05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT
Z-Z-Z-Z-ZAP! In full view of the TV camera, a housefly crash-landed on a morsel of goat cheese. Swiveled its head. Rubbed its forelegs together. Rolled its 8,000-lensed eyes in ecstasy. Then gleefully jabbed its long thin proboscis into the tiny blob of nutriment and began to pig out.
No, we weren't watching PBS—didn't exist in the '50s. We were watching a 6'1", 200-lb. genius named Sid Caesar transform himself before our very eyes into a 1-cm, .0000143-kg insect. And no, we weren't shuddering at a metaphysical metamorphosis in the manner of Franz Kafka. We were laughing ourselves sick at one of the funniest sketches ever seen on or off a TV screen. We laughed just as hard when Sid transmogrified into a tired old punching bag, a gumball machine with criminal tendencies, a golden-brown Thanksgiving turkey under assault by ravenous humans, a mad space scientist, Professor Ludwig von. Votsisnehm, who when asked to describe the most urgent problem in space, shook his head sadly and declared, "CLOSET SHPACE!"
Crazy? Indeed. Brilliant? Beyond belief. With or without his raucously funny second bananas—inset, Howie Morris (left), the incomparable Imogene Coca and Carl Reiner—Sid Caesar was the most monstrously talented, violently original comic of the television era. He never quite achieved the mass appeal of Lucille Ball, Jackie Gleason or Milton Berle: Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour were ranked among the Top 10 in only two of their eight years (1950-58) on the air. But Caesar outstripped them all in creative power and historic impact.
Mime, zany, satirist, tragedian, he was a ragamuffin Molière who saw life wackily but saw it whole. He was also chief rabbi in a shul of comedy whose grads have dominated humor in all media over the last three decades. What writers he had! Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Mel Tolkin (All in the Family), Joe Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), Mike Stewart (Hello, Dolly!). And what disciples! Saturday Night Live was conceived as a come-lately clone of Caesar's shows, and Britain's screw-loose Monty Python gang renders unto Caesar the compliment of imitation. Albert Einstein was a Caesar addict. Alfred Hitchcock ranked him with Charlie Chaplin.
Like Chaplin, Caesar worked directly from life. He watched the world around him as a cat watches a meadow, and at the slightest quiver of absurdity he leaped and caught the living moment. What he observed he reduced to its comic essence with an imagination as wild and efficient as a Cuisinart. Then he expressed the essence with uncanny and hilarious precision. The man could turn into anybody, anything: a human brain, a whitewall tire, the entire German Air Force. But he never ridiculed what he became. When he made you laugh, he made you feel good about the thing you were laughing at—and about life.
About his own life, Caesar felt terrible. He was neglected by his immigrant parents and grew up brimming with rage. Appallingly strong, he ripped sinks out of walls and tore doors off taxicabs. One night in a fury he grabbed Mel Brooks with one hand and was prevented just in time from flinging him like a baseball out of an 18th-story window. Another time he knocked a horse out with one punch—a moment immortalized in Brooks's Blazing Saddles. But most of his anger was sublimated into self-destruction. He guzzled two bottles of Scotch a day and popped downers by the fistful. In the early '60s he did his last TV series, and for two decades, as he admits, stumbled around the nightclub and strawhat circuits in a semi-stupor. Then in 1978, at 56, he went cold turkey and began to rebuild his life and his career in movies (Crease II) and in the clubs. Is he still funny? Very. As funny as he was? Nobody may ever be that funny again.