Carl Reiner: Exit Laughing
Carl Reiner didn’t mean to create The Dick Van Dyke Show — or, rather, he didn’t mean to create a show for Dick Van Dyke. When he sat down to write what was then called Head of the Family, Reiner was basing its hero, Rob Petrie, on his own experiences as a suburban dad and writer for Sid Caesar’s sketch-comedy shows. So who better to play Rob than himself? Reiner starred in the pilot episode, with Barbara Britton as Rob’s wife, Laura, and Morty Gunty and Sally Rogers as Rob’s co-writers Buddy and Sally. CBS passed, but producer Sheldon Leonard suggested Van Dyke, who was a hit on Broadway in Bye Bye Birdie. Reiner swallowed his pride, made a new pilot with Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, and Rose Marie in the key roles, and history was made.
The Dick Van Dyke Show would be Carl Reiner’s one inarguable masterpiece, if it weren’t for all the others. Between Your Show of Shows and its follow-up Caesar’s Hour, Reiner was part of the greatest assemblage of comedy minds television has ever seen, working alongside, among others, playwriting giant Neil Simon, M*A*S*H‘s TV creator Larry Gelbart, and Reiner’s lifelong best friend, Mel Brooks. He and Brooks would be variety-show staples throughout the Sixties with their beloved “2,000 Year Old Man” routine, with Reiner as a classic straight man asking Brooks what life was like two millennia ago. In the Seventies, Reiner made Steve Martin a movie star with The Jerk, and re-teamed with the actor over the years for stupidly sophisticated gems like The Man With Two Brains and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. And, as aging con man Saul Bloom, he somehow stole 2001’s star-studded Ocean’s Eleven remake out from under George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and company. He was one of the giants of 20th-century comedy, and an invitingly avuncular personality onscreen and even social media up until he died Monday night at the age of 98, according to his son (and fellow actor-writer-director), Rob Reiner.
While CBS likely preferred Van Dyke to Reiner as their leading man because one was a midwestern WASP and the other was a Jewish guy from the Bronx, Sheldon Leonard also wasn’t wrong to suggest a replacement Rob. If you look at the Head of the Family pilot on YouTube, Reiner’s version is both smugger and more of a sad sack than Van Dyke’s take on the character, and not at all the upbeat, nimbly charming Rob whom multiple generations would come to know and love.
Reiner had also been a performer on the Sid Caesar shows (again, working mainly as a straight man, like in the classic “This Is Your Story” sketch), and he looked at Head of the Family as the obvious next step in his career. That he essentially wasn’t considered funny enough to play himself could have been a bitter pill to swallow — a few years ago on Conan, he recalled Leonard promising that the pilot wouldn’t fail twice, because, “I’ll get a better actor to play you!” But Reiner not only went with it, he also turned this new Rob and Laura into one of the great couples television has ever seen. He essentially created both the idea of the office comedy and of making TV shows about TV itself. Oh, and he found a different role for himself, as Rob’s Caesar-esque boss, Alan Brady. Brady is an offscreen voice for the first few seasons, but becomes more prominent later, including in perhaps the show’s most revered episode, Coast to Coast Big Mouth, where Laura accidentally reveals on live television that Brady wears a toupee.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was cosmopolitan in a way no one had thought of television comedy before, even though it had plenty of room for slapstick (Rob usually tripped over the ottoman in the iconic opening-credits sequence) and other elements of vaudeville. It was also a huge hit, one that set trends (Laura’s capri pants went from scandal to sensation in a hurry) and even merited frequent comparisons between its stars and John and Jackie Kennedy. The show could have gone on forever, but Reiner had produced more than 150 episodes across five seasons, Van Dyke and Moore both wanted to explore other options, and, as Reiner put it in an interview with the TV Academy, “We all wanted to go out winners. We were offered a lot of money to stay on for another year, but we knew that if we did another year, it’d be slogging.” As a result, Reiner was way ahead of the curve on the idea of ending a great show on his own terms, and of making an intentional series finale. (In the extremely meta “The Last Chapter,” Rob decides to make a TV show inspired by his work and home lives.)
The method Reiner used to generate many Dick Van Dyke Show plots was elegantly simple — on Monday mornings, he would ask his writers what they did with their families over the weekend, and ideas would inevitably percolate — and one employed by many showrunners who followed in his footsteps, like Phil Rosenthal with Everybody Loves Raymond. You can find the series’ DNA in half of modern TV comedy, including The Office and 30 Rock.
Though Reiner kept working throughout the Sixties and Seventies (including re-teaming with his old leading man for The New Dick Van Dyke Show), it seemed for a time that his star was being eclipsed by his son, who co-starred in the Seventies’ defining sitcom, the politically-minded All in the Family. The elder Reiner had written and/or directed a few movies, including the Doris Day vehicle The Thrill of It All, but his film career belatedly took off in the late Seventies, first by casting George Burns in the title role of Oh, God!, and especially with The Jerk. Inspired by a line from Martin’s stand-up act — “It wasn’t always easy for me; I was born a poor black child” — the film casts Martin as Navin Johnson, adopted son of a family of black sharecroppers, and who’s so naive he has no idea he’s not a biological member of the family. The film is one inspired, demented set piece after another, illustrating just how oblivious a human can be, most famously when a gunman tries to assassinate Navin during his job at a gas station and Navin assumes, “He hates these cans! Stay away from the cans!”
Reiner and Martin made four films together, all brilliant in different ways. (I’m partial to 1984’s All of Me, where Martin has to share his body with the ghost of eccentric millionaire Lily Tomlin.) Already in his mid-seventies when he directed his last film, 1997’s That Old Feeling, Reiner easily could have stopped working and lived high on his residuals for the rest of what turned out to be an exceptionally long and happy life. (I interviewed him briefly around this time for a profile of Caesar and felt relieved to still have Reiner with us, little realizing we’d be lucky to keep him for so much longer.) Instead, he began churning out books — decades after his autobiographical novel, Enter Laughing, was published at the tail end of his Sid Caesar period — and had an unexpected second act as a performer. The Ocean’s trilogy gave him the most celebrity of this period, but his face, or at least his voice, were frequent presences on TV for the past quarter-century of his life. (Go to Hulu to enjoy him in King of the Hill‘s Season Two episode “The Unbearable Blindness of Laying,” where he plays Gary, the avuncular Jewish boyfriend of Hank’s mother who has a profound effect on young Bobby. “It’s the cool new way people from Arizona talk,” Bobby tells his mom, aping Gary. “You want I should teach you?”) Not that he needed it, but this late-career acting renaissance felt like belated redemption from the days when he had to recast himself as Rob Petrie.
Reiner also became a beloved Twitter presence, joking around with Brooks and his other peers, but also opining on past and present culture. His final tweets, from a few hours before he died, were about Noel Coward.
It was a life well and fully lived, and a career few can ever dream of matching. Carl Reiner lived 98 wonderful years, packing in close to 2,000 years’ worth of achievements and laughter in them.