Long before Jerry Seinfeld reimagined television comedy in the late 1980s, there was Carl Reiner – a Bronx-born Jewish writer and actor who actually helped invent the medium back in television’s early golden age.
Carl Reiner’s death on Monday in Beverly Hills at the age of 98 marks another passing of a legend from another time, an era when Americans, while disparate in their politics, were largely united in their humor.
He would catch the writing and acting bug after his 16-year-old brother, Charlie, told him about a free dramatic workshop that was being put on by the Works Progress Administration.
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The teenager attended and was quickly hooked, giving up a career as a machinist. The entertainer seed had been planted, eventually blossoming and growing into a seven-decade career that spanned New York’s Broadway to mega Hollywood hits and television immortality, including Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
I first became familiar with Reiner as a teenager, back when my friends and I discovered “The 2,000-Year-Old Man,” his legendary sketch with Mel Brooks. In that classic, Reiner plays a reporter interviewing the supposed two-millennium-old Brooks, who describes the minutia of his life.
“What was your means of transportation back then?” asks Reiner. “Fear,” replies Brooks, lamenting, “I have over 42,000 children and not one of them ever visit me!” He then goes on to say his secret to a long life was a steady diet of nectarines. “Perfect temperature. Not too hot. Not too cold.”
The dry humor appealed to me back then – and still makes me laugh today. It was clever, something that is often lacking in today’s crass and bawdy so-called “comedic” environment.
Carl Reiner learned many lessons along the way, including the fact that success often comes from one’s willingness to take a chance and keep trying even when things don’t go your way. Most people who give up are often one or two steps from making it.
“Even failures can turn into something positive if you just keep going,” Carl Reiner once reflected.
“Even failures can turn into something positive if you just keep going,” he once reflected. “I wrote a television pilot called ‘Head of the Family.’ CBS didn’t want it. It was considered a failure. But we reworked it. A year later, it became ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’”
As both director and serving in the recurring role of “Alan Brady” on the iconic ’60’s sitcom with Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, the loud and obnoxious toupee-wearing character that Reiner played fit his temperament perfectly and he wound up endearing himself to the audience, going on to star and direct in dozens of other television and movies.
As Reiner edged closer to becoming a centenarian, death became more and more a topic of his interest, even despite the title of his last memoir, “Too Busy to Die.”
Just over three years ago, Reiner was featured in an HBO documentary, “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” – a line inspired by his habit of reading the day’s obituaries first thing every morning.
“How come we got the extra years?” he asks in a reflective moment. “Was it luck, good genes, modern medicine? Or are we doing something right?”
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It clearly wasn’t just the nectarines.
Today’s uptight, high-strung and angry world needs more humor – but the right kind – the self-deprecating, clever, zany and creative type that doesn’t tear people or institutions apart – it just makes us laugh and smile.
In the final years of Reiner’s life, the nonagenarian would welcome Mel Brooks into his home each evening for dinner, conversation – and an episode of “Jeopardy!” – which they would watch faithfully together every night. After losing his wife of 64 years, Estelle, in 2008, his buddy Mel Brooks was good company – and the feeling was mutual.
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“I don’t think I’ve ever had a better friend than Carl,” said Brooks earlier this year.
In Reiner’s death, classic American comedy has lost a friend – but thankfully, his many gifts and talents will live on in reruns and leave us laughing – every comedian’s dream come true.
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