting on his chair, realigning his nose, writing in his notebook, rattling his brains, and getting his finger caught in a cigarette case. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Sid Caesar, Master of TV Comedy, Dies at 91
Variety, Feb. 12, 2014
Sid Caesar, one of the first stars created by television via his weekly live comedy program “Your Show of Shows,” died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills after a brief illness. He was 91.
A two-time Emmy winner, Caesar (above in a photo with Red Buttons and Mickey Rooney) and his partner Imogene Coca broke comedic ground with the 90-minute live program: It didn’t rely on vaudeville or standup material but rather on long skits and sketches written by an impressive roster of comedy writers including Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen and Mel Tolkin.
Reiner said Caesar had an ability to “connect with an audience and make them roar with laughter.”
“Sid Caesar set the template for everybody,” Reiner told KNX-AM in Los Angeles. “He was without a doubt the greatest sketch comedian-monologist that television ever produced. He could ad lib. He could do anything that was necessary to make an audience laugh.”
“Your Show of Shows” was “different from other programs of its time because its humor was aimed at truth,” Simon once observed. “Other television shows would present situations with farcical characters; we would put real-life people into identifiable situations.”
Following Caesar’s glory days in the ’50s, however, he made a precipitous decline into alcoholism and barbiturates, a self-described “20-year blackout” from which Caesar finally recovered and subsequently related in his 1982 autobiography “Where Have I Been.” “At my worst, I had been downing eight Tuinals and a quart of Scotch a day,” Caesar recalled of his darkest days. “When I was awake I’d think of nothing but ‘I must do it faster, kill myself faster.’ I’d get up to take pills just to go back to sleep. I had no friends. My life was over.”
Sidney Caesar was born of immigrant parents in Yonkers, N.Y. As a youth he aspired to a musical career and practiced the saxophone, which he later studied formally for a brief time (along with the clarinet) at Juilliard. He worked for several orchestras including those of Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill and Shep Fields.
After enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard prior to WWII, he wrote sketches for “Six on, Twelve Off,” a Coast Guard musical revue. Then Coast Guard officer Vernon Duke heard Caesar perform one of his foreign-language double-talk monologues (a later Caesar trademark) for the amusement of his fellow mates and hired him for a comic role in another Coast Guard musical, “Tars and Spars.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Jewish Jokes, Theoretically
Harvard Magazine, July August 2013
Oy, SUCH a provocative book this is—I’m telling you, I can’t tell you.
Not so much, the comical picture of Groucho on the cover notwithstanding. Delving into the history, anthropology, sociopolitical utility, and moral value of Jewish humor has the same built-in limitations as analyzing sex—you really had to be there to fully appreciate what all the tzimmes [fuss] was about. Come to think of it, the book’s title may be intended to warn the reader not to expect a totally satisfying shpritz. Sarah Silverman, author Ruth Wisse is not.
What Harvard’s Peretz professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature does offer is a far-reaching discussion of the essential role humor plays in an ethnic group that historically has dwelt in the margins of the nations and cultures of others. Clearly, irony and satire often provided a palliative outlet for the Jewish outsiders, but this is only the starting point for Wisse’s analysis; she goes on to raise questions about both the appropriateness and the effectiveness of making funny when anti-Semitism has reached dangerous levels. Can humor abet the oppressor? Can it neurotically internalize the prejudices of the other? Can it subvert creative energies that would be better used to take effective political action?
Much of No Joke’s focus is on the extent to which Jewish humor traditionally has been aimed inward, satirizing the Jewish storyteller himself and other members of his tribe, as compared to poking fun at the dominant culture that surrounded him. (Wisse notes that only the Scots rival the Jews in lampooning their own stereotypes; apparently Scots tell barrelsful of skinflint jokes—at their own expense, so to speak.)
The most poignant and prevalent target of this humor are Jews who try to pass for gentiles. These stories and gags strike at the heart of the assimilation dilemma: how many steps in the direction of assimilation does it take to cross the line into unfaithfulness to one’s Jewish identity? And at what point does the assimilated Jew find himself ineluctably betraying his own people? Painful material, hilarious gags.
My personal favorite among such jokes (it is not in Wisse’s book) involves two Jews who pass a church displaying a sign promising $1,000 to all new converts. After much debate, one of the men decides to go for the money and enters the church. An hour passes, then another and another as the friend waits outside. Finally the Jew comes out of the church and his friend eagerly asks, “So, did you get the money?” The first man glares back and says, “Is that all you people ever think about?”… [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Mike Nichols: ‘Jewish Humor is a Way of Surviving’
Tablet, Nov. 20, 2014
DUSTIN HOFFMAN TOLD ME that when he auditioned for The Graduate (1967), the director, Mike Nichols, told him that the WASPy character of Benjamin Braddock was “Jewish inside.” When I ask Nichols what he might have meant by this, he says his answer can be found in a Thomas Mann story. “Did you ever read Tonio Kröger?” he asks me. (I didn’t.) “It took place in Germany one hundred years ago and it was about the blond, blue-eyed people and the dark people. The dark people were the artists and the outcasts. And the blond, blue-eyed people were at the heart of the group and were the desired objects.” I see where he’s going: Benjamin’s an outsider, so he’s metaphorically Jewish. “
There would have been two ways to cast and direct The Graduate,” Nichols continues. “One is to have Benjamin be a sort of a walking surf-board, which is the way the novel is written, roughly. And the other is to express his difference from his Californiate family and their friends. And only semiconsciously, I think, did I pick the latter. At the time, it was just that no actor—I saw hundreds, if not thousands—of young actors, and nobody was quite there, nobody was quite right, and it was getting desperate; not only had we seen every young actor, but we’d seen every young janitor by that point.
“I said, ‘There is a very talented young actor that I saw in an off-Broadway play in which he played a Russian transvestite’—I still remember him cutting up fish on a butcher block wearing a dress. And I said, ‘I’d like to see that guy; let’s see if we can get him to come out to L.A.’ ” Needless to say, Hoffman got the part. “Of course, when we saw the film it was clear that this was Benjamin, nose and all,” Nichols says with a smile. “And it’s not that the piece was transformed, it was that the piece was achieved, but in a way that we would never have guessed.” In other words, the un-Redford Jew clinched the disaffected WASP.
We’re sitting in the airy, book-lined living room Nichols shares with his wife, ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, on Martha’s Vineyard. We’ve retired to this room with tall glasses of ice water after a generous four-course lunch that included taro tuna rolls, gazpacho, and strawberry lemonade. It’s August, and a gentle breeze glides in off the bay through open doors. Nichols is tan but not dressed for this season—he’s in long tan pants, long-sleeved black shirt, and loafers. It’s too facile to draw a metaphor from his attire, but I can’t help it: This comedic director is darkly dressed for a sunny summer day and it reflects something he’s alluded to often in old interviews, a sense of being a fish out of water, the way he described Benjamin Braddock. I ask whether he relates this outcast feeling to his Jewishness—to his childhood experience of escaping Nazi Berlin in 1939 as a seven-year-old (he traveled alone with his four-year-old brother, with a “stewardess” looking after them). … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
Sid Caesar: The Beauty Pageant [The Commuters] (Caesar’s Hour, Jun 18, 1956) –– Sid Caesar: Your Show of Shows / Caesar’s Hour / Admiral Broadway Revue
Mel Brooks Remembers Sid Caesar: ‘He Was Not Even a Jew or a Person – He Was a Force’ (Video): The Wrap, Feb. 19, 2014 — Mel Brooks remembered his close friend Sid Caesar in an extended “Conan” appearance on Tuesday, where he called the late sketch comedy legend “a legitimate comic genius,” and shared stories of their personal friendship and professional collaborations.
Psychoanalyzing Jewish Humor: Rabbi Leo M. Abrami, My Jewish Learning — In his book, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud suggested that many Jewish jokes point to the ability of the Jewish people to (a) engage in a thorough self-criticism of themselves, (b) advocate a democratic way of life, (c) emphasize the moral and social principles the Jewish religion, (d) criticize the excessive requirements of it, and (e) reflect on the misery of many Jewish communities.
The Healing Power of Jokes: Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, Tablet,June 12, 2019 — When my father was 50, he was run over by a drunk driver. He was very badly damaged, literally upgerisen—sliced apart—and he was brought to the Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan for seven months to put him back together.
This week’s French-language briefing is titled Communiqué: Le mythe des “frontières” de 1967