In a day before comedy was laced with irony and studded with mean-spirited barbs, Sid Caesar was more than funny.
He was hilariously, outrageously, tear-inducingly, gather-up-the-whole-family-for-this funny.
A veteran of the Catskills with an elastic face, a knack for gibberish and a mind that could find comedy gold in the workings of a Bavarian cuckoo clock, Caesar was the king of live television sketch comedy in the 1950s.
Some of the best writers — Carl Reiner, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks — vied to work for him. No slouches at comedy themselves, they were dazzled by his genius and, at times, horrified by his temper; he once tore the sink from a hotel bathroom and threatened to throw Brooks out an 18th-story window.
Caesar went public with some of his emotional problems in 1956, long before it was common for celebrities to do so. He is best known, though, not for his tormented inner life but for the inspired zaniness of the sketches on his trademark programs, "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour."
A two-time Emmy Award-winning performer, Caesar died Wednesday at his home in Beverly Hills after a brief illness, according to his biographer Eddy Friedfeld. He was 91.
"He was without a doubt the greatest monologuist, pantomimist and sketch artist that ever worked on TV," Reiner told The Times on Wednesday. "He set the template for all the other comedians that came after him, but none could do what Sid did."
Larry Gelbart, who wrote for "Caesar's Hour" and some of Caesar's TV specials, once described him as "the single most gifted man ever to grace the small screen, except when Sid was on it, it grew somewhat in size."
With his flair for verbal and physical comedy honed while performing during his World War II service in the Coast Guard and in nightclubs and theaters after the war, Caesar burst on the national scene in 1949 as the star of the "Admiral Broadway Revue," a live, hourlong show from New York that aired Friday nights simultaneously on NBC and the DuMont network.
The Max Liebman-produced show, which was built around Caesar and teamed him with comedic actress Imogene Coca, featured guest stars, comedy sketches and large production numbers.
The "Admiral Broadway Revue" was a hit — so much so that it was canceled after less than five months when the Admiral Corp. withdrew its sole sponsorship: It reportedly needed to use the money it had been putting into the program to build a factory to keep up with the skyrocketing number of orders for its TV sets generated by the show.
But the "Admiral Broadway Revue" was only a warmup for what Caesar later called the main event: "Your Show of Shows."
The live, 90-minute Saturday night show, produced by Liebman and showcasing the comic ensemble of Caesar, Coca, Reiner and Howard Morris, aired from 1950 to 1954 and won two Emmys for best variety show.
Caesar later compared performing the 90-minute show live before a theater audience, without the aid of cue cards or TelePrompTers, to doing a new Broadway show each week. And they did it 39 weeks each season.
Out of that pressure cooker came innumerable classic comedy moments.
There were domestic sketches, including one in which Caesar and Coca are a married couple trying to decide how to tip at a fancy restaurant. In another, Caesar is a husband who is so anxious about a big meeting the next morning that he can't fall asleep. But instead of taking sleeping pills, he mistakenly takes pep pills.
In one of the show's most memorable sketches, Caesar, Coca, Reiner and Morris wordlessly played the figures on a large town clock that appear with mechanical precision on the hour, until the clock goes on the fritz.
There also were parodies of movies such as "Sunset Boulevard" and "From Here to Eternity," as well as foreign films that displayed Caesar's signature foreign language double talk.
Brooks, who wrote for "Your Show of Shows" and "Caesar's Hour," once said that Caesar "always took comedy to a stratospheric level. You'd come in and say, 'This is the best, the best, the best,' and he'd just come around and turn it into something better."
Caesar later said the key to the show's success "unquestionably was the writing."