Editor’s Note: The comic legend Carl Reiner, who died on June 29 at his home in Beverly Hills at the age of 98, spoke to The New York Jewish Week’s Sandee Brawarsky in 2003. We reprint the article here as a tribute to Reiner, who wrote for Sid Caesar’s pioneering “Your Show of Shows,” created “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” and acted and produced in a career that spanned more than a half-century.
When Carl Reiner answers the door to his Manhattan apartment and leads me to his living room, I can’t help but hum the theme song to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” half expecting that we’ll find a sunken living room. Here, there are no steps to slip on and Mary Tyler Moore is nowhere in sight. But within seconds, he makes me laugh, as he has been doing for Americans for more than 50 years.
The 81-year-old has been eliciting laughs for most of his life. As a second-grader in the Bronx, he had his class giggling and applauding when he put both feet behind his head and walked around the room on his hands. He learned to mimic accents and expressions early on, and would also repeat stories and routines he’d hear on the radio, in the style of the performer, for his friends and family. He loved the approbation of laughter and still does.
Reiner is tall, energetic, and engaging, punctuating many sentences with facial exaggerations and hand movements; jokes flow naturally. In conversation, he shifts into the role of a British butler, an aging Eastern European Jew, an African-American musician, as he talks about his life, his humor, and his new memoir, “My Anecdotal Life” (St. Martin’s).
In the book, Reiner presents his own “literary variety show,” retelling stories about his years acting in and writing for Sid Caesar’s pioneering “Your Show of Shows,” playing straight man to Mel Brooks in their comic recording “The 2000 Year Old Man,” and creating and co-starring in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — which ran from 1961 to 1966 and still appears in reruns — based on his own life.
In short chapters with descriptive titles — “My Son the Hall of Famer” describes his showing up a day early to be honored at his alma mater, Evander Childs High School in the Bronx — he describes his experiences writing and directing “Something Different,” which began as busywork for his bored secretary and played on Broadway, and filming “Where’s Poppa?,” with its streaking scene, in Central Park. Often, he’s self-effacing, offering accounts of embarrassing moments, like the time, as an 18-year-old playing Shakespeare, he mimicked a theater director with a stroke, not realizing that the man didn’t really mean him to follow his example so exactly.
The winner of 12 Emmy awards and one Grammy along with the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain Prize for Humor, he got his theatrical start at a Berkshires adult summer camp called Allaben Acres. During the summer of 1942, he was a resident performer before joining the U.S. armed forces, where he worked “securing our nation’s freedom by touring the Pacific in an army musical entitled ‘Shape Ahoy.’”
Asked to define humor, he immediately responds, “Anything that makes you laugh.” Then he continues, “It’s the stating of the absolute truth that everybody’s thinking, but putting it [in] such a way that allows you to vent, to laugh. Humor is a curvature of the truth; it’s an angle on the truth that’s not readily apparent to everybody but to those born with prisms in their head to see that side, the bright side, the silly side, the absolute truth side that people don’t want to see.”
The funniest comic ever? He says there are too many to name, and then adds, “In my life it’s Mel Brooks.”
Looking out over Manhattan, he talks about growing up in the Bronx during the Depression years, and names the Murrays, Irvings, and Morrises who were his pals. He describes his bar mitzvah as a bootleg affair where he learned everything by rote, held on a Thursday morning. After that, he’d be pulled into a shul in a ground-floor apartment across the street from his home to make a minyan, and he recalls doing the kind of double talk he’d become known for in television, mixing words and accents so that it sounded like he was speaking another language fluently.
All of his friends were Zionists who belonged to a Revisionist club where they wore uniforms, and he attended too. “I wasn’t interested in politics,” he admits. “I was more interested in making laughs.” When he was about 15, he left the group to start taking drama classes downtown.
The book is dedicated to his mother Bessie. She was the one who’d hit him with a yardstick while growing up — “Not in the head, Bessie,” his father would inject — but loved him well. In later years, she’d watch “Your Show of Shows” and always thought they should have featured him more, even when he appeared in almost every act.
He frequently makes references in conversation to his wife of 59 years, Estelle, whom he met at Allaben Acres, and he introduces her warmly when she joins us in the living room. They live mostly in Beverly Hills, but come to New York throughout the year. Most of the paintings in their apartment are her work, and it’s an impressive collection. Also impressive is the fact that she began performing as a jazz singer at age 65, and has recorded five CDs. She used to sing in Manhattan at Michael’s Pub and now performs monthly in Los Angeles. He remembers hearing her sing at a Saturday evening jam session at Allaben Acres and the band leader stopped playing to say “that lady should record” — and 50 years later she did. Proud husband that he is, he played a selection from her CD “Ukelele Mama” as part of his talk the previous week at the 92nd Street Y.
The book jacket, on its front cover, features Reiner circa 1960, seated before a manual typewriter, with empty coffee cups, crumpled pages, and cigarette butts around him. On the back cover, he’s in the same pose some 40 years later, still looking over his right shoulder, working on “My Anecdotal Life” at a computer, with an empty bottle of water in the trash.
He explains that he now uses the shoulder twist as a writing technique. When he can’t think of a word, he turns his head sharply to the left. In his Beverly Hills home, that twist turns him so that he’s looking out of a window, directly at a tree. “If you turn your head way to the left, it opens a passage. There’s a flow of information from one side of the brain,” he says, demonstrating. “I’ve never told this before, I’m laughing.” To an unseen audience, he continues, “If you’re sitting in a room with a window in the other direction, try it in the other direction. If the room is windowless, try looking at a picture of trees. Short of that, keep a big fat thesaurus next to you.”
Reiner’s a busy man. In the fall, he has a children’s book coming out, “Tell Me a Scary Story But Not Too Scary” — a line he would hear from a grandson, the son of his son Rob. “Everything can be used,” he quips. He’s also working on a novella “nnnnn,” about a writer struggling to finish his book. It’s a book within a book that begins in the Garden of Eden. It may, in part, deal with the writing of the Bible, exploring Reiner’s own sense that “if there is a God, God is inside of everyone,” that when writers get ideas and don’t quite know where they come from, they come from the God within.
He’s also involved in an animated show for TV Land that airs in July, titled “The Alan Brady Show” (the fictional television show on “The Dick Van Dyke Show”), where he’ll be the voice of Brady. And he’s working on a film about dogs who talk where he’s the voice of one, and a series called “Pride of the Family” about lions, where he’ll be the voice of the head of the family.
In “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Reiner made cameo appearances as Brady, the creator of the show whose writers are Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam), and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., as Reiner did in those years. Their son Richie (Larry Matthews) would now be 47.
Recently, Reiner was at an awards ceremony with several of the actors — Amsterdam passed away — and asked if they’d take part in a remake of the show, and they agreed. He wrote it, and this fall, CBS is presenting a show updating all of their lives. “It flew out of me,” he says of the script, noting that he knows these people so well. “They are me and I’m them.”
Sandee Brawarsky is culture editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.