Remembering Carl Reiner
Carl Reiner was one of the funniest men in show business for almost 70 years, which hardly seems possible. Even less likely, given what we’ve learned about so many comedians recently, he was also one of the nicest and most generous. Since his passing a few days ago, there’s been a universal outpouring of love, admiration, and fond remembrance.
Reiner’s initial success came on Your Show of Shows, a legendary sketch comedy TV show from the early 50s starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. His official position was as an actor, usually a straight man, but he became friendly with many of the writers and suggested numerous ideas that became sketches. One of these writers, a fellow named Mel Brooks, became a lifelong friend and collaborator.
Your Show of Shows was followed by the quite similar Caesar’s Hour, on which Reiner was a writer as well as actor. These two shows inspired the film My Favorite Year, with Joseph Bologna as a version of the powerful, somewhat larger-than-life Sid Caesar. 1. Reiner also created a fictional version: the original Dick van Dyke Show.
The original conception for the show was for Reiner to play a TV comedy writer, but none of the networks went for that. Instead, the writer became Dick van Dyke, in all of his mid-western, everyman niceness, surrounded by higher-energy, east coast (OK, Jewish) comedians like Morey Amsterdam 2, Rose Marie, and Jerry Paris. Reiner stayed mostly behind the scenes: writing, producing, and occasionally playing the TV star and monster of ego, Alan Brady. For instance, here, where Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie is apologizing for outing him as bald:
Note that, besides being funny, this is perfectly written and acted; neither says or does anything out of character. Alan is being mean and bullying her, but is still on, playing to an unseen audience, because his wit and sharp tongue are what made him rich and powerful.
At about the same time, Reiner and Brooks were honing their 2000 Year Old Man routine, which they had been doing at parties for years, and starting to perform it publicly. The mechanics are simplicity itself: Reiner, as the interviewer, asks the ancient 3 Brooks question about his life, and Brooks answers with complete nonsense. Here’s a taste of it:
Brooks gets all the laughs, but notice how Reiner guides the conversation: Let’s try this. Good, but I think the are more laughs here. More? No, let’s move on. It’s hard to picture it being this funny with a different straight man. This routine, by the way, is what made Brooks famous outside the writer’s room, and led to films like The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Silent Movie.
While Reiner never gave up performing (just last year he had a voice part in Toy Story 4 as Carl Reineroceros, sharing a scene with Melepahnt Brooks), the next phase of his career concentrated on directing feature films. He began with the autobiographical Enter Laughing, based on his own novel and stage play, and later directed Steve Martin’s early films (The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains) as well as comedies like Where’s Poppa, All of Me, and Oh, God!.
More recently, Reiner had a very popular Twitter feed, in which he reflected on his life and career, expressed pride in his friends and family, and genially lamented that “bankrupted and corrupt businessman who had no qualifications to be the leader of any country in the civilized world”. I looked forward to reading it, and I’ll miss him.