Carl Reiner: The Interview
Two days before his 92nd birthday, Carl Reiner is showing no signs of slowing down. On this Tuesday, March 18, the comedy legend is making phones calls around the country to discuss a new DVD release related to one of his finest and funniest creations, The Dick Van Dyke Show: Classic Mary Tyler Moore Episodes.
That he makes times for these phoners to discuss this 50-year-old TV series – landmark and beloved though it may be – in the midst of finishing up his second memoir in three years (I Just Remembered, the follow-up to 2012's I Remember Me), recording the audio version, promoting it with an appearance on The Late Show With Craig Ferguson, watching The Good Wife with his old pal Mel Brooks, and tweeting (yes, you can follow him at @carlreiner – how do you think I found out about his TV-watching habits?) speaks to the energy still charging this Emmy-winning writer, director, and performer. Then again, he's spent so much time hanging out with the 2,000 Year Old Man, maybe some of that longevity has worn off on him.
That storied and enormously popular act that they cooked up in the legendary writers' room for Your Show of Shows was where our conversation began.
Austin Chronicle: You may be the greatest straight man I've ever observed. I was struck by that again a couple of years ago, when The 2000 Year Old Man collection came out. As much as I laughed at everything Mel said, I marveled at how wonderfully you set him up and really drove so much of that material. Was that something that came to you easily?
Carl Reiner: It's being curious, and really looking to see what's in people's minds. I was as fascinated to hear what he had to say as other people were. I've always had that ability, because I am curious. My father was an inventor, so he was always asking questions – of himself, usually – and he's the one who taught me that. I think I leaned on his knowledge about things.
AC: Was that a role you felt into easily on Your Show of Shows?
CR: Yes, it was. As a matter of fact, I had been on Broadway as a leading comedian, but when you're standing up against a man of such exquisite talents as Sid [Caesar], you don't mind being a second banana. I don't like being a second banana to somebody I feel, "I got a better banana than that." And with Mel Brooks, my God! I could not wait to hear what was gonna come out of that mouth.
AC: How did your friendship originate?
CR: It originated in the Show of Shows office. And I remember the moment, too. It was my first day on the Show of Shows. I was in a Broadway show [Alive and Kicking], and I was hired by Max Liebman to be a straight man to Sid Caesar, and I came to the office the first day, and Mel was there. He wasn't working for the show, he was a friend of Sid's, and he got up and he did an ad lib, just stood up and started doing a Jewish pirate, who was complaining about not being able to afford to set sail and pillage and rape anymore because, he says, "You know what it costs, sailcloth for a yard? Three dollars a yard. I can't pillage and rape anymore."
Anyway, I laughed so hard, and the following day, I came into the office after seeing We, the People on radio, where they re-created the news, and I said, "Hey, here's something: Here's a man who was in Stalin's toilet, and he heard Stalin, the premier of Russia, say [in Russian accent], "I'm going to blow up the vorld." I thought it would be a good idea for a sketch. And nobody thought it was a good idea, but the next thing I knew, I turned to Mel, who was standing there, and I said, "Here's a man who was actually at the scene of the Crucifixion 2,000 years ago. Is that true, sir?" First words I ever said to him. And he said, "Oh boy." I said, "You knew Jesus?" "Thin lad, right?" That was the first line. "He wore sandals. Walked with three other guys. Came into the store. Never bought anything. He always asked for water." Anyway, those were the first words, and for the next 10 years, every time at a party, or in the office when we were bored, I would ask him questions.
For years, we did [the 2,000 Year Old Man] at parties. We never thought it was for anything but our Jewish friends or our non-anti-Semitic Gentile friends, because remember, it was five years after the war, and the Jews had been maligned enough by Hitler. The Jewish accent was persona non grata in most circles in those days. During the war, there were characters on radio – Mr. Kitzel, Mrs. Nussbaum on the Fred Allen show – and they disappeared.
So we did it for parties, and it took years of doing it at – we called them Class A parties, where people actually made dinners so Mel and I would get up and do this, and it was at one of those parties that George Burns came over and he says [imitating Burns], "Is there a record on this?" I said, "No." He said, "You better put it on a record, or I'm gonna steal it." And Edward G. Robinson said [imitating Robinson], "Make a play out of it. I want to play the Thousand Year Old Man on Broadway." I said, "He's two thousand." He said, "I can play any age." True story. And the last one who came up was Steve Allen, and he said, "Hey fellas, you ought to put this on record," and we said, "No," and he said, "I don't want to be involved. I just want you to know you can use my studio to record. Take the recording and do what you want with it. You can cut it, throw it out, whatever."
We got into the studio, recorded with about 200 friends, for two, three hours we recorded, and got 47 minutes out of it. It became the first record. We weren't sure it was gonna work, and the next thing we know, Cary Grant – I gave one to Cary Grant, I was doing pictures at Universal at the time, and the next day, he came over, and he said, "Can I have a dozen?" I said, A dozen?" He said, "I'm going to London." I said, "You're taking this to London?" He said, "They speak English there." Anyway, he came back, and he said, "The Queen Mother laughed." He took it to Buckingham Palace. I said, "Mel, we don't have to worry anymore." I said, "The biggest Gentile woman in the world laughed."
Anyway, no, it took off pretty quickly after that. But Steve Allen, who did it, he loved to present funny people to the world. He was a good soul.
AC: Speaking of presenting funny people to the world, you created The Dick Van Dyke Show, and what an amazing ensemble that show had. When you were first coming up with the idea and writing those early scripts, were you aware that you would need actors who interacted as beautifully as that cast did?
CR: No, it was all a very smooth, natural thing that happened, and it happened only because somebody asked me to do a situation comedy. They were sending me [sitcom] scripts after the Show of Shows folded – the [sketch] variety show disappeared until Carol Burnett brought it back years later – and the scripts were no good. And my wife said, "Why don't you write one?" And I really didn't understand how to – I had written a novel, Enter Laughing, but not a … And so one afternoon, I was writing, and I asked myself a question. I said, "Hey, Reiner, what kind of ground do you stand on that nobody else stands on?" I really said that. I said, "Well, you live in New Rochelle, you work in New York. When you go to New York, you talk about your wife and kids in New Rochelle, and when you go to New Rochelle, you talk about the work in the office with the writers." And so I wrote a pilot, and it sold. Peter Lawford put up the money.
And I said, "Hey, if I'm gonna do a pilot, I better have a bible of what it sounds like. So I went to Fire Island, and in a few weeks, I wrote 13 episodes, and I had 'em ready. I did the first one. It was fair. It didn't sell. It wasn't very good. It was okay. And I put it to bed. I started writing movies for Doris Day, and I was ready to continue that when – I was writing on the Dinah Shore show, actually – when I heard from my agent [Harry Kalcheim], saying , "Sheldon Leonard saw those 13 scripts, and he'd like to talk to you." And I went up there, and I said, "Sheldon, I'm pleased that you liked my scripts, but I don't want to fail twice with the same material. I'm on to other things." And he said [imitating Leonard], "You won't fail. We'll get a better actor to play you."
And after he said that, he suggested Dick Van Dyke. I went to see him in New York [in Bye Bye Birdie], and he was just unbelievably versatile. So the next thing I know, I had to go find a Mary Tyler Moore. Took a little doing: I saw 60 girls before I saw Mary, and finally found her. She kept reading for me, and the chemistry was just natural. It all happened so naturally. And the 13 shows were ready.
AC: Since this new DVD collection focuses on Mary Tyler Moore and some of her best work on that show, was there a specific spark you saw in her when she auditioned?
CR: I saw it immediately, because I'd seen about 20 girls, and I said, "Sheldon, I don't know what I'm looking' for." He says [imitating Leonard again], "You'll know when you see her." And she came into the office, and she looked like Mary Tyler Moore: very pretty, beautiful legs. And I asked her to read a line, and she read one line. And I made my hand into a claw, like the claw that you use to pick up candy. I crossed the room with my hand like a claw, grabbed the top of her head – she thought I was going to accost her – and I took her, I said, "Come with me, young lady." And I took her down the hall, and I said, "Sheldon, I found her." That was her.
AC: Do you feel like she got her due as a comedienne at the time?
CR: She got it very quickly. She didn't feel comfortable the first day. And then the first week, we did a thing called "My Blond-Haired Brunette," and she was unaware how to – she actually asked me, "It says here she cries in a comic way. How do you cry funny?" She says, "Show me." And I showed her. And she cried like I cried, and that was the crying she did when she found out her hair was half-blonde when her husband came home. He saw a gray hair on her head, and she thought he wasn't going to love her anymore.
AC: Did you then begin to write for the cast?
CR: No, I wrote what came out of my experiences, and I knew the cast could handle anything that I threw at it. It was such an extraordinarily talented bunch of people. Morey Amsterdam and Rosie [Rose Marie] – my God, she could do anything.
AC: And yourself. When you were writing the character of Alan Brady –
CR: Oh no, I wasn't gonna play him. I knew I couldn't get a star big enough that anyone would that believe that was Alan, that this guy was the star, so I decided to keep him hidden. He'd be a hidden force upstairs. And once in a while, we had to see him, so I played him behind a telephone, with the back of my head. And then the scripts got to be too complicated. I said, "it's not fair to the script," and I turned me around, and I played him face forward.
AC: Was that role particularly fun for you?
CR: Oh yeah, he was fun for me to do, but I didn't want to do him, because I was so busy with writing the show. I couldn't give time to rehearsing or doing things. I was always in my office or in my home writing, and the time spent onstage was lost time spent on writing. So I preferred not being on the show.
AC: Was there some quality that you feel that show had that was unique at the time? I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and I soaked up a lot of comedy, and The Dick Van Dyke Show always felt different to me, and I wonder if you thought of it that way.
CR: It was done by the seat of my pants. It was about what I was feeling, and if you're honest, the audience will know you're being honest, and when you're dishonest, they really know it, and they don't tune you in. If it didn't fit for size, I wouldn't put it on. I mean, I threw things out. I said, "Nobody behaves like that. That's comedy behavior." The [I Love] Lucy show is a perfect example of "two against each other" instead of "two against the world." They were always plotting against each other. And that's not my kind of marriage.
AC: The craft in those Dick Van Dyke Show episodes is so effortless. They just sail.
CR: It was a marriage of writers and performers. It's rare when it happens, and when it does happen, you're aware of it. You don't know why it's working, but it's working.
AC: Were there other periods in your career that had that rare quality?
CR: Well, it's happening right now, because I've just written two [auto]biographies that are as much me as anything I've ever written. One is called I Remember Me, which came out last year, and I just finished another one called I Just Remembered. That's coming out in a couple of weeks, and that to me is the best thing I've ever done. I'm more excited about that than anything I've ever done.
AC: Well, congratulations. Nice to feel like you're still going upward.
CR: Yeah, that's what's exciting, that you have something to get up for.