I think it was Matt Groening who said that the prime virtue of television was that it allowed families who wanted to kill one another to sit together peacefully for hours on end.
That’s exactly what the various iterations of Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” did for my beleaguered family unit back in the early 1950s — my mother wasting away from a series of degenerative ailments for which she refused to seek medical attention, my father abraded on the millstone of a dead-end white-collar job, and my brother and I struggling through troubled early adolescence with a minimum of positive parental attention.
In other words, we were like many, perhaps most, of the real-time families of that Eisenhower era, silently miserable in an age of plenty for many — and hypocritical happiness for all.
And then would come Saturday night, when we’d all gather around the 16-inch blurry gray screen and immerse ourselves with the wit and, yes, wisdom of the funniest man in the English-speaking world. Ninety gut-busting minutes later, we were healed of the week’s troubles and traumas, maybe just for the rest of the weekend. But that was enough, at least, to keep you sane until the next Saturday night.
Now that Sid Caesar is gone at 91, I regret deeply that I never thanked him for making life livable back then. It’s not that I never had a chance. It was impossible to report on Los Angeles over the past 30 years or so without running into him at this or that press conference or media event. It wasn’t that he was in any way forbidding or difficult to approach. Quite the opposite.
It was just that his personality and even appearance was by then so different from what it had seemed to be on his show: the looming, bombastic, elastic-faced and multi-talented wizard so skilled at improvisation that he could pass off the wardrobe flub that had him coming into a corporate boardroom sketch clad in Roman costume with a quick zinger, “You know how it is when someone gives you something — you ought to wear it at least once.”
The Sid Caesar I met much later was a slender, soft-spoken man of middling height, whom I found hard to relate to the human explosion of 30 years before. But by then we fans were only beginning to appreciate the toll — the major addictions, severe emotional problems — caused by his decade of primal success and its spasmodic aftermath. His hard-earned, almost zen-like self-possession and the gentle, somewhat conspiratorial smile seemed to disinvite any direct reference to the years when he ruled the airways — even an appreciative one.
So I never had the courage to thank him for keeping my dysfunctional family somewhat functional. Nor for the memories of some of his mighty schticks, like the Western saloon scene in which he, playing a gunman with a murderous reputation, slams his fist on the bar and demands "a lemon-lime lollipop." Or Howie Morris’s haunted-castle scream, suddenly transforming itself into a cry of orgasmic joy. We still marvel: how did he ever get away with this stuff?
And how wonderful it was that he did.