The Comic View: Carl Reiner

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Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.

I’ve been asked why I highlight old-time comedians like Carl Reiner. I would think the answer is obvious, but just in case, here it is: Anyone who wishes to study working comedians has several options.

A) The Beginner (Open Mike Night) – This is a great venue. Many newcomers are quite talented. You’ll also see a lot of flop sweat and the occasional crash and burn. Worth a listen.

B) The Headliner – Comedians with a solid act can be seen nearly everywhere: Comedy clubs, television, magazine articles, books, the internet, etc. Here you can see both the solid professional and the latest fad performer (AKA one-shot wonders). Absolutely worth a listen.

C) Old Timers – A few writers and performers have successfully navigated a fifty-year career in comedy. When they offer advice, you’ll notice that all of the intelligent people in the room shut up, give them their full attention, and take notes.

I had the privilege of attending a lecture\interview with Carl Reiner some years ago at a writer’s conference in Los Angeles. I hung on every word. Reiner learned to type as a soldier in WWII. However, we’ll skip over his first efforts as a writer, which no doubt produced such prize winning lines as, ‘The Third Army needs more toilet paper. Ammo would also be nice.’

His first notable success, Reiner appeared as a regular performer on Sid Ceasar’s Your Show of Shows, however he spent a great deal of time with the writers, who included such greats as Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart. This led Reiner to further explore his writing potential on Ceasar’s Hour, a successor to the Show of Shows that today we would call a spinoff. Reiner also produced a somewhat autobiographical book, Enter Laughing, which would later be adapted for a play, a movie and a musical.

Next, a pilot script for a sitcom called, Man of the House, which was finally picked up by the network and renamed, The Dick Van Dyke Show, for which Reiner won five Emmys (three as a writer).

The Dick Van Dyke Show will be remembered as classic television for as long as we have TV’s. Carl Reiner’s recurring role as the iconic, dictatorial Alan Brady caricatured the nightmare boss as peals of laughter rang out across the country. But more importantly, the cast, some of the finest comedic talent in the country, were encouraged to shine.

Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon): I need a place to hide.
Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam): Quick, grow some hair.

Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke): This girl typed like the wind—she blew every word.

Stevie Parsons (Richard Schaal): Are the fellas all still chasing you around?
Sally Rogers (Rose Marie): Well, I don’t wanna say anything, but coming down on the subway, I had to change my seat five times.
Stevie Parsons: Some guy got fresh with you?
Sally Rogers: Yeah, finally.

Reiner also cast Mary Tyler Moore as the show’s female lead, Laura Petrie, a serious new contender for ‘America’s Sweetheart.’

Rob Petrie: [discussing boat, not knowing Laura easily suffers seasickness] It’ll be fun.
Laura Petrie: I don’t think so.
Rob Petrie: Why?
Laura Petrie: Well, because ever since I was a kid, I’ve hardly ever had a good time while nauseous.

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Reiner has one other very enviable talent. He is a great straight man. He’s worked with some of the funniest comedians of all time. His phenomenally cool straight man with Mel Brooks on The 2000 Year Old Man inspired numerous sequels, won a Grammy and was rereleased on its 50th anniversary in 2009.

Reiner has remained active writing, acting and directing into his nineties. He received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000, and he has yet to stop entertaining us.

So, what’s my favorite insight from Carl Reiner? With no exaggeration, there are quite a few, but I’ve always liked this one:

Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be a fool but you’re the fool in charge.

Being self-deprecating is great fun, but when writing and performing your own material, never forget who’s in charge. Marvelous!

Parting Funny: The wages of sin are death, but by the time taxes are taken out, it’s just sort of a tired feeling.Paula Poundstone
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One thought on “The Comic View: Carl Reiner

  1. Thank you for an informative post. One book that has occupied much of my time lately is “Comedy Writing Self-Taught Workbook” by Gene and Linda Perret. Gene wrote for Bob Hope and Phyllis Diller, and worked with comedy greats such as Danny Thomas, George Burns, Milton Berle and Lucille Ball. Yes, there are lots to be learned from the masters of comedy, past and present.


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