Sunday, February 16, 2014
My thoughts on Sid Caesar
You’ve all been to funerals of people who were uh… difficult, and sat through eulogies that portrayed him as a saint. All the while you’re thinking, “Who is he kidding?” I didn’t want to be that guy.
Side note: There was a longtime Hollywood actor/personality named George Jessel. He was probably most famous for delivering eulogies at funerals. One time, as the story goes, he was waxing poetic, glanced down at the open casket, stopped and said, “Hey, I know this man!”
Sid Caesar’s talent was extraordinary. His influence on television can not be overstated. He was a one-man SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. When I taught my comedy class at USC I devoted a large portion of one session to Sid Caesar. I showed clips and discussed his greatness and importance in length. You’ve doubtless been seeing and reading tributes all week. They’re all terrific. Billy Crystal, in particular, wrote a lovely one.
So the only thing I could add would be any personal experience I had with the gentleman. And since that wasn’t good I had planned to just let it pass. But my silence was apparently more noticeable than I had assumed.
So here’s my encounter with Sid Caesar, and I will say this – it taught me a very valuable lesson so I do have him to thank for that. In 1980 I was hosting a Saturday night talk show on KABC radio in Los Angeles. Sid agreed to be my guest one night. I couldn’t be more excited. I cleared an entire hour for him, prepared lots of questions, and figured we’d get tons of calls from adoring listeners. I promoted the show for weeks. Like I said, this was a huge deal for me. I was not used to meeting Comedy Gods. This was going to be a love fest and I knew he'd enjoy it.
He showed up at the station very surly. This was during his notorious “drinking” phase I was later to learn. I figured, “Okay, that’s what he’s like off-the-air. I’m sure he’ll turn on the charm once the red light goes on.”
I was wrong.
From the minute he turned on the mic he was nasty, rude, and bitter. I started taking phone calls. The board lit up like a Christmas tree. But after he dismissed and belittled the first two callers the lines went dead. Who wants to subject themselves to that kind of abuse? I looked on the clock. It’s was 8:10. I had :50 minutes to go (and very few commercials). They were the longest fifty minutes of my life. Sid basically just beat the shit out of me on the radio.
The next morning I called my friend, Ronn Owens, who is the top talk show host in San Francisco on KGO. I laid out my tale of woes and when I was finished he said, “It was your fault.” “MY fault? How could it possibly be my fault?” “It’s your show,” he said. “When you have a bad guest you just dump him at the next break and move on.” “Yeah, but this was Sid Caesar. He drove all the way to the station. I promoted this. I couldn’t just blow off Sid Caesar,” I said. “So what?” was his reply. “If you have a bad guest, whoever it is, dump him. You should have enough prepared material that for any emergency you can just go to another topic and keep the show rolling.” Since that day I have never done a talk show where I wasn’t prepared to the teeth.
Like I said, this was during a bad phase in Sid Caesar's life. Had I known him at a different time, or had I worked with him in his halcyon days (okay, I would have been 2 but I was funny even then), I might have a completely different impression of the man. He was a true giant who, like all of us, was plagued with demons. So I celebrate his legacy and invite you to celebrate it as well. If you’re not really familiar with his work, go to YouTube and watch some of his sketches. He was truly remarkable. Remember him for that.