Enter Laughing: Carl Reiner, 1922-2020 | Tributes
Caesar’s writing room inspired Simon’s play Laughter on the 23rd Floor and the film “My Favorite Year.” But by far the best work based on writing “Your Show of Shows” was Reiner’s 15-Emmy-winning television series, “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” one of the most beloved and influential television series of the 1960s. In his “Dispatches from the Quarantine,” Reiner called it his best work.
The series was unusual because it gave equal time to the lead character’s life as the head writer of a musical comedy variety television show with a temperamental Caesar-like star named Alan Brady, and his life at home with his wife (played by Moore) and son. The original pilot of the show featured Reiner himself in the lead role based on his own life. It flopped. So, he re-wrote and re-cast it, with rubber-limbed Broadway newcomer Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, the writer, Moore as his wife Laura, and Reiner in a number of occasional appearances, most memorably the bombastic Alan Brady. In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, Laura appears on a game show and is tricked into revealing that Brady, like Reiner, is bald. Unlike Reiner, Brady was trying to hide it, and when Laura comes to his office to apologize, Reiner has a comic tour-de-force as he sits behind five of his toupees.
“The Dick Van Dyke Show” was memorable for its wit, for its depiction of a devoted and sexy marriage (for the early ’60s, meaning still double beds on TV in those days, but just look at the way they danced with each other). It had a unique Schrödinger’s Cat-type opening credit sequence because we never knew from week to week whether Rob was going to trip over the ottoman. It even dipped into some very early commentary on race in a couple of episodes. In a flashback, Rob became convinced that they had brought the wrong baby home from the hospital. Another couple with a similar name had a baby at the same time and there had been some mix-ups with their flowers and gifts. So, Rob called the other couple and asked them to bring their baby over. When he opened the door, we saw that the other couple was Black, getting the longest laugh in the history of the show. Reiner later said that he wanted the other couple to be gorgeous (they were: future “Mission: Impossible” star Greg Morris and Mimi Dillard) and he insisted on a present-day “button” of a joke at the end of the episode, with Rob saying he still thought the babies must have been switched because the other boy was so accomplished. In a column on the 50th anniversary of that episode, the New York Times‘ Neil Genzlinger quoted Reiner: “’I was very proud that in the tag I got that little dig in that their kid was in the top of the class and Ritchie was in the bottom.’ For Mr. Reiner, that gag was the real victory.”
As an actor, Reiner was often cast in everyman roles, like Gidget’s father in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian.” One of his best was the harried but game Walt Whittaker in “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!”, a wild comedy with some pointed commentary about the futility of the Cold War. He played God (literally) in his friend Brooks’ “History of the World, Part 1” and he was a courtly con man in the “Ocean’s 11” series opposite George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Reiner and Brooks created a classic sketch comedy duo with Brooks as “The 2000 Year Old Man” and Reiner as a reporter asking him improvised questions, featured on television and on five comedy albums, one a Grammy winner for Best Spoken Comedy and another added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. Reiner appeared on the animated series “The Cleveland Show,” which also gave him his last writing credit, for an episode about a talent show titled, of course, “Your Show of Shows.” And he played an animated character in 2020’s Pixar short “Forky Asks A Question: What is Love?” with Brooks, Betty White, and Carol Burnett. His animal character’s name, of course: Carl Reineroceros.