Carl Reiner: The calm centre of a generation of geniuses

One of the comic greats, Carl Reiner, died this week. John Nathan pays tribute.


I have a reasonably clear idea of the places and periods I’d visit in my time machine. After checking out the dinosaurs and then fast forwarding to a Shakespeare first night — and I don’t mean a first night but the first night, as in the very first Hamlet, either of the Henry IVs or The Tempest — I would then crash through the centuries to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem to watch Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie duel with each other while simultaneously inventing bepop.

From here my machine would need only a tweak to move forward a few years to the 1950s and south a few miles, to the middle of Manhattan, landing in a sixth-floor room on West 56th Street. It was here that Neil Simon, his brother Danny, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, M.A.S.H. creator Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, who died last Monday at 98, forged the funniest material known to man for Sid Caesar’s live TV series Your Show of Shows. (Allen and Gelbart turned up later, but I could toggle the machine back and forth as necessary. Says so in the instructions.)

In front of the camera, Reiner was often the deadpan straight-man to two of the funniest men alive, namely Caesar himself and later Brooks, opposite whom Reiner played the interviewer in the duo’s Two Thousand Year Old Man series of sketches.

But in that writers’ room, Reiner was the calm centre of comedy’s cauldron of talent that erupted in 
arguments over what line or inflection was funnier. The ceiling tiles were stabbed by pencils thrown around in anger or just cogitation.

In Reiner’s final interview, filmed for the web series Despatches From Quarantine, the son of Jewish immigrants Irving (a watchmaker) and Bessie riffs on a life well lived. He concludes that what counts most is your children. “The only thing that really matters in life is your progeny, the people who come after you, the people you send out into the world. They are either toxic or non-toxic.”

The progeny made by him and his wife Estelle, who played the woman who says “I’ll have what she’s having” in When Harry Met Sally, include Spinal Tap director Rob, psychoanalyst and poet Annie and painter Lucas. Yet it was the comedies Reiner spawned that matter most to us. He created the massive hit The Dick Van Dyke Show and launched Steve Martin’s film career by directing him in the ’80s movies The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and All of Me. More recently and in front of the camera he was the old-school crook in movies Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen.

He wasn’t religious, citing the reason for his atheism as the millions who prayed for God to get rid of Hitler but were ignored. However in his comedy God existed vividly. He directed George Burns in the movie Oh God! and in that last interview he tells a story about a man going to heaven and hoping to be let in. God says, “Who are you?” and the man says, “I’m man. You made me in your image,” and God says, “I don’t remember you. I remember the flowers which are really pretty and the insects which jump around, but what you do?” So the man does a soft shoe shuffle and God says, “Can you teach me that?”

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