When I heard the sad news that Sid Caesar passed away this week at 91 years old, I was very moved. He’s one of the last of his generation of comedians from what has been referred to as The Golden Age of Television. I think I first got to meet him when I wrote for his Friars Roast in 1983. Every big star was there, and I was writing for the Roasts at the time and at that Roast I wrote for five different performers including Dick Shawn, Jan Murray, and Joey Travolta, John Travolta’s older brother, and the son-in-law of Dick Shawn, one of my very favorite comedians, and a friend.
Sid was the star of NBC’s “Your Show of Shows” from 1950-1954, and “Caesar’s Hour” from 1954-57, and created sketches with his co-star comedienne Imogene Coca that are funny to this very day. Sid was a genius in what you might call “dialect comedy.” He could make believe he was speaking almost any language, from German, French, Italian, Russian, or Japanese, and with the help of writers like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Woody Allen created many memorable characters.
He was also known for being incredibly strong physically, and supposedly once pulled a sink out of a wall in anger, and held Mel Brooks out of a window by his feet! After we met, we stayed in touch for a while and I remmber going to see him in a theatre in NYC, and when I went backstage after the show to say “Hi” it looked like an underground bunker or construction site.
So many of the greats of that generation lived to ripe old ages. Milton Berle lived to be 93 or 94. He was my original sponsor in The Friars Club and brought me into the LA club first where he was the President. I was out there in 1985, which was where we took the photo below.
And in all the years I knew Milton I was always in awe of him. I’d be on the phone with him and all I’d be thinking was, ” Holy s**t, I’m on the phone with Milton Berle!”. Mr. Television. The reason he was called “Mr. Television” was because people in this country bought TV’s just to watch him on Texaco Star Theatre.
He was the host on the show that ran from 1948 until 1956, eventually called “The MIlton Berle Show”, and people would crowd around in the streets watching his show through the windows of the television stores. TV had only been around since 1941, and thanks to Milton TV ownership went from about 500,000 TV’s to over 30 million.
Milton was like a mentor to me, and we’d have lunch at The Friars Club in NY, just the two of us, and he’d tell me wonderful show biz stories and about things like “spitballing” where two comics run ideas back and forth to create new material. He took me to his home in Beverly Hills, and showed me his archives of kinescopes and jokes, and even showed me the thing he was most famous for in terms of his physical endowment! (LOL) Not that I asked to see it, but I think he was so proud of it, that he showed it to people he trusted!
I recall one instance where I felt he really came to my rescue. It was 1985, and I was in a very down place emotionally. It was a freezing cold winter day, and I got to the door of my 2nd floor studio apartment, just in time to hear the phone ringing. I remember fumbling with my keys, hoping to get the call before they hung up. I raced to the phone and picked it up just in time and who was it, … Milton Berle. He had called to see how I was doing. To this day I still can’t believe that. If I had been one minute later, I might have missed it because who knows if Milton Berle would have left a message on my answering machine.
He wound up inviting me to a Friars Tribute in his honor. I think he was named “Man of the Year”, and that’s where he introduced me to Sammy Davis Jr., who actually kidded me about the amount of jewelry I was wearing. He who wore more gold than an Aztec god! (LOL)
Some years later, I also attended a special event in Milton’s honor in Montreal hosted by the legendary Budd Friedman, owner and founder of The Improv, the very first comedy club in the world. Budd sat at the head of the table, Milton sat next to him, and I sat next to Budd directly across from Milton. When Budd inserted his monacle into his eye, I took a plastic spoon out of my pocket, ( I’ve been carrying at least one spoon since the early 80’s and no one knows why! LOL) and inserted that into my eye to “look at the menu.”
It was a character I created back in the 70’s which I called “Spoon-eye”, and which was copied many years later by Conan O’Brien, and written about in Cindy Adam’s column in the NY Post. I provided photos of myself “with spoon” from back in the 70’s, and Cindy wrote, ” I don’t know why anyone would want to take credit for something like this, but Jeffrey Gurian definitely did it first!
Anyway, Budd looked at me like “What the F**K are you doing?” And I simply said, ” It’s very big out on the coast”, not thinking that HE lived out on “the coast.” He looked at me and said, ” I live out there and I have NEVER seen anyone do that.” In the meantine, Milton was looking at me in disbelief, and I decided to take out the spoon and just change the subject. I don’t think it ever came up again!
On May 14, 1998, when Frank Sinatra passed away, I happened to be out in LA. I remember very clearly calling Milton from a pay phone. I guess my StarTAC clamshell cell phone was on “Roam”! He took the call and told me that he wasn’t taking calls from anyone else because the press was calling him non-stop for quotes on Frank Sinatra’s passing, but he said when he heard it was me he took the call. Another amazing moment for me.
He brought me to his home in Beverly Hills, and showed me his kinescopes and the 6 million jokes he had compiled over the years that he kept in a separate little house. He also showed me the body part he was known for, … without me asking, … which is a whole other story for another time! (LOL)
I remember the first time he let me write for him. It was for an event honoring Buddy Hackett. I was supposed to go to Atlantic City to meet with Milton where he was performing, and I was bringing my wife at the time, as Milton’s guests, and a couple of days before we were scheduled to come, he called me at home and asked me to give him an example of the jokes I was writing about Buddy. If they were funny I could come, if not, I guess he would withdraw the offer. Now I was in the position of having to impress Milton Berle with my jokes, the man who heard every joke ever told.
I recall saying to him, ” Clean or dirty?” He said, ” One of each.” My clean joke was, ” Buddy’s not a good looking man. It took him a long time to get used to the fact that girls are supposed to close their eyes when they KISS you, not when they’re introduced!” My “dirty” one was, ” A lot of people like to think of Buddy Hackett as a little man with a rubber face. I prefer to think of him as a little rubber, with a man’s face!” Milton laughed, and told me to pack my bags cause he was expecting us in AC! AMAZING!!!
Through Milton I also got to meet George Burns who was performing at one of the grand hotels in The Catskills. In those days all the big TV stars still performed at the hotels, like The Concord, Grossingers, Kutschers, and The Nevele. George lived to be 100 years old.
I got to know Red Buttons very well, who lived to be 87, as well as Norm Crosby, “The Master of Malaprop” who fortunately is still with us, and is in his mid-80’s, as is Jerry Lewis who’s 87 and who I had the honor of writing for and working alone with, when he was Roasted by The Friars, back in 1986.
And then there was Henny Youngman who lived to be 91 and who I knew well from The Friars Club and from Milton. He and Milton once headlined together at Westbury Music Fair and when Milton saw me, he gave ma a shout-out from the stage. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. He would always kid Youngman with lines like, ” Nice suit Youngman, who shines it for you?” And lines like that would crack me up, cause I love that kind of humor!
I got to work with Henny for his 89th birthday roast which was televised and which I wrote with Bill Persky, the genius who wrote and created “That Girl” for Marlo Thomas, Danny Thomas’s daughter, and was also known for “Kate and Allie” and for his writing on the Dick Van Dyke Show.
I consider myself Blessed that I got to meet so many of the legends I watched growing up, and I think it’s safe to say that no matter how talented the stars of today are, there’ll never be any others like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, and the others I mentioned. And the fact that they all had such longevity adds strength to the concept that laughing keeps you young! In any case, I certainly hope so! As a matter of fact, I’m counting on it! (LOL)