Sid Caesar: Master of Comedy, Master of Language Sounds

When you hear a foreign language, you might be able to quickly pinpoint the group of languages it belongs to, such as the Scandinavian, the Latin, or the Baltic group. But could you reproduce the melody and nuances of that language after listening to it for only 10-15 minutes? Legendary comedian Sid Caesar (1922-2014) could. As he explains and exemplifies in this clip, he would think in English and add the melody of French –or whichever other language he was emulating—to the original thought.

A highly-regarded comedian in the 1950’s, Caesar distinguished himself from the slapstick comedians by offering a more sophisticated style of comedy that relied on body language, accents, and facial contortions rather than dialogue alone. Writers like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen aspired to create material for him to perform. Mel Brooks wrote his famed German general routine for Caesar, in which you can identify some English words like “spick-and-span” but with a German pronunciation, as well as the word S***, which seems to effortlessly blend into the gibberish German dialogue. While his German tone and melody are always spot-on, the actual sentences don’t make linguistic sense. But no matter—in this case, the story comes across in the comedy, and translations or subtitles are neither needed – nor are they possible for the nonsensical phrasing.

Sid Caesar believed that every language has a song. And it’s no coincidence that those with a musical ear also have a talent for learning languages. For me, there is music in the sound of Portuguese and Italian. Dutch, German, and Arabic are spoken more from the throat, giving them a deeper tonality. And French, which has many nuances for its vowels, is known to have a somewhat nasal sound. Even the same language spoken by different ethnicities can produce very different and beautiful melodies.

Sid Caesar was best known for the “Your Show of Shows” episodes. Audiences and critics feel that the “This Is Your Story” sketch is the funniest show ever did. An article in The New Yorker (Sid Caesar’s Finest Sketch, The New Yorker, February 2014) recalled this episode, bringing back to mind “That night nearly sixty years ago, the show produced what is probably the longest and loudest burst of laughter—genuine laughter, neither piped in nor prompted—in the history of television.”

Like many others, Sid Caesar created laughter through pain. Caesar himself struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. During one of his darkest periods, he learned to his great surprise that he had just made a feature movie in Australia!  Though Caesar passed away in 2014, his memory lives on through his comedy.  Need a lift on a Monday? Treat yourself to some laughter therapy with the “This Is Your Story” episode in memory of Sid Caesar.

Uta Nelson is the Founder of Tell Language Solutions, where she and her team of expert-level translators, voice talents, subtitling professionals and layout specialists deliver precise translations in over 100 languages. And that’s music to her clients’ ears.