Comedy legend Carl Reiner on his creative process and what current TV shows make him laugh.
Written by Denis Faye
When you first hear Carl Reiner’s voice over the phone, you can’t help but feel a warm rush of recognition. It’s not a surprising reaction, considering we’ve watched him grace the airwaves and silver screen for over 60 years, from bit comedy on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, to innumerable sitcom roles, to venerable con man Saul Bloom in the Ocean’s Eleven movies.
So you enter the conversation with a certain familiarity that makes it all the more awkward when, after a few minutes of polite chitchat, he’s compelled to ask why on earth you want to talk to him.
“I got so many things that I’m doing lately,” chuckles the veteran comic writer-producer-actor-director, “that I don’t know which one I’m doing sometimes.”
Indeed, a look through Reiner’s resume shows that he’s been juggling scores of projects for over half a century, from his early work writing and performing for Your Show of Shows; to creating the Dick Van Dyke Show; to writing and/or directing Steve Martin’s early movies, including Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and The Man with Two Brains [both co-written with George Gipe and Steve Martin]; to his innumerable plays and novels, including last year’s novel Just Desserts: A Novellelah and his current writing project, a one-act play called Shakespeare was Wrong. “The play is not the thing,” he insists, “the audience is.”
Not many people have the right combination of experience and chutzpah to get away with correcting The Bard, which is why The Writers Guild of America, West Web site was happy to remind the 1995 Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television winner that we were calling to interview him for The Masters, our new column profiling the luminaries of the trade. From our perspective, at least, the conversation that followed was anything but forgettable.
How do you think comedy writing has changed in the 60 years you’ve been involved with it?
Gee, ya know, that’s a tough one. The only thing you can go by is what you do. On television, I know how it’s changed, and I attribute it to Ronald Reagan. In 1937, Herbert Hoover said the airwaves belong to the people. He was the Secretary of Commerce then. And in a half hour television or radio show, you couldn’t use anything but a minute-and-a-half for commercials and fifteen seconds for public service announcements. So when we did The Dick Van Dyke Show, we had 27 and a half minutes to tell a story, beginning, middle, and end.
And then Reagan came around and said, “No, the airwaves should be free for commercials. As many commercials as they need.” So the 27-and-a-half minutes is now 20 minutes. And to tell a story in 20 minutes, it’s much easier to tell sex jokes – or just do jokes, so even the best situation comedies have a tough time doing a beginning, middle and end, so I attribute the television’s problems to that.
Masters of comedy Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks.
But writing always reflects the times. Good writing is people realizing who they are, what they’re about, what their relationships are, and writing about them. That still exists, but there are so many more venues now, so there’s an awful lot more bad because there are 3000 places you can put your material. There’s one percent of good, going down to a lot of garbage.
What are you seeing on TV that’s exciting you?
There are certain shows I enjoy because they’re funny. 30 Rock and The Office – I always love The Office. And there are a couple other good half hour comedies. I don’t watch them every week, but when I see them, I say, “Yeah, that’s good!” I’m on one called Hot in Cleveland. I do that every few weeks, and that’s very well written and very funny.
I understand you were the lead in the pilot Head of the Family, which would become The Dick Van Dyke Show, but CBS was scared about it being too Jewish, so they replaced you.
As a matter of fact, nobody ever said that to my face. That was something someone laid out there and nobody ever said that. We did a pilot with Barbara Britton and myself and the reason it didn’t get on is because it wasn’t that well acted and it wasn’t that good of a pilot.
I wrote 13 episodes, and that was the first episode. I put it to bed after that. I said, “That’s the best I can do” and I started doing movies after that. I did one or two movies and then they came up again. Sheldon Leonard and I had the same agent. Sheldon was the producer. I said, “I don’t want to fail with this stuff again.” Sheldon said, “We’ll get a better actor to play you.” That was the phrase he used, and it was absolutely true. Maybe somebody said that to somebody, but at the time, I never felt that was an anti-Semitic problem.
As a matter of fact, when the pilot was originally done, Proctor & Gamble was so for it. They said, “It’s such a wonderful show.” They said they’d do anything, but that was the year of horses and guns. No situation comedies were bought that year that the Head of the Family didn’t go on. It was Bonanza and a lot of horses and guns.
Why do you think there are so many Jewish comedy writers as opposed to Jewish action writers or Jewish horror writers?
I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ll think about it, but I don’t know...
I tell ya what. It goes way back in time, where Jews were always taught that literacy was very important. There’s a wonderful story about during the Inquisition, when the Jews were thrown out of Spain, they were invited to come to Rome. Letters of credit where used then because highwaymen used to rob people of their gold, so they started to need people who could read and write. During the Inquisition, the Romans welcomed the Jews because the Romans were illiterate. I think it’s the literacy thing because the Jews thought it was important. That will answer the question. They were literate people, and they went to the arts.
You know, it’s funny. You go into the history of any kind of work that’s been done in our country, including the Revolution, and you’ll always find a Jew someplace.
So, you’re saying Jews might be more drawn to comedy because it requires more prose and it’s not just about blowing things up?
I think so.
I read your take on the straight guy/funny guy dynamic where you feel the straight guy is the driving force, the writer of the comedy in those situations.
Somebody noticed that, and I noticed it myself. That’s being a writer, where there’s a blank page, and you fill it up by asking the question. You don’t answer the question, but you ask it to a very intelligent and funny man, and you’re going to get a funny answer. And if you’re alone, then you write a book by asking the question and then answering it.
Somebody once noted that all the straight men throughout history were the writers. In Abbot and Costello, Abbot asked the questions. Going way back to vaudeville. It was always the guy who set the premise up. He was actually the writer.
What’s your creative process when you write?
I start with a blank page, and I put a line on it. I’ve done this a lot. I just put a line down, anything. And then I ask questions about it. The best example was a book I wrote called All Kinds of Love. I remember, from nowhere, I wrote the line – and I had nothing in my mind – I wrote, “He didn’t realize that hiring the Japanese tutor would have the impact in his marriage that it did.”
Now, that’s a funny line. I said, “Who is this guy and why is he studying Japanese?” Maybe he had to go to Japan sometime. “Why did it impact his marriage? I worked it out that he hired a man, but it turned out to be a Japanese woman who was very pretty and his wife got jealous. And it went on like that and became a rather good book.
I’ve done that a few times. I’ve certainly done it with short stories.
That would certainly be a good writing exercise for anyone.
Yeah, get yourself a premise you can ask questions about and then answer them.
Your comedy ranges from sitcoms like The Dick Van Dyke Show to Steve Martin films to bit comedy like the 2000 Year Old Man, which you did with Mel Brooks. Do you have different creative processes for such different kinds of humor?
No, I think it all comes from the same well. The 2000 Year Old Man is the most personal one. I’m with a genuine comedy mind. I just have to put out questions that have no answer, and he’ll find an answer. Or questions I don’t know the answer to and, hopefully, he doesn’t know the answer to and he’ll make up a ridiculous one.
That’s one type of writing. Dick Van Dyke was an easy one. I’d finished doing Your Show of Shows. Someone asked me to write a situation comedy and sent me a script that wasn’t good. My wife said, “You can write better than this.” I said, “Naw.” I’d written a novel, Enter Laughing, but I’d never written a situation comedy. And I remember talking to myself. I recommend that, by the way. Talk to yourself out loud and if you’re an intelligent person and you ask questions, you may get an intelligent answer. The question I asked myself at Franklin Roosevelt Drive and 96th Street was, “Reiner, what piece of ground do you stand on that no one else stands on? Write about that.” And I said, “Well, I live in New Rochelle. I’m married. I have two kids. I work in New York. I’m a writer on a television variety show – the Show of Shows. Write about that.” And that’s how Head of the Family, that would become The Dick Van Dyke Show, was born.
He lived at New Rochelle and he came to work with two other writers. He talked about his home life when he got to the office and when he got home, he talked about his work life. That’s exactly what The Dick Van Dyke Show was about.
With the Steve Martin movies, he brought a whole kind of intellect to his work. The first one was called The Jerk [written by Steve Martin & Carl Gottlieb & Michael Elias]. It was a line from his act, “I was born a poor black child.”
The next three, we wrote ourselves; myself, and George Gipe, and Steve. It was one of my favorite moments in the business. A long moment.
Of all the stuff you do, the plays, the books, the bit comedy, the sitcoms, the screenplays, which do you dig the most?
The most satisfying is the novels because you don’t need any help. Your audience is one person. You’re talking to the gentle reader. You don’t need a production head, you don’t need an actor, you don’t need a cinematographer. You just need the word and the page, and you’re talking to someone. That’s the most satisfying because the only censor is your own. You don’t have to say, “Will they like this?” “Will the studio heads accept it?” “Can we cast this directly?” You cast it by writing who you think the person is and the reader will either accept it or not.
You say somebody’s very handsome. The readers have different ideas of handsome, unless you describe it perfectly. The reader will make their own decision about what handsome is.