Sid Caesar, who died on February 12th, 2014, was a genius.
His gifts for physical comedy, coupled with an incredibly expressive face (made for TV close-ups) and a love of parody and improvisation, took full advantage of the new possibilities provided by live television.
His 1954 parody of "This Is Your Life" is a great example of how Sid Caesar used the new medium to create paradigm-busting comedy. Pay particular attention to the way the sketch starts. An everyman is plucked from that newly possible bit-player - the live TV audience. Then a masterful use of multiple cameras ensues. Most of the comedy is broad and physical, but at key moments there is a close-up.
Sid Caesar's live TV performances in the 1950s offered a national audience an immediacy and edge that Caesar understood and exploited in unprecedented ways. His best work transcended mere entertainment. Even in poor quality kinescopes, a new paradigm for expressing ideas visually snaps into focus. In sketches like his "This Is Your Life" parody, the quick-cutting TV cameras captured and conveyed the energy of a new era.
To my knowledge, we don't have this century's Sid Caesar online. Yet.
Because the internet is global and we are still in the process of connecting the world's biggest population centers, it wouldn't surprise me if he or she came from a market where the internet is not yet pervasive (China?).
This is perhaps a digression, but one of the features of comedy on China's current intranet is wordplay - often inspired by censorship. For example, see the video below explaining how homophones are used to disguise censored language and ideas in China.
In Mandarin, "grass mud horse" is a sound-alike for a common obscene phrase that the Chinese government has tried to suppress online. Building upon a centuries-old tradition of Chinese word-play, in 2008 the "grass mud horse" became a meme that inspired Chinese netizens to express disapproval of censorship.
Just as Sid Caesar built his career on parodies of pop culture, Chinese artist, blogger and activist Ai Weiwei, posted his own video online entitled "Grass Mud Horse Style."
In 2011, the editors of ArtReview magazine named Ai Weiwei the most powerful artist in the world.
Maybe the internet's pioneering genius won't be an American or a Chinese performer. But it wouldn't surprise me if unique gifts suited to the new tools and a love of parody were parts of the next great artist's creative DNA.
The mobile internet - with touch screens, user-generated content and circulation via social networks - provides new tools for subversive comedy. And parody (assuming revisions to copyright law don't squeeze the life out of that technique) is great at capturing the zeitgeist and reflecting it back in ways that could point the way into the culture of a new century.
It remains to be seen who will be the Sid Caesar of this new age.
Perhaps an online parodist will emerge - with performing and social skills uniquely suited to the new online world.
Until a new (global?) brand of online comedy arrives, we still have the work of prior pioneers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Sid Caesar. And we can celebrate our own current great parodists, including Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and art world provocateur Ai Weiwei.
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