How Sid Caesar learned double-talk

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The obituaries for the great comic Sid Caesar invariably mention his proficiency in "double-talk," mimicking the sounds (but not the sense) of foreign languages. (On the phenomenon of double-talk, see Mark Liberman's posts on yaourter here, here, here, and here.) It turns out that this was a talent Caesar had cultivated ever since he was a boy clearing tables at his father's restaurant in multi-ethnic Yonkers.

The New York Times:

He could seem eloquent even when his words were total gibberish: Among his gifts was the ability to mimic the sounds and cadences of foreign languages he didn’t actually speak.

Reuters:

Some of Caesar's most popular bits were built around pompous or outlandish characters – such as Professor von Votsisnehm – in which he spoke in a thick accent or mimicked foreign languages in comic but convincing gibberish.

"He was the ultimate, he was the very best sketch artist and comedian that ever existed," [Carl] Reiner said of his friend. "His ability to double talk every language known to man was impeccable."

The Hollywood Reporter:

After his stint in Hollywood, Caesar returned to New York and landed a gig as the opening act for Joe E. Lewis at the legendary Copacabana nightclub. He performed in the Broadway revue Make Mine Manhattan, which featured "The Five Dollar Date," one of his signature pieces in which he sang, did sound effects and double-talked — using nonsensical utterances that sound like French, German, Japanese, Italian and other languages (in real life, he spoke English and Yiddish). [...] At the 2006 TV Land Awards, he was presented with the Pioneer Award and performed his famous double-talk for more than five minutes.

One of his virtuosic double-talk performances is captured on YouTube — in the space of five minutes he moves from fake French to fake German to fake Italian to fake Japanese:

So how did Caesar get to be so good at double-talk? He goes into great detail in his memoir, Caesar's Hours: My Life in Comedy, with Love and Laughter:

While I greatly admired Caesar's chops in double-talk, I always felt he was at his funniest when he said hardly anything at all.

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23 Comments »

  1. Roy Peter Clark said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    Ben, I had the opportunity to interview Sid Caesar in the late 1970s when he was doing the dinner theater circuit in Florida. I asked him about his facility to imitate languages and he told me essentially the same story as the one from his biography. There was one added detail I remember. He called his father's restaurant a "one-arm joint." I asked him what he meant, and he explained that most of the tables were like counter tops. The busy lunch-time eaters could stand and eat their lunch with one hand as they rested their other arm on the counter. A "one-arm joint."

  2. Tess said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 5:12 pm

    Most likely you've already seen this, but I really enjoyed this video of English speakers double-talking in English:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt4Dfa4fOEY

    [(bgz) Mark Liberman posted about it here back in 2011.]

  3. Stephen said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

    I was bored a week or 2 ago, so I typed "fake languages" into the YouTube search box. There are some talented amateurs out there. I was particularly impressed by this video, this video and this video. They chose some relatively obscure languages too.

  4. Harold said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

    Ruth Draper was another master (or mistress) of this art, for which, like Sid Ceasar, she displayed a remarkable talent from her earliest childhood. In her day she became quite celebrated; and she spent the money she earned performing on anti-fascist causes, becoming romantically involved with the Italian poet and anti-Fascist martyr, Lauro De Bosis (who was quite a bit her junior). Another improbable character.

    Draper's life and letters make wonderful reading, for anyone who is interested.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Draper
    I don't know if she is one of the people linked to above.
    Of course, I don't want to take away from Sid Ceasar's hilarious gifts, especially his inimitable body language. Though one has to note that the Italian he imitates is more Neapolitan than Florentine.

  5. Steve Tripp said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 9:02 pm

    The French, German and Italian sound quite believable to me, but the Japanese, perhaps because I understand Japanese, doesn't sound at all like Japanese. Is this true for other people? If you understand German does his German sound un-German?

  6. Victoria Simmons said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

    And let's not forget Lisa Gerrard, sometimes of Dead Can Dance, whose specialty is medieval-flavored portentous-sounding gibberish. I've always fancied she shared my opinion that sometimes the music is better when you don't understand the words.

  7. Crystal said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

    I've studied both German and Japanese and while the German sounds more or less believable (I could even pick out some real words), the Japanese didn't sound quite right to me either. I don't think it's as gutteral as he was making it and there was something off about the consonants. Or maybe he's just "speaking" a different dialect than the one I'm learning.

  8. Kristina said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 10:07 pm

    The Japanese doesn't sound convincing to me I think not only because of the languages it's the one I know, but also because you would expect a more limited set of phonemes at the end of the intonation phrases he's using: as a verb-final language with inflectional suffixes, I'd expect more -masu, -ta, or -ru there (admittedly, the inflection he's imitating would fit better with plain form than formal). While not every phrase need end with a verb or agreement particle, the near total lack of the sounds I expect may be what makes it sound worse than nonsense to me (or rather, I can't hear the "Japanese" without straining for it consciously). I wonder if this is a case of just a little knowledge spoiling the illusion. Do the French, German and Italian not sound as not like those languages to those who know them?

  9. Kelly Omahen said,

    February 13, 2014 @ 10:32 pm

    Steve Tripp, I agree with you. I studied Japanese a bit but I understand very little of it, and I didn't think his Japanese sounded very much like Japanese at all. On the other hand I do understand French, and found his fake French very convincing.

  10. Peter Buchanan said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 1:00 am

    I agree with the other commentators about his Japanese being the worst. I've studied a bit of all the languages he does (two years of Japanese, quite a bit of French and German for academic reading purposes, and a very small bit of Italian), and there are some pretty significant differences in the way he uses Japanese versus the other languages. The gibberish is not all the same. For instance, in French there is quite a bit of genuine gibberish, but there are also lots of actual words mixed in there, like regarde and tout le monde in addition to the list of proper names that are pronounced more distinctively for the sake of humor (the way he says Emile Zola just cracks me up). He does similar things with Italian and German. He seems to have a good sense of the natural rhythms of those languages because I imagine he heard them a lot growing up. I doubt that he heard much Japanese growing up in Yonkers, and it really sounds like he learned it from watching war movies. His accent is so foreign to my experience of Japanese speakers, it's almost as if someone were to learn English by listening to drill sergeants and military radio operators. He's also drawing from a pretty shallow pool when he uses car names to establish his legitimacy, in comparison with the fairly deep knowledge he shows of major figures in French culture.

  11. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 1:16 am

    Talking complete gibberish in imitation of a generically foreign language is fun and easy to do. It is simply a kind of musical improvisation, with the mouth as your instrument. I've been talking gibberish for years.

    Imitating a *specific* language as opposed to a generically foreign one is obviously more difficult. I had not previously heard of Sid Caesar, but I'm reminded of the fact that Richard Feynman reported having done much the same thing.

  12. Mark Stephenson said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:04 am

    Stanley Unwin was famous for his mangled (British) English: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Unwin_(comedian)

  13. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 11:30 am

    It seems clear that a very important feature of this is make sure to occasionally drop off an actual word in that language, though he does have the basics for down pretty well.

  14. Heather said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    In Adriano Celetano's "Prisencolinensinainciusol", an Italian professor leads his class in a song about "inability to communicate", made up of gibberish that sounds like English:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X_7iMHugXM
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisencolinensinainciusol

  15. Harold said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 3:27 pm

    The Italian is Italo-American dialect, such as Caesar would have heard in ethnic neighborhoods.

  16. hector said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 3:29 pm

    As someone who hasn't studied Japanese, but who has travelled in Japan, and watched a lot of Japanese movies, he clearly has a poor feel for the Japanese language. If he walked by me in a crowd, and I caught a snippet of his conversation, I might think he was actually speaking French, but I wouldn't for a second think he was speaking Japanese; rather, I'd think he was being a jerk crudely making fun of Japanese.

  17. Harold said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 3:30 pm

    Ruth Draper also said that hers was a mysterious gift that manifested itself in childhood.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

    I remember thinking it very funny that one of the names in one of Sid Ceasar's takeoffs on samurai movies was Takametsiya (Yiddish for "such a bargain"). At the time I didn't know that the sequence tsi does not occur in Japanese.
    That said, Ceasar's pseudo-Japanese was not based on ordinary conversational speech but precisely the grunting kind of speech heard in samurai movies.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Japanese-speakers were presumably thin on the ground in the Yonkers of his boyhood, so as suggested above he may have been imitating versions which were already highly imperfect or second-hand. He seems to have anticipated Victor Mair in knowing about the wide range of mutually unintelligible Sinitic languages/topolects, so it might be easier for him to sound like he's coherently imitating some Sinitic variety that just happens not to be the one you're personally most familiar with.

  20. Harold said,

    February 14, 2014 @ 9:03 pm

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127085550.htm
    [This is actually an old study. It says that the ability to mimic tones is associated with superior empathy. Like Sid Caesar, Ruth Draper was famous for her gibberish imitation "foreign" languages. But she could also had an uncanny ability imitate real regional accents and also to communicate the feelings behind them in a way that astounded generations of admiring actors and actresses. Proust was also said to be a celebrated mimic, so much so that people doubted he could ever write anything serious.]
    A new study in the journal PLoS ONE finds that people use the same brain regions to produce and understand intonation in speech.
    Many studies suggest that people learn by imitating through so-called mirror neurons. This study shows for the first time that prosody — the music of speech — also works on a mirror-like system.
    And it turns out that the higher a person scores on standard tests of empathy, the more activity they have in their prosody-producing areas of the brain.
    So increased empathic ability is linked to the ability to perceive prosody as well as activity in these motor regions, said authors Lisa Aziz-Zadeh and Tong Sheng of USC, and Anahita Gheytanchi of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

  21. Darkwhite said,

    February 15, 2014 @ 1:25 am

    If anybody's keeping the score:
    French, German and Italian all sound fine to me. I speak German nearly fluently. It does sound like he's trying to imitate Hitler, though. I'm currently learning Japanese, and his Japanese doesn't sound right to me.

  22. Colin Fine said,

    February 17, 2014 @ 8:28 am

    Richard Feynman (admittedly by his own account) was another who had this skill.

  23. Mark Dunan said,

    February 19, 2014 @ 3:28 am

    One more vote (from a fluent Japanese speaker) that the Japanese just doesn't sound that good.

    With the other languages, he inserts a familiar name (Napoleon, Charlemagne, Zola) at just the right intervals so that we somehow feel anchored even though the rest of the talk is complete gibberish. With the Japanese, words like Datsun (not even a Japanese word, in fact) and Nissan stand out way too much.

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