Carl Reiner

Key figure in mad, mad, mad world of post-war American-Jewish humour


Just over 50 years ago the American writer Wallace Markfield wrote a fascinating article for Esquire magazine called The Yiddishization of American Humor. “The Jewish style,” he wrote, “with its heavy reliance upon Yiddish and Yiddishisms, has emerged not only as a comic style, but as the comic style.”

One of the key figures in the rise of Jewish humour in post-war America was Carl Reiner, who has died aged 98. In the 1950s he acted on and contributed sketch material for Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour, starring Sid Caesar. In the 1960s Reiner was best known as the creator, producer, writer and actor on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In the 1970s he wrote and directed the four films that launched Steve Martin’s film career. He also co-wrote and directed some of Steve Martin’s first and most successful films including The Jerk (1979) and also directed notable comedies such as Where’s Poppa? (1970), Oh, God! (1977) and All of Me (1984).

Reiner and his close friend Mel Brooks made a series of famous comedy records based on their sketch, The 2000 Year Old Man, and he acted in films such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966), and the Ocean’s film series (2001–2007). Reiner received numerous awards and honours, including 11 Emmy Awards, one Grammy Award and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Carl Reiner was born in the Bronx in 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants. His father, Irving Reiner, was a watchmaker from Austria; his mother, Bessie (née Mathias) Reiner, was Romanian. His childhood was dominated by the Depression. He then served in the American army during the Second World War, entertaining American troops around the Pacific.

After the war Reiner performed in several Broadway musicals but his breakthrough came in 1950 when he was cast in Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows (1950-54), a live 90-minute variety show. He also wrote for Caesar’s Hour (1954-57) with some of the best TV scriptwriters of the time, including Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H) and many others. “I became a writer because of that room,” he recalled. “I’d say something and somebody would yell: ‘What do you know? You’re not a writer.’ So I became a writer.”

In 1960 Reiner teamed up with Mel Brooks as a comedy duo. This led to The 2000 Year Old Man, which started as a series of sketches and later led to five albums. Reiner was the straight man and Brooks answered his questions in a thick Jewish-American accent.

“I always knew if I threw a question to Mel he could come up with something,” Reiner once said. “I learned a long time ago that if you can corner a genius comedy brain in panic, you’re going to get something extraordinary.”

From 1961-66 Reiner became lead writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom that offered ground-breaking takes on race, sex and the Kennedy era. It was also the show that launched the careers of Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. According to The New York Times, “It is widely regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time.”

In his later years he worked with a number of leading younger stars, among them Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and George Clooney. From 1979 Reiner co-wrote and directed a series of comedy films with Steve Martin (The Jerk, 1979, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, 1982, The Man with Two Brains, 1983 and All of Me, 1984). Altogether, he wrote more than two dozen books, directed 15 films and acted in more than 30 films, including playing Saul Bloom in the first three Ocean’s films (2001-07).

In 2012 Reiner appeared as a guest on Jerry Seinfeld’s show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. They talked at a diner about his comedy career and Reiner invited Jerry to have dinner with him and Mel Brooks. Reiner and Brooks, friends since the 1950s, had a takeaway and watched movies together every night. “My dad’s friendship with Carl goes back 70 years,” said Brooks’s son Max. “They became friends in 1950, so their friendship is old enough to collect Social Security.” When Reiner died, those who paid tribute to him included Brooks, Woody Allen, Alan Alda and Jerry Seinfeld.

In 1943, Reiner married singer Estelle Lebost. He was 21 and she was 29. The two were married for 65 years until her death in 2008. It was Estelle who delivered the memorable line — “I’ll have what she’s having” — in the deli scene of When Harry Met Sally.

She died on October 25, 2008, aged 94. He is survived by their three children, actor and director Rob Reiner (one of the stars of the 1970s TV hit show All in the Family, and director of When Harry Met Sally), author Sylvia Anne Reiner and artist Lucas Reiner.

David Herman

Carl Reiner: born March 20, 1922, New York. Died June 29, 2020, Los Angeles

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