Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Sensitive Comedian

Sid Caesar, an emotionally charged performer, was one of the alltime great character comedians. Caesar said that he modeled himself after Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy. "Most of their comedy came from their character," he wrote. "They each believed in what they did, and I believed them. . . They blended comedy and drama in such a way that you laughed, but you also felt something passionate in your heart." Caesar learned to combine comedy and drama mostly from Chaplin. He learned preparation from Keaton, timing from Fields, and sympathy from Laurel & Hardy.

Caesar's performances reveal an immediacy of emotion. Caesar, unable to contain his sentiments, often bursts into tears or erupts in a rage. Nachman wrote about Caesar's "flickering shadings of joy, sadness, scorn, anger, hatred or hurt." He noted of Caesar, "He could. . . shift moods in a flash." As the lead singer of the rock group The Haircuts, Caesar breaks down crying while singing a sad love song. Caesar reacts with unabashed glee upon learning that his wife has hired a beautiful maid. His emotional responses had a genuineness and a vigor. Dragged to a health food restaurant by his wife, Caesar finds himself eating a flower as an appetizer. The taste of the flower does not sit well on his palate. Other comedians have had to eat something distasteful. Chaplin had to eat an old boot to avoid starvation in The Gold Rush. Laurel and Hardy ate strings and soap while stranded out at sea with a gangster in Saps at Sea. A standard comic situation has a comedian tasting a girlfriend's bad cooking. Comedians typically seem forlorn and nauseous in their reaction to eating something foul-tasting. But not Caesar. Caesar, riled to anger, violently spits out the repulsive flower. He sounds like a growling lion as he demands a steak.

Caesar was as boisterous as television rival Jackie Gleason. Caesar played a newlywed businessman, Charlie Hickenlooper, in a regular domestic comedy sketch called "The Commuters." Hickenlooper was a sullen and frustrated man prone to bellowing disapproval in his unending feud with wife Doris. Gerald Nachman described "The Commuters" as "a sort of suburban 'Honeymooners.'" Despite the fact that he had a better job and made more money than Gleason's Ralph Kramden, Hickenlooper seemed to feel as downtrodden and angry as Kramden did.

Caesar and Gleason, who were related geographically, culturally and generationally, were bound to have had similar tastes and habits. Caesar, born in 1922, was the son of Jewish immigrants raised in Yonkers, New York. Gleason, born in 1916, was the son of Irish immigrants raised in Brooklyn, New York. Caesar and Gleason lived less than 20 miles apart as boys. They both played in loud and busy urban neighborhoods, where they learned about pain and struggle. They both enjoyed going to the movies to see silent comedians, who taught them how to be expressive while being funny.

Caesar was less focused on emotional expression for his movie parodies, which were often as absurd and surreal as a Monty Python sketch. A good example would be the "English Courtroom" sketch. Caesar, as an English barrister, changes his wigs repeatedly during the course of a trial. The wigs are increasingly ridiculous. The final wig, in fact called the "closing wig," is a long and curly blonde wig that makes Caesar look like Goldilocks. The sketch concludes with an eccentric old gardener, a witness in the case, revealing that the woman on trial for murder is in fact his daughter. The prosecuting attorney comes to realize that the gardner is his long-lost father, which means the woman he has been trying to get into the electric chair is his own kid sister. One of the writers of this sketch was Larry Gelbart, who later used the same ending as a way to conclude the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

The sketch "Dancing Towers," which took up an entire episode of Caesar's Hour, manages to create a strong character within the context of a movie parody. The sketch was a spoof of dance team movies, such as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and Top Hat. Caesar plays Tony Towers, a restlessly ambitious dancer determined to create "something new." Tony discovers a new dance step when he trips walking across the room. He calls the new step the "Towers Trot." The dance becomes a national sensation, but Towers falls prey to addiction. It is not an addiction to alcohol or drugs but an addiction to food. In every scene, Towers appears significantly fatter. His dance partner, Nola, finds herself unable to get close to him - every time she tries to hug him, she ends up crushing a sandwich he has stored in his coat pocket. Towers' heftiness makes him look comical to the audience at his big Broadway debut. Laughed off the stage, he is promptly fired from the show. He ends up as a humble taxi dancer.

"Dancing Towers," despite its many absurdities, is honest and insightful in the way it exposes the vulnerable ego and desperate ambition that drives Tony Towers. The sketch, which effectively blends comedy and drama, shows Caesar at his best. People as diverse as Mel Brooks and Alfred Hitchcock compared Caesar to Chaplin. It is comparison made valid in this poignant movie parody.

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