If you’ve laughed at something on TV lately, you can thank Sid Caesar. He was present for the birth of TV as a mass medium and as a mass comedy-delivery device. Any family tree of modern comedy branches back to him through the writers and performers he worked with–Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart–and the sketch-comedy format that the chameleonic Caesar defined.
His most famous vehicle, Your Show of Shows, which ran from 1950 to 1954, established the possibilities of the then new medium as a nimble platform for spoof and satire. Dynamic, motormouthed and versatile, Caesar (co-starring with Imogene Coca) delivered monologues, created zany characters and spoofed celebrities. The show (and his follow-up Caesar’s Hour) produced parodies that proved TV’s funniest subject could be itself. His work lives on in the muscle memory of TV comedy, from sitcoms to Comedy Central to late-night talk and variety shows. Sid Caesar was TV’s man of a thousand voices. Listen close enough, and you can still hear each of them today.
This appears in the March 03, 2014 issue of TIME.