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. — Carl Reiner
By Scott Ross
For years I’ve been maintaining a short list of people who aren’t allowed to die. Unfortunately, the list is not preemptive; through no fault of my own, people keep falling off it: Jack Lemmon, Jerry Goldsmith, Larry Gelbart, Blake Edwards, Elmer Bernstein, Peter Ustinov, Miklós Rózsa, Billy Wilder, Alex North, Gore Vidal, William Goldman, Harlan Ellison, Toni Morrison, Barbara Cook, Hal Prince, my mother. So far, at least, Carol Burnett, Lalo Schifrin, Julie Andrews, Lily Tomlin, Sheldon Harnick, Maggie Smith, Mel Brooks and (especially) Dick Van Dyke are keeping faith with me. But recently that unconscionable rat Carl Reiner took his leave, which is just simply not cricket.
Actually, to live in decent health for 98 years, to remain compos mentos and in one’s own home, and to die in one’s sleep, is the consummation I suppose most devoutly to be wished by nearly everyone, and the most illusive; if there’s such a thing as a good death (and I think there is) that surely qualifies. But what a chunk of my life that man took with him! From what glories do we who worship talent and supplicate ourselves at the altar of comic genius bask in the reflective glow! If Carl Reiner had done nothing more than create, produce, write and guide for five glorious seasons that apotheosis of near-perfection The Dick Van Dyke Show, he would have more than earned his keep, not to mention the keep of at least another dozen.
I won’t append the phrase “like him” to that sentiment because there was no one remotely like him. Carl Reiner was a nonpareil. A one-off. A show-biz Renaissance (“Reinaissance”?) man: Actor, “writer without portfolio” (his own later description of himself in the Sid Caesar years), writer with portfolio, producer, director, novelist, playwright, screenwright, comedian. Even Mel Brooks, his closest contemporary (who not so coincidentally also happened to be his best friend) is less of a polymath, and not nearly as prolific: During the first year of the Van Dyke show — and remember, television seasons were much longer then — Reiner wrote 20 of the 30 episodes that aired; the following year he wrote 21 of 31. If any series can be described as one man’s work, The Dick Van Dyke Show was it.
It was, perhaps, the show he was destined to create. As the writer-director Michael Mahler had Charles Kuralt observe in their 1994 appreciation “The Dick Van Dyke Show” Remembered, unlike with any other television situation comedy of the time, when Rob Petrie walked through the door and said, “Laura, I’m home,” we knew where he’d been, and what he’d been doing. And although Reiner himself was not an official writer on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, let alone (as Rob was for Alan Brady) Head Writer, he’d spent hours in those famed writers’ rooms between 1950 and 1957, throwing out ideas and lines of dialogue, yelling to be heard over the din of raging egos and, when he was lucky or especially inspired, getting something into a sketch in which he would also likely be performing. (Reiner was regarded as one of the best second bananas in the business then; after the 2,000 Year Old Man exploded into the popular consciousness in the early 1960s, he became known as the best.) He knew in his bones how that competitive/collaborative process worked — even if the Brady show had a much-reduced staff of three — and how the various “types” collected there contributed to the assembling of a great variety show. And if Rob was Carl, more or less, it’s no secret that Buddy Sorrell was largely an older and more curmudgeonly Mel Brooks, and Sally Rogers an amalgam of Lucille Kallen and Selma Diamond. The Reiners, like the Petries, also lived in New Rochelle and also had neighbors called Jerry and Millie. While the Reiners had three children rather than one, and if Caesar was not the vain and dismissive, megalomaniac martinet Alan Brady proved to be… well, there has to be some fiction in a fictional series, hasn’t there?
Reiner wrote the pilot (Head of the Family) and the initial 13 episodes for himself, but Sheldon Leonard, the show’s eventual executive producer, thought Carl Reiner miscast, as himself. Having seen the pilot, I have to say he was right. Dick Van Dyke was a much better Carl Reiner than Carl Reiner. While both men are (oh, God… were!) charming — and Reiner was known to be a mensch — there is something inherently warm about Van Dyke that comes across without effort. Whatever indefinable alchemy informs these things, Reiner was a much more effective Alan Brady, a man with whom he had next to nothing in common, than he was a Rob Petrie. The Head of the Family pilot revealed Reiner’s creative cleverness, but not his comedic range. There is certainly nothing in it as hilariously memorable as Alan’s achingly funny confrontation with Laura Petrie over exposing his baldness on a television game-show in Bill Persky and Sam Denoff’s marvelous “Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth”: Piling his various toupées on top of his head while demonstrating their uses, literally growling into the telephone, using a styrofoam head for a bongo and walking stiff-legged with his cane like a demented comic version of Everett Sloane in The Lady from Shanghai while grinning maniacally and shouting, “Oh, happy days are here again…” It’s a masterpiece in miniature, a comedic performance so touched with genius it practically levitates the television.
What separates The Dick Van Dyke Show from the overwhelming rest of its sit-com rivals of the period is not merely the specificity of its show-biz milieu, the genuine affection between, and sexiness of, Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore or even the fulsome nature of the characterizations, both as Reiner conceived his ensemble and as he so brilliantly cast it. As either Jean Giraudoux or George Burns once noted, “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.” But the television comedy that lasts — or at least, lasted before the age of Larry David — is grounded in something more than humor. All in the Family confronted adult issues that no television show, and certainly no comedy, had ever dared touch. M*A*S*H (which the people involved were always quick to point out was not a sit-com) endured, and endures, because at its core were serious matters, addressed with as much honesty as hilarity. Even I Love Lucy, for all that we remember it best for its star’s often magnificently funny antics, was essentially about two people who however much they might have exasperated each other were also crazily in love. The Van Dyke show embodies something I think of as the comedy of embarrassment: These were essentially very decent people, and most of the humor around them sprang from their desire to be kind, to each other and to the world around them. Like benevolent reverse Basil Fawltys, they make a sticky situation worse by trying to make it better, or through an inability to let others down even when one or more of the characters (usually Rob) were being imposed upon. Their impulse to decency inevitably gums up the works. And that basic set-up springs from the god-head; the man who created those characters, and wrote those shows, was a human being.
And God, the show was funny. Even as a small, pre-kindergarten aged child, when I watched The Dick Van Dyke Show in morning syndication I knew, without really understanding much of the verbal humor, that I was seeing something special. The first episode that grabbed me, I remember, was the 1963 “The Sam Pomerantz Scandals,” and for reasons anyone who was once a child can understand: The Laurel and Hardy routine by Van Dyke and Henry Calvin. (I was also absolutely delighted by the “I Am a Fine Musician” musical number. I had never heard the word “piccolo” before, and I at first thought Mary Tyler Moore was singing “pickle loaf,” which I regarded then, and think of now, as a vomit-inducing gastronomic atrocity.) Coincidentally last winter I re-watched the entire series, as I do every few years, this time in the nicely remastered Blu-ray set. Of 158 episodes, there are perhaps a half-dozen that are mediocre and two that are downright poor (“The Bad Old Days” and “The Twizzle,” both in Season One). That leaves 150 terrific shows and probably more episodes that may be certified as classic than can be claimed by any other comedy series, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which probably comes closest to the standard of weekly excellence Reiner & Co. pioneered and describes a level of achievement almost unheard of in the world of television comedy.
Reiner himself was responsible for the two, to me, funniest moments of the entire five-season run: Sally’s reaction to Joe Coogan in “The Life and Love of Joe Coogan” (“Where’s this tall, good-looking, charming priest?!? you wanted me to meet?”) and the following exchange, from “Who Owes Who What?”:
Mel: Oh, is that the comedy spot?
Buddy (Pointing to Mel’s head): No, Bubblehead — this is the comedy-spot.
Buddy: Go ahead, Curly, it’s your turn. Say, “Rob.”
Buddy/Sally (Simultaneously, applauding): Beautiful. / Oh, wonderful, wonderful.
Even though he was one of the stars of Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, Reiner didn’t see himself as someone an audience could believe might carry a variety show as Sid did, so for the first few episodes in which he appears as Alan Brady he’s seen, in increasingly elaborate set-ups, only from the back. Yet he was certainly becoming, by that time, an extremely familiar face to audiences, what with (aside from the seven years with Caesar) roles in the movies Happy Anniversary and The Gazebo (both 1959) and The Thrill of It (which he also wrote) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (both 1963). While his first two screenplays (Thrill and the 1965 The Art of Love) were, coming from him, steps backwards, appearing in The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966) gave him greater visibility, and directing the movie of Enter Laughing (based on the Joseph Stein adaptation of Reiner’s own, very funny, autobiographical first novel, the screenplay for which which he authored with the playwright, and that is really coming at a piece of material from both ends) brought him some cachet, leading to The Comic (1966) with Van Dyke; the black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970) with its infamous “tush-biting scene”; Oh, God! (1997) a lovely collaboration with his old Caesar compatriot Larry Gelbart that was almost shockingly successful at the box-office, even in the year of Star Wars; four projects with Steve Martin, beginning with the trivial but occasionally hilarious The Jerk (1979) and culminating with the blissfully funny fantasy All of Me (1984) co-starring a luminous Lily Tomlin.
Reiner was a great appreciator, and booster, of comic talent but couldn’t always launch a performer as successfully as he did Martin or Van Dyke. Reni Santoni, the star of Enter Laughing, didn’t exactly set the comedic world on fire (maybe because he was Spanish/Corsican and playing one of America’s most famous Jews?), nor did Robert Lindsay, for whom Reiner wrote and directed the flop Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool in 1989. And if I say that, Oh, God! and All of Me excepted, I don’t think Carl Reiner’s comedy film work in toto was as great as what he did on and for television or, with Mel Brooks, on recordings, don’t think I’m being dismissive; everyone concerned with the Van Dyke show knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime gig, and that they’d be very, very lucky if anything afterward was ever as good, or as much fun. And aside from Mary Poppins for Dick and The Mary Tyler Moore Show for Mary, nothing really was.
As I re-watch The Dick Van Dyke Show periodically, so too do I listen, usually about once a year, to the 2,000 Year Old Man recordings. Most comedy albums just make you smile after the first (or third, or 10th if it’s a classic) listening. The Brooks/Reiner collaborations are not merely perennially funny. They are gut-bustingly funny. Recorded with little advance preparation, and no scripts, they are vinyl evidence of two comedic genii flying, by the seat of their pants, into the stratosphere — the equivalent in comedy terms of Louis Armstrong improvising “West End Blues” or that astonishing held note by Miles Davis on the release of “Moon Dreams.” Reiner maintained that Brooks was never funnier than when he was panicked, and that not knowing what question Carl was about to throw at him pushed his nimble brain into those realms of inventiveness that leave listeners of these sessions breathless, with both laughter and dazzlement; it’s almost impossible to imagine a comedian’s mind working that fast. But our delight, and our appreciation, goes not only to Brooks but to Reiner. Without his impeccable sense of timing, or his probing (and, dare one say it, merrily sadistic) prompts, there’d be no comedy. We are listening not to a single brilliant man but to two, each riffing off the other’s words, anticipating each other almost telepathically: Laughter, without a net.
The style of the interviews was an outgrowth of Reiner and Caesar’s recurring Professor sketches and the albums featured encounters, not merely with the dapper bimillennial himself but with such immortal figures as the diet expert Dr. Felix Wheird, the head of Narzi Films Herr Adolph Hartler, the Greek artist Mercurio Mercurochrome, the filmmaker Federico Fettuccine, Warren Bland of the L.M.N.O.P. ad agency, and from The New Technique Psychiatric Society, those sterling avatars of the psychiatric profession Drs. Havika ben Hollywood (pronounced “Hollavoo”), Buck Mitcheson and Sabu Panchali. I was just listening to that track again, doubled over in laughter at bits I’ve probably heard, and laughed at, a couple of dozen times. There were two fools on those sessions, equally in charge. Now there is only one. And he’d better stay out of a Ferrari, or any small Italian car. I can only take so much in one century.
This is probably the first time in 80 years Carl Reiner did something that didn’t get a laugh.
Text copyright 2020 by Scott Ross