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Monday, March 04, 2013

Great Caesar

From the Vault Dept.: He played saxophone with Benny Goodman and has performed in a Metropolitan Opera production. And those are the least of his credits. Sid Caesar revolutionized television and sketch comedy in 1950 when “Your Show of Yours” debuted. He parlayed TV success into work in movies – “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “Grease” are among them, as well as a number of films by his onetime writer, Mel Brooks. Now 90, a much-diminished Caesar is in a California nursing home but, as Brooks recently noted, he still knows many of his old routines. Some of which he performed at Proctor’s Theatre in 1988, as my review below indicates.


LET'S LOOK FIRST OF ALL at what Sid Caesar doesn’t do: he doesn’t do smut. Last night’s show at Proctor’s Theatre was about as G-rated as they can come. He doesn’t do political material, he doesn’t take swipes at particular people or cities. That gives his act a timelessness.

Sid Caesar
When he tells jokes, he puts them in the context of a character or a bit. Because his humor is planted in the vaudeville tradition of showing an audience to itself. “I do comedy about the truth,” he declared at the outset of his act, but it’s more than that: it’s comedy of pain, which is about as universal a truth as you’ll find.

There’s no face in show business that shows pain so well and in such agonizing detail. The eyebrows take on a life of their own; the eyes bulge; that nervous tongue flickers like a nervous snake’s. And then the body begins to bend, to cringe, as the face tries to assure us that it’s okay, it’s under control. Thus Caesar can spend a precious several minutes just showing us the tribulations of a young man at a dance who can’t decide where to place his hands.

A first-time husband-to-be walking down the aisle is revealed in interior monologue as a mass of fears and preconceptions. A six-month-old baby lying in a crib becomes the deliberate demon we secretly suspect those kids to be when inconvenience overtakes pleasure (and Caesar makes his caricature voices completely convincing as he moved between the baby’s thoughts and vocal outbursts).

Sid Caesar knows many of these painful truths too well, as his 1982 autobiography made all too clear; I last saw him a decade ago walking through a Neil Simon play, when Sid was a shell of the funnyman we knew from “Your Show of Shows.” [It was during the run of this show that he blanked out on stage, convincing himself to quit drinking, which he did.]

Last night’s show was a hefty helping of the old Sid, trimmer but as agile as ever, illuminating a handful of well-crafted sketches with the special magic of a journeyman clown.

With the help of Lee Delano, who made the Carl Reiner role very much his own, Caesar impersonated his famous Professor, the authority on every subject, for a stream-of-consciousness flurry of gags (he’s shameless enough to suggest that the reason for the high divorce rate is marriage) that wound up with his astonishing double-talk routine, in this case translating a Harlequin Romance scene into German, Italian and Japanese.

Music director Elliot Finkel provided not only a backbone of smooth accompaniment but also took a solo turn in a Gershwin medley. With the backing of Buddy Greco’s quartet, he turned in some stride licks that were breathtaking.

Greco, like many of his singer-contemporaries, has been hiding a certain anarchy these past many years. Although he started off with such middle-of-the-road yawners as “It’s Impossible” and “Watch What Happens,” he soon revealed that his heart is in the standards – and so is his performance best.

“They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Taking a Chance on Love,” “As Time Goes By” and others in that vein showed off his talents as both singer and pianist, and he paid fitting tribute to Nat King Cole, an important influence, with “When I Fall in Love” and “L-O-V-E.”

The quartet, all suspiciously younger looking than their playing suggested, comprised Jeff Walters on keyboards, saxophonist Hans Teuber, Mike Meacheam on drums and bassist Kevin McConnell.

Both Greco and Caesar performed with a sincerity and ease that makes the large hall of Proctor’s seem as intimate as any club.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 12 March 1988

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