I don't know when I started reading obituaries, but I do. My practice is not motivated by the macabre or some morbid fascination with death. In fact, obituaries are more often than not celebrations of interesting lives great and small. I find there's almost always something I learn from reading them. And after checking to see that the Knicks lost once again, reading the op-eds and the advertising column, obituaries are most often the next thing I read.
I've even read a few entire books of obituaries. One, a collection from "The Times" of London. Reading Churchill's obit was an entire education. Another, a collection from "The Economist," was similarly edifying. But the best of all were from a collection called "52 McGs," crazy, quirky, thought-provoking obituaries written by "New York Times'" writer Robert McG Thomas. You can order the book here. I promise you you will enjoy it.
I bring up all this death and dying because there was a seminal obituary in yesterday's "New York Times," that of the great comedian Sid Caesar. His was a life worth admiring and worth learning from. You can read it here.
Caesar rose to dizzying heights at an early age and was hailed as a comic genius, as the American Chaplin. He kept a live TV show going every week for the better part of ten years and along the way nurtured writers and performers like Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tonkin and more.
Week after week he made America laugh. And laugh at things I think are funnier than a kick in the balls which seems the root of so much humor today.
I discovered Caesar for myself in 1973, when I was 15. Ten of the best skits from his 1950s TV show were assembled into a full-length theatrical release called "Ten From Your Show of Shows." I saw it twice in the span of about three days, fairly unable to stay out of the theatre. I laughed so hard at his "Uncle Goopy" episode I still have muscle memory of splitting my sides.
Caesar had a long hard fall. His dizzy heights were met by self-hate and self-doubt and he all but disappeared into drugs and drinks. The coterie of people who loved him tried to help but his bent toward self-destruction was almost too strong.
He reinvented himself in the 1980s, kicked his addictions and seemed to flourish.
Here's the part from the end of Caesar's obituary that I read to my older daughter last night. I think it has relevance to all of us workaholic strivers. Even if you're a lazy slug-a-bed, it should give you pause.
“Everybody wants to have a goal: I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal, I gotta get to that goal,” he said. “Then you get to that goal, and then you gotta get to another goal. But in between goals is a thing called life that has to be lived and enjoyed — and if you don’t, you’re a fool.”