Saturday, July 4, 2020

In Memoriam: Carl Reiner 1922-2020



Unlike so many comedy icons who rose to prominence in the mid-20th century, particularly those born to Jewish immigrants and raised somewhere in New York City, Carl Reiner never played the Catskills. In fact, he was never really a stand-up comedian at all except when maybe after he already had become famous he was asked to emcee various show biz functions. The facts are murky, but Reiner seems to have started out as a straight actor. Somewhere along the way a now-forgotten Broadway casting director thought he might make a good straight actor in comedies--that is, a straight man, the guy who feeds the lines to some clownish character who then turns the whole thing into a joke. The more successful of these comedies were "revues", collections of skits and musical numbers, including Call Me Mister, which dealt with returning World War II vets (Reiner himself happened to be one in real life.) Television came along about this time, and the revue format made the transition to the new medium, where it soon became known as the "variety show". Texaco Star Theater, starring Milton Berle, was one early example. Another was Your Show of Shows.

Your Show of Shows had evolved out of the Admiral Broadway Revue (and later evolved into Caesar's Hour.) Ninety minutes long, it featured elaborate musical numbers, and, what it soon became best known for, comedy sketches. These sketches were enacted by host Sid Caesar, and costars Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner. Caesar, Coca, and Morris were three classic rubber-faced comedians who could changes their voices, talk with exaggerated foreign accents, and basically disappear into extreme comic characterizations. Mildly handsome back in the day, Reiner was anything but rubber-faced. Nevertheless, given half the chance, he could change his voice, exaggerate a foreign accent, and disappear into an extreme comic characterization with the best of them. But more often he maintained a normal, vaguely mock-dramatic presence that the other three could play of of. In particular as a reporter in an overcoat and fedora interviewing, and feeding lines to, Caesar's flaky German professor (Reiner: Professor, what keeps birds in the air? Caesar: Courage!) But if feeding lines was considered Reiner's chief asset onscreen, offscreen he soon proved to have a knack for inventing lines.



Sid Caesar wasn't just content to act in these sketches but also wanted some say in how they came to be written. And he thought, or hoped, his costars might want some say also. To that end the entire cast had an open invitation to the writer's room. Reiner took this invitation very seriously, so much so that, long before this week's obits appeared, he was regularly described as having been a member of the Your Show of Shows and Caesar's Hour's writing staffs, alongside such future comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Larry Gelbart. Yet he never received any onscreen credit. His contribution would have been hard to pin down anyway. Caesar's sketches were room written. A single person may have come up with a central concept (often Caesar himself), but then a dozen or so writers added jokes. That is, if they could be heard above the din as this highly competitive bunch weren't known to politely take turns (a young, introverted Woody Allen, who worked on specials Caesar did toward the end of the 1950s, hated the atmosphere, preferring to write a ton of jokes at home and then see if he could fit them in somewhere.) Watching the old kinescopes on YouTube, it's fun to speculate that "This joke could only have come from Brooks" or "That gag has Simon written all over it" but they were just as likely to have been written by Head Writer Mel Tolkin, well-respected in his field though never a household name. And even once the sketch was put down on paper, Caesar wasn't above ad libbing. Getting back to Reiner, since he wasn't listed in the credits, and there were enough writers already, could his be contribution have been exaggerated? I would say yes if it weren't for the fact that onscreen proof of his writing talents in a non-Caesar project was right around the corner.

Ironically, Reiner the non-writer writer was the first of Caesar's crew to write a book, an autobiographical novel titled Enter Laughing, which fellow Your Show of Shows writer (and future Fiddler on the Roof librettist) Joseph Stein turned into a hit Broadway play that Reiner himself adapted for the big screen. But Reiner hadn't yet given up playing straight man. In fact, he was primed to play straight man in one of the most celebrated, if intermittent, comedy teams of the postwar era.

One of the many friends the likable Reiner had made in Caesar's writing room was the aforementioned Mel Brooks. The two had cooked up a parody of TV news shows that had some eyewitness to history as an interview subject, which in the 1950s could have been a far back as the Spanish-American War. Reiner and Brooks wanted to go back further, all the way to ancient Mesopotamia if necessary. For whatever reason, such a sketch never made it onto Your Show of Shows or Caesar's Hour. But Reiner and Brooks kept the idea alive as a comedy routine they performed in front of friends at social gatherings (it certainly beats watching someone dance with a lampshade on their head.) Another TV comedy star of the day, Steve Allen, thought they should put the act down on record and even provided them the studio to do so, resulting in the comedy album 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. The 2000 year old man was just one character among many Brooks played, which included a Yiddish-accented astronaut and a Yiddish-accented rock and roll teen idol (!), but the twenty-centuries old Yiddish-accented geezer is what caught on, getting the two of them on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace, and other variety shows. The success of the album raised Brooks profile considerably, as he was until then unknown outside of comedy writing circles. Reiner was again the straight man but as the act seems to have been a combination of previously-agreed upon exchanges and improvisation, he would often challenge Brooks one-liners, forcing the latter to come up with even funnier one-liners. While both men would soon (very soon, in the case of Reiner) move on to separate projects, they would revive the bit whenever asked to do so, even doing an animated version in the 1970s.

In fact, Carl Reiner had a much more ambitious project in mind. He would write, produce (along with former tough guy actor Sheldon Leonard) and star in a situation comedy called Head of the Family. Reiner played a New York-based TV comedy writer named Rob Petrie, who had young, pretty wife named Laura, a young son named Richie, and two co-workers named Buddy and Sally. If you recognized all those just named, then you know that no such TV series with Carl Reiner in the lead ever aired with any regularity. Ah, but the pilot does exist today on YouTube, where comparisons can be made with a later, more famous version. Head of the Family is funny enough, and Reiner is funny enough in it,  so why didn't CBS purchase the pilot? Reiner's Rob Petrie had a certain brashness about him, as well as a slight New York accent, which could be interpreted as "Jewish". At least, that is the prevailing theory. Now, it's not like a brash New York City Jew couldn't star in his own sitcom--Phil Silvers is a famous example--but as a suburban father? Not in that WASPish era. Reiner believed in the possibilities of his proposed sitcom more than he did in the possibilities of his own stardom, and so swallowed some pride and set about finding himself a new Rob Petrie.

He found one in the Midwestern born-and-raised, John Alden-descended, Tony Award-winning star of the hit Broadway show Bye, Bye, Birdie: Dick Van Dyke. The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered on October 3, 1961, and ran for five years, only leaving the airways when Reiner decided it should go out on top. It very nearly went out on bottom, as CBS decided to cancel it after the first season. The network only changed its mind after sponsor Proctor & Gamble, which obviously believed in the show, threatened to pull all its afternoon soap operas, unless the sitcom was allowed to find an audience. Ironically, it found its audience when it was rescheduled right after the highly-rated The Beverly Hillbillies. I say ironically because TDVDS is often held up as the most sophisticated television that the 1960s has to offer, whereas the country bumpkins-turned-oil barons sitcom is seen (perhaps unfairly) as among the least sophisticated. To that end I wonder if there was some strategic decision behind Van Dyke tripping over the ottoman at the beginning of the second season (the first season's opening credits just showed photographs of the stars), a way of assuring the yahoos watching Hillbillies that nothing too hifalutin was about to follow. Actually, compared to later sitcoms such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, MASH, Cheers, and Seinfeld, The Dick Van Dyke Show may not seem as sophisticated as it once did. But it remains quite funny, a mélange of workplace comedy, domestic comedy, physical comedy, and musical comedy, along with being a show biz satire (but then satire is merely a hifalutin form of comedy, isn't it?) In this revamped version of Reiner's original concept, Van Dyke's Rob Petrie is a smart, decent, but accident-prone family man whom, it's suggested, derives comic inspiration from his own klutziness. In fact, I sometimes think the slapstick may have been the most truly sophisticated aspect of the series, a reminder that no matter how good a joke a Rob Petrie can come up with on a typewriter, God, Fate, or Chance will come up with an even better one, that you can sidestep the ottoman, but stumble on the carpet anyway (as happens in later seasons.) Van Dyke was assisted by a terrific acting ensemble (none of whom were in the Head of the Family pilot.) The aforementioned Mary Tyler Moore as the pretty, now downright sexy capris pants-clad wife, Borsht Belt comic Morey Amsterdam as Borsht Belt comedy writer Buddy Sorrell (reportedly based on Mel Brooks), gravel-voiced Rose-Marie as the wise-cracking comedy writer Sally Rogers (reportedly based on Selma Diamond, who wrote for Caesar), Richard Deacon as the stuffy, sycophantic producer Mel Cooley (reportedly based on Mitch McConnell--no, just joking, that would be impossible), Ann Guilbert as the excitable next-door-neighbor Millie Helper, Jerry Paris as Jerry Helper, Millie's more laid-back husband (he has to be, he's a dentist), and Larry Mathews as Rob and Laura's son, who showed up every now and then to remind everyone that Rob was indeed a family man. Carl Reiner wrote over 50 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, including such classics as "Never Bathe on Saturday" (in which Laura gets stuck in a bathtub--you had to be there), and "It May Look Like a Walnut" (an Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody in which a zombified Buddy Sorrell asks "Did you hear the one about the nearsighted turtle who fell in live with an army helmet?") Eventually, Reiner handed over the writing to others, including writing teams Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson (who later co-created the 1970s TV version of The Odd Couple, and, separately, the former created Happy Days and the latter wrote the screenplay for the 1970s feature film Smile, a beauty pageant satire), and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (who later co-created That Girl.) Reiner stayed on as a producer. And made one other, in my opinion, huge contribution to the series.

There's a character I haven't told you about yet, the guy Rob, Buddy, and Sally works for. Technically, I suppose that would be producer Mel Cooley, except Cooley has no real power over that bunch and is in fact regularly insulted by Buddy--who shows no fear of getting fired--whenever he enters the room. Besides, Mel himself takes his orders from the star of the fictional variety/sketch comedy show, Alan Brady. I'm going by memory as the Internet is no help whatsoever here, but I don't believe we see Alan at all during the first season of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Even in an episode ("The Sick Boy and the Sitter") that takes place in Alan's home, we don't see him. And he never visits the writers room. This, of course, isn't the way Sid Caesar did things (but it may be the way another 1950s TV comedy legend, Jackie Gleason, did things. According to Mel Brooks, Gleason had his writers slip his scripts under his dressing room door.) I'm not absolutely certain of this, but I think Alan Brady makes his first appearance in a second-season episode titled "When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen", but only the back of head. Now, it's easy to imagine what the front of his head looks like, because Alan Brady was played by none other than Carl Reiner. So why the modesty? Knowing that he had been only a "second banana" on Sid Caesar's various shows, and that CBS didn't think he should star in a sitcom based on his own life, Reiner felt nobody would accept him as a longtime TV comedy star (according to one 1961 episode, The Alan Brady Show already had been on the air about ten years.) And so for the next two seasons, when we saw Alan Brady at all, it was just the back of his bald or toupee'd head. Then, in season 4, in an episode titled "Three Letters from One Wife" Reiner was finally prevailed upon to show his face, and from that point on, he never looked back. Vain, egotistical, self-involved, insensitive, and motor-mouthed, Alan Brady is a bull in a china shop, with Rob, Laura, Buddy, Sally, Mel, and, in one story ("A Day in the Life of Alan Brady"), even Millie and Jerry, as the plates, cups, and saucers. Brady is the focal point of several episodes in the last two seasons, and in these episodes, The Dick Van Dyke Show becomes a wickedly funny satire of television and show biz, which it hadn't quite been up to then. And if the situation comedy itself had proven Reiner's skill as a writer, then the Alan Brady-centered episodes showed just what a great comedian he could be, his talents as a comic performer most likely wasted in his years as a second banana or straight man. In fact, in the scenes they appear in together, it's Van Dyke who comes off as the straight man!



After The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air in 1966, there were a few more stabs at producing and writing for TV, most notably The New Dick Van Dyke Show, which ran for three years in the early 1970s. As far as acting goes, Reiner got to star in what turned out to be a box office hit, the Cold War satire, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966). But mostly, Reiner settled into a long, relatively successful career as a feature film director. In 1977, he had a huge hit with Oh, God! starring George Burns and John Denver, with a screenplay by old Caesar's Hour cohort Larry Gelbart. He then gave Steve Martin a big boost by directing him in three films in which they both worked on the screenplays, The Jerk (1979), the film nor parody Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982), and my personal favorite, the mad scientist spoof The Man with Two Brains (1983). There was a fourth film that Reiner directed and Martin starred but which neither one wrote the screenplay, All of Me (1984), that has the latter possessed by a prim and proper Lily Tomlin. Reiner's final film was 1997's That Old Feeling with Bette Midler. I have a vague memory of once seeing an ad for it, and that's all. After the filmmaking career ended, he did many, many, many guest appearances on TV shows, and maintained his comic timing right up to the end.






   




21 comments:

  1. I've never seen that pilot of "Head of the Family"; will definitely watch it. And, yes, I'm sure the decision had everything to do with a New York Jew being the father of a successful suburban family. What times! I loved him in the show that followed however. I especially loved his toupees -- having no idea I would be in the same [bald] situation in later years. No toupees, though. Why do they never look as good as his did on that show?!?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mitchell, trust me, you look fine without a toupee.

      As for Carl Reiner, he doesn't seem to have gone full-time bald until the 1980s. Before that, it was kind of a back-and-forth thing. He's bald on the cover of TV Guide, and when he's playing Alan Brady from the rear. But with the exception of the clip with Mary Tyler Moore that I show below (in which case, the baldness was integral to the plot), Alan always has hair when viewed from the front. Reiner has hair in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, and in TV appearances with Mel Brooks. In Oh, God! he does a cameo as himself as a guest on Dinah Shore's talk show, again with a toupee. Yet he never seemed to mind the general public knowing he was bald. My guess is he viewed his own hair piece as a show biz prop, but otherwise wasn't particularly vain about his looks.

      Delete
  2. Hi, Kirk!

    Now I know where you've been keeping yourself all this time. You've been hard at it preparing this monster post tracing the career of comedy writing legend Carl Reiner. (Let us also remember Hugh Downs who died this week at age 99.)

    I think Mitch McConnell in the role of Mel Cooley would have been inspired casting. I'm pretty sure Carl Reiner played George Steinbrenner in the pilot of Seinfeld, but you only saw the back of his head and heard his voice. :) On Seinfeld, the "show about nothing," Kramer and entire Costanza family were funny. The other characters ranged from semi-funny to completely unlikable. Jerry Seinfeld is smug.

    Milton Berle once said, "Funny is funny. Funny not is funny not." As you know from my past comments about Laugh-in and other hit comedy shows, I am picky about the genre. This is going to be a rambling, stream of consciousness type of comment so try to follow along. I admired Carl Reiner for his writing skill, as a straight man and in the role of Alan Brady.

    People like Dick Shawn interest me. He's the one who tosses to Reiner and Brooks in that third video. Shawn was the wacky Sylvester in one of my favorite movies It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. His comic genius reportedly inspired another favorite of mine Andy Kaufman. I liked Sid Caesar in Mad Mad World. Jonathan Winters was not as funny to me as he was to others. Jack Benny was damn funny. George Burns I didn't like as much.

    I am not saying The Dick Van Dyke Show was "funny-not," but there were funnier shows. Milton Berle was funny and I liked his Texaco Show more than Your Show of Shows. Phil Silvers was funny. The Beverly Hillbillies was a funnier series than Dick Van Dyke. I didn't like most of the characters on Dick Van Dyke and mainly watched it because of beautiful Mary. However I did like Richard Deacon and Carl Reiner in their roles. "Buddy & Sally" later showed up in recurring roles on The Young and the Restless and did their vaudeville comedy shtick. Jackie Gleason was damn funny. I didn't like The Odd Couple, didn't like Happy Days, but did like That Girl because Marlo was both funny and beautiful and Ted Bessell was great as her pussy-whipped boyfriend. I find most interview sketches like the one with the Sleep Expert Professor and the 2000 Year Old Man tiresome and laborious. Much much funnier interview sketches were done with The Man on the Street on the Steve Allen Show. Steve Allen was funny. Johnny Carson was funny. Love Letterman - hate Leno. I didn't care for a lot of Mel Brooks output including Blazing Saddles. Jerry Lewis was funny.

    That scene in which Mary Tyler Moore, with voice quavering, attempts to placate a raging Alan Brady was similar to the dynamic between Mary and Mr. Grant on The MTM Show. Mary Richards was funny. Lou Grant was funny. Ted Baxter was funny. Didn't like Rhoda or Sue Ann and I am tired of seeing Betty White in everything. I do like Cloris Leachman, especially in dramatic roles.

    Thank you for remembering Carl Reiner, a major figure in TV entertainment history. Have a great weekend, good buddy Kirk!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm, Hugh Downs. From Concentration to Jack Paar to the Today Show to Over Easy to 20/20. You know, Shady, I think I'll let some other blogger make try to make sense of THAT career trajectory.

      I didn't know he was ever an influence on Andy Kaufman, but I recognized Dick Shawn immediately, having seen him in many 1960s comedies, including the one you mentioned (I don't feel like typing all those Mads), and Mel Brooks first and, in my opinion, still his best film, The Producers, where Shawn played a hippie Hitler. And I remember seeing him do his standup routine on The Tonight Show in the 1970s. Not only did I find him hilarious but so did guest host George Carlin, who told him so. High praise indeed! Did you know Shawn died in 1987 right in the middle of his act? He had a heart attack and fell face first on the stage. The audience laughed. They thought he was just clowning around!

      I read your stream-of-consciousness with interest. Are you trying to tell me ahead of time that if I do posts on Jonathan Winters or George Burns (as a matter of fact, I've done so in the past), your response is going to be less than enthusiastic? That's all right. As long as it doesn't get personal.

      I find your cherrypicking actors within a single sitcom rather curious, such as when you say you like Mary, Lou, and Ted but not Rhoda and Sue Ann. I don't think in a situation comedy, in which the situation is arguably as important as the comedy, everybody is supposed to be equally funny or equally likable. It's how the characters interact with each other that matters. Of course, the interaction itself can and should be held up to scrutiny. For instance, even though I did find the Sue Ann Nivens character funny (in fact, I think it's the funniest thing Betty White's ever done), there was no reason for her to hang around the WJM newsroom as much as she did considering she had her own show in her own studio. It didn't seem natural and involved too much labored and extraneous storytelling.

      I agree with you that Laura Petrie's and Alan Brady's encounter prefigures Mary Richards' and Lou Grant's. Good observation, Shady.

      Delete
    2. Kirk, I just saw this article this evening which has an embedded two minute speech by Carl Reiner. I would like to add it to our conversation. It also ties in with my current post at Shady's Place. Recently I saw a picture of Carl Reiner wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt. Thank you, Mr. Reiner, for being part of the solution. I regret that you did not live to see Trump evicted from the White House:

      https://www.msn.com/en-us/tv/celebrity/carl-reiners-daughter-says-he-would-be-disappointed-not-to-have-lived-to-see-trumps-eviction/ar-BB16l9jB?li=BBnbfcL

      Delete
    3. Shady, had I known that clip existed, I would have included it with a video montage at the bottom of the post. I did come across a picture of Reiner, Reiner's daughter Annie, and Mel Brooks wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts.

      Delete
  3. Oh I loved him. Another great gone. But that Dick VanDyke is such an icon is episode.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maddie, here's hoping Van Dyke lives to be a 120.

      Delete
  4. Hello Kirk, What a pity that another great talent is gone. We were just talking about the Dick Van Dyke show the other day, and how charming the young Mary Tyler Moore was. I imagine that our nostalgia underlines both the innocence and sophistication of the show.
    --Jim

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Honestly, Jim, I think Mary Tyler Moore was a bit of a scene stealer on that show, and not just because she wore capris pants. The Laura Petrie character just gets funnier and funnier as the series progressed, to the point that she gets to take a star turn in what many (including myself) consider to be the sitcom's funniest episode, "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth", a clip of which I show in the video section.

      Delete
  5. It seems like he has always been around. From when I was a kid to well into adulthood and into retirement.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He died just two years short of a 100, Mike.

      Ever read Mad magazine, Mike? Al Jaffee, of the Mad Fold-In Fame, is 99 and recently announced his retirement (most likely because the magazine itself is being retired.)

      Delete
  6. Kirk, I know him - his fame reached as far as Scotland! I was sad to hear of his passing, but he did well, almost 100!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ananka, did All in the Family reach Scotland? I imagine you're more familiar with the TV series it was derived from, Till Death Do Us Part. Anyway, in the American version, the left-leaning son-in-law was played by Rob Reiner, Carl's son, who's now in his 70s.

      Delete
    2. No, I can't say I know that one. Yes Til Death Do Us Part was very big in its day - very dated now.

      Delete
  7. history of great man...
    thank you for sharing

    ReplyDelete
  8. Gotta admit, I do love me some Steve Martin in my life! 🤍🖤🤍🖤🤍

    ReplyDelete

In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.