Comedian Sid Caesar was a master of languages. He could speak German, French, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Russian — that is, he could make you think that he was a polyglot.
Caesar was famous for double talk, mimicking the intonations and gestures of a language.
“Sid was the greatest double talker in the world,” says comedian Carl Reiner.
Reiner worked as Sid Caesar’s straight man for years on Caesar’s TV shows, Caesar’s Hour and Your Show of Shows.
“In my act, I had double talk and I said, 'well it’s something I’ll never do again,' because Sid was the master,’” Reiner says.
Reiner and Caesar did many double talk skits together, including a famous parody of a German professor.
“From my vantage point, which was sometimes no further than an inch from his face, and one time nose on nose, he was inarguably the greatest pantomimist, monologist and single sketch comedian who ever worked in television,” Reiner says.
Many attribute Caesar’s ear for language to his roots in the multi-ethnic, immigrant neighborhood of New York where he grew up. His parents owned a restaurant where he would hear the different accents of his parents’patrons. He was also influenced by the radio, says Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of the Big Book of Jewish Humor.
“Radio in the 1930s was far more multi-cultural than it is today, so you had characters on the comedy shows who spoke in accents,” Waldoks says.
Caesar was also a musician, and being fluent in music, says Waldoks, was key to Caesar’s ability to pick up the intonations of foreign languages.
“He heard the lilting rhythm of the language,” he adds. “Its tone, and that’s what he was a master at, capturing the tone.”
Many of Caesar’s first skits and comedic bits were worked out performing in the summer resorts of the Catskills, north of New York City, known as the Borscht Belt. “Hardworking people would take their two-weeks off and they wanted two things: to eat more than they could and to laugh more than they could,” Waldoks explains.
Comedians like Reiner, Mel Brooks, and, of course, Caesar got their start in the Borscht Belt, making people laugh night after night. One night, they were out of material and Caesar led a group of comedians in an improvised performance of an Italian opera,
“They did this phony opera using the accents and just got laughs because of the fact that it was conceptually absurd,” Waldoks says. “He was a conceptual comedian.”
Caesar’s double talk and sense of parody has influenced many comedians. His groundbreaking TV program Your Show of Show is often cited as a precursor to Saturday Night Live. Some famous SNL characters, like Jim Belushi’s Crazy Samurai, are modelled entirely on Caesar skits.
“The contribution of Jews to the United States, besides a couple of Nobel prizes, I think has been the creation of an American humor,” Waldoks argues.
Comedian Sid Caesar was at the forefront of that humor. He died on Wednesday at 91.