"I knew we were doing something very good. When writers would come to work for me, I'd read their scripts, they would be full of slang and I'd tell them, 'fellas, don't use slang of the day. In reruns, five years down the line, we don't want to hear somebody say, 'he took out his gat.'"
About This Interview
In his 8-part oral history interview with the Archive of American Television, comedy writer/producer/performer/director Carl Reiner discusses his career from his stage work during his years in the service, to his television roles on classics like Your Show of Shows, Caesar's Hour, and The Dick Van Dyke Show. He recalls his film work and his days on the Universal lot, describes the origins of The 2000 Year Old Man and talks at length about his sketch comedy work with Sid Casear. He chronicles the creation of his first sitcom, Head of the Family, starring himself as the lead: a program that was later recast with Dick Van Dyke in the principal role in the reincarnated version known as The Dick Van Dyke Show. He comments on the Hollywood Blacklist, his admiration for fellow writers and for family members, and on whether or not he really wishes he had worn his hair for his first Emmy win. The interview was conducted in Los Angeles, CA on March 23, 1998 by Morrie Gelman.
Carl Reiner is one of the few true Renaissance persons of 20th-century mass media. Known primarily for his work as creator, writer and producer of The Dick Van Dyke Show--one of a handful of classic sitcoms by which others are measured--Reiner has also made his mark as a comedian, actor, novelist, and film director. From Reiner's "Golden Age" TV connection with Sid Caesar to his later film work with Steve Martin, the Emmy award-winning Reiner has touched three generations of American comedy.
According to Vince Waldron's Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, Reiner began his career as a sketch comedian in the Catskill Mountains. After serving in World War II, he landed the lead role in a national touring company production of Call Me Mister, which he later reprised on Broadway. Reiner's big break came in 1950 when producer Max Leibman, whom he had met while working in the Catskills, cast Reiner as a comic actor in Sid Ceasar's Your Show of Shows. Drawn to the creative genius of the show's writers, which included Mel Brooks and Neil Simon, Reiner ended up contributing ideas for many of the series' sketches. The experience undoubtably provided Reiner with a good deal of fodder for his later Dick Van Dyke Show. While he never received credit for his writing efforts on Your Show of Shows, in 1955 and 1956 he received his first two of many Emmy awards, these for his role as supporting actor. In 1957, Reiner conquered another medium when he adapted one of his short stories into Enter Laughing, a semi-autobiographical novel focusing on a struggling actor's desire to break into show business. In 1963 the book became a hit play.
By the summer of 1958, after Caesar's third and final series was canceled, Reiner spent the summer preparing for what many consider his greatest accomplishment--writing the first thirteen episodes of Head of the Family, a sitcom featuring the exploits of fictional New York comedy writer Rob Petrie. Originally intended as an acting vehicle for himself, Reiner's pilot failed to sell. However, Danny Thomas Productions' producer Sheldon Leonard liked the idea and said it had potential if it were re-cast--which was Leonard's nice way of saying, "Keep Reiner off camera." When Reiner's Rob Petrie was replaced with TV newcomer Dick Van Dyke--who had just enjoyed a successful Broadway run in Bye, Bye Birdie--The Dick Van Dyke Show was born.
As with Enter Laughing, Reiner's sitcom was autobiographical. Like Petrie, Reiner was a New York writer who lived in New Rochelle. Like Petrie, Reiner spent part of his World War II days at Camp Crowder in Joplin, Missouri, a fact that was brought out in several flashback episodes. Even Petrie's 148 Bonny Meadow Road address was an allusion to Reiner's own 48 Bonny Meadow Road home.
Perhaps it was this realism that contributed to the series' timelessness, making it a precursor for such sophisticated and intelligent sitcoms as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. Just as with these later works, Reiner's series placed character integrity over raw laughs. By being the first to combine both the home and work-life of the series' main character, Reiner also provided interesting insights regarding both sedate suburbia and urbane New York. The Dick Van Dyke Show also serves as an early example of the "co-workers as family" format, which has become a staple relationship in modern sitcoms.
Carl Reiner was one of the first "auteur producers," with his first thirteen episodes becoming the bible upon which consequent episodes were based. He continued to write many of the series' best episodes, as well as portray recurring character Alan Brady, the egomaniacal star of the variety program for which Petrie and crew wrote. After a tough first season in 1961, Leonard was able to convince CBS executives, who had canceled the series, to give it a second chance. The series became a top hit in subsequent years, enjoying five seasons before voluntarily retiring. Of course, the reruns have never left the air, and it, along with I Love Lucy, comprise some of the most-watched programs in syndication history. Those series, along with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, have also become the flagship programs of classic TV powerhouse Nick at Nite.
While many view The Dick Van Dyke Show as the culmination of Reiner's career, his films cannot be ignored. After directing Enter Laughing in 1967, Reiner went on to do several critically acclaimed films such as The Comic (1969), a black comedy which starred Dick Van Dyke as an aging silent-film comedian, and Where's Poppa (1970). Reiner also directed the wildly successful George Burns vehicle Oh, God! (1977). Reiner is also significant for his role as straight man in "The 2,000 Year Old Man" recordings, which he began with Mel Brooks in 1960.
In the 1970s, Reiner and Van Dyke re-entered television with The New Dick Van Dyke Show. While Reiner had hoped to break new ground, he became frustrated with the network's family standard provisions that hampered its sophistication. It wasn't until 1976 that Reiner returned to series television as actor and executive producer of the short-lived ABC sitcom Good Heavens.
Just as The Dick Van Dyke Show represented a departure from standard sitcom fare of the 1960s, Saturday Night Live and its most famous guest host Steve Martin were forging their own late-1970s humor. Once again on the cutting edge, Reiner joined forces with Martin as the "wild and crazy" comedian made the transition to film, with Reiner directing The Jerk (1979), The Man With Two Brains (1983), and All of Me (1984).
In a 1995 episode of the NBC comedy series, Mad About You, Reiner reprised his role as Alan Brady. In the fictional world of the newer sitcom, The Dick Van Dyke Show is "real," as is the Brady character. Reiner's performance drew on the entire body of his work, from his days with Sid Caeser through his work as writer, director, and producer, and the portrait he presented in this new context echoed with references to the television history he has lived and to which he has so fully contributed.
-Michael B. Kassel
CARL REINER. Born in the Bronx, New York City, U.S.A., 20 March 1922. Educated at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, 1943. Married: Estelle Lebost, 1943, children: Robert, Sylvia, and Lucas. Served in the U.S. Army, attached to Major Maurice Evans' special services unit, 1942-46. Worked in Broadway shows, 1946-50; character actor and emcee,television show Your Show of Shows, 1950-54; appeared in Caesar's Hour, 1954-57; appeared in short-lived Sid Caesar Invites You, 1958; emcee, Keep Talking, 1958-59; writer, actor, producer, various TV series, from 1960; director and star, numerous motion pictures since 1959. Recipient: numerous Emmy Awards since 1956.
1950-54 Your Show of Shows 1954-58 Caesar's Hour 1956-63 The Dinah Shore Chevy Show 1958-59 Keep Talking 1961-66 Dick Van Dyke Show (producer and writer) 1971-74 New Dick Van Dyke Show (producer and writer) 1976 Good Heavens (actor and producer)
1967 The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special 1968 The Fabulous Funnies (host) 1969 The Wonderful World of Pizzazz (co-host) 1970 Happy Birthday Charlie Brown (host) 1984 Those Wonderful TV Game Shows (host) 1984 The Great Stand-ups: 60 Years of Laughter (narrator) 1987 Carol, Carl, Whoopi, and Robin
Happy Anniversary, 1959; The Gazebo, 1960; Gidget Goes Hawaiian, 1961; It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, 1963; The Russians Are Coming, 1966; Heaven Help Us (co-producer), 1976; Oh God! (director), 1977; The End, 1978; The One and Only (director), 1978; The Jerk (director), 1979; Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, 1982; The Man With Two Brains (co-director), 1983; All of Me (director), 1984; Summer Rental (director), 1985; Summer School (director), 1987
Call Me Mister, 1947-48; Inside U.S.A., 1948-49; Alive and Kicking, 1950.