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It's like a bird. If he knew what he was doing, he would fall.

— Carl Reiner on his work on the live television revue "Your Show of Shows"

"Your Show of Shows" can arguably be called the great-grandfather of Saturday Night Live. Comedian Carl Reiner was one of the show's all-purpose creative geniuses (among other now-familiar names in entertainment including Sid Caesar, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and a host of others who've gone on to fame and fortune in both comedy and drama on stage, screen and television.

Creative genius Carl Reiner is a comedian as well as a director of films and television, writer, producer and actor. Beside "Your Show of Shows," he's probably most recognized for his writing contributions to "The Dick Van Dyke Show," his eight spoken-word LP recordings (and an animated film) of an interview/answer concept with Mel Brooks called "The 2,000 Year Old Man," writing and directing movies for a budding Steve Martin and most lately acting as the character Saul Bloom in "Ocean's Eleven" and "Ocean's Twelve."

Reiner is the winner of nine Emmy Awards, more than any other individual. (Although more have been won by television series/shows but not for one named individual.) Three were for producing and writing; the rest for acting.

He was born on March 20, 1922 in the Bronx, New York to a father who had a 'day job' but had appeared in Yiddish theatre, and a mother who was very supportive of his zeal for acting and the theatre. The family would go to traditional Yiddish theater frequently, their favorite acts being the comedies. Finally, a young Reiner got a job acting at the 63rd Street Daily Theater (for free, but actors would get a voucher for thirty cents at the cafeteria across the street). At the time, his day job (in a print shop) paid $8 a week. After a few weeks having trouble making ends meet, he gathered together the courage to go to the theater owner and ask for a raise. The boss threatened to fire Reiner if he told anyone else, but gave him a whopping $1 a week from there on in. When he left home to spend a season in summer stock theater in Rochester, New York, his mother asked "Why can't you get work closer to home?" But as a show of support bought the young actor an expensive suitcase and gave him her blessings. His family's encouragement with regards to the acting field was in contrast to the archetypal depression-era Jewish family encouraging their offspring to get good jobs with large companies that perhaps would provide some sort of pension for the future.

A bright individual and good student, Reiner was educated at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

He served in the army in the early 1940s, first as a radio operator. The bulk of his service was spent, however, in the Army Entertainment Section, which would put on plays and revues for the troops. Often appearing on the same bill as famed trombonist and band leader Glenn Miller, he played both drama and comedy roles with ease.

After a stab at dramatic road-shows he landed a part in the Broadway musical comedy "Inside U.S.A." with Jack Haley (of "The Wizard of Oz" fame) and Jack Cassidy. His success steered him away from drama altogether and cemented his future in comedy. Other notable Broadway performances were in "Alive and Kicking," and the lead in "Call Me Mister."

In 1950, he was tapped to work with comic geniuses Mel Brooks and Neil Simon on Sid Caesar's television program "Your Show of Shows." When the show folded, he went on to work on the funny but short-lived "Caesar's Hour" with Brooks, Simon and the young Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen. Reiner is among those credited with making the years 1948 to 1960 the "Golden Age" of television.

"Caesar's Hour" was taken off the air after just three seasons. During the ensuing years, Reiner got work both as guest and host of various TV celebrity game shows (one of which flopped with Reiner as host; he'd been instructed not to joke with the celebrity guests). The show went on to become the long-running "Hollywood Squares" with Peter Marshall as host.

I think that comedy really tells you how it is. The other thing about comedy is that — you don't even know if you're failing in drama, but you do know when you're failing in comedy. When you go to a comedy and you don't hear anybody laughing, you know that you've failed.

— Carl Reiner

Reiner and comedian Mel Brooks became fast friends. The beginnings of their enormously successful "The 2,000 Year Old Man" character are told differently in different sources. But one thing is certain; eight albums and two television programs later, the success of the concept is second only to comedian Bill Cosby's success with his "Fat Albert" character in recordings and cartoons.

Basically, Reiner is the straight man. Mel Brooks plays a 2,000 year old man who is interviewed by Reiner about myriad subjects, and the hysteria ensues. Examples:

On the creation of the Cross: "...it was easier to put together than the Star of David."

On Joan of Arc: "Know her? I went out with her!"

On Robin Hood: "He stole from everybody and kept everything — he just had a good press agent"

2000 Year Old Man: Paul Revere was anti-semitic! Yelling all through the night, the Yiddish are coming the Yiddish are coming!
Interviewer: He was saying the British were coming
2000 Year Old Man: Oh.

As one can see from the last example, of course, part of the humor is that the 2,000 year old man is somewhat forgetful, in an innocuous way that pokes fun at the elderly without being cruel. Throughout their bits, it becomes obvious that these two old friends love making people laugh with their definitively Jewish-flavored brand of comedy schtick. In fact, the albums become funnier to those with a modest command of the Yiddish language (or a copy of Leo Rosten's book, "The Joy of Yiddish".

The absolute truth is what makes people laugh.

— Carl Reiner

Reiner created the pilot for "Head of the Family," in which he also starred, in 1958. It was turned down by the networks. Out of the blue, a producer caught a screening of the pilot and said that he'd produce the show if the young Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore could star. The newly-named "Dick Van Dyke" show premiered in 1961, but the reality of the plot and its concentration on characters and not situations was way ahead of its time, and CBS nearly cancelled the show. After the second season, it was an enormous hit, and ran for six seasons, earning Emmy awards for many in its cast and crew. The theme of the show mirrored Reiner's life; the stresses of a television comedy writer who was hard-pressed to come up with new ideas week after week while enduring the antics of his family and in-laws. The reality theme and concentration on characters paved the way for such 1970's successes as "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Bob Newhart Show." To this day, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is a primer for any comedian aiming for small-screen fame. Some of the bits were way ahead of their time, but the entire body of work remains timelessly entertaining. The "Dick Van Dyke Show" is second only to "I Love Lucy" for frequency of syndicated re-runs to date.

Notable motion picture ventures for Reiner include 1967's "Enter Laughing," adapted from a successful Broadway play, which was adapted from a Reiner-penned book of the same name. Reiner acted in 1969's "Generation," a flop, and 1970's "Where's Poppa" with stars George Segal and Ruth Gordon. "Poppa" was not a box-office hit but remains a cult classic.

Reiner's work with Steve Martin resulted in four films: "The Jerk," "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains," and "All of Me." Reiner directed and co-produced all four.

Carl Reiner was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2000.

Reiner's latest role is in "Ocean's Thirteen," the sequel to "Ocean's Twelve" by Warner Brothers. It's slated for release in 2007.

Reiner has been married since 1943 to his wive Estelle nee Lebost, an actress. He is father of TV and film titan Rob Reiner ("All in the Family" etc.) and has two other children, Sylvia, and Lucas, an actor.

SOURCES:

  • Thinkexist.com: http://thinkexist.com/quotes/carl_reiner/3.html (accessed 12/30/06)
  • Allmovie (beta): http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll (accessed 12/29/06)
  • Jewish News Weekly of Northern California: "Carl Reiner Yaks it up About His Most Happy Tales" by Rebecca Rosen Lum http://www.jewishsf.com/content/2-0-/module/displaystory/story_id/12238/edition_id/236/format/html/displaystory.html (accessed 12/29/06)
  • IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0388667/fullcredits (accessed 12/30/06)
  • NNDB: "an intelligence aggregator about people ... deemed noteworthy": http://www.nndb.com/people/891/000022825/ (accessed 12/29/06)
  • NPR.org: "Carl Reiner" comments about webcast: http://www.npr.org/programs/npc/2000/001025.creiner.html (accessed 12/30/06)
  • Museum of Broadcast Communications site: http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/R/htmlR/reinercarl/reinercarl.htm (accessed 12/30/06)

 

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