Carl Reiner: farewell to the heavyweight master of American comedy

Peter Bradshaw

As the 21st-century dawned, it had looked as if comedy legend Carl Reiner’s final moment in the spotlight might be his small bittersweet role in Steven Soderbergh’s heist caper remake Ocean’s Eleven in 2001. He played Saul Bloom, the elderly conman and droll mentor to the two dudes in charge: Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), a role he reprised in two sequels. When Rusty initially tries to engineer a surprise meeting with Saul at the racetrack for recruitment purposes, it is Saul who catches Rusty unawares, tolerant but unimpressed. “I saw you at the paddock before the second race, outside the men’s room when I placed my bet. I saw you before you even got up this morning.” And he isn’t tempted when Rusty asks what he would want to get involved: “Nothing. I’ve got a duplex now, I’ve got wall-to-wall and a goldfish. I’m seeing a nice lady who works the unmentionables counter at Macy’s. I’ve changed.”

Reiner delivered the lines with a terrific naturalism, humour and grit. Yet his work rate continued unabated and almost 20 years later, in 2018, he had another sensational moment in the public eye – as the oldest celebrity on Twitter. He caused social media uproar by lambasting Trump before the 2018 midterms. “I’m 96-and-a-half years old. I lived through the Great Depression; I served in World War Two in our fight to defeat fascism; I’ve seen the invention of television and performed on television, even before my family owned one. But what I’ve never seen is the American people being lied to every day …”

This was a weighty intervention from American showbusiness royalty – or maybe deity. As writer, producer, director and actor, the indefatigably funny and productive Reiner had been around Broadway, around television, around Hollywood for six decades; one of the great titans and founding fathers of postwar Jewish American humour. Actually, his Trump broadside was hardly his first political adventure. In 1947, as a member of the American Labor party, he MC-ed a charity evening at Carnegie Hall in New York for veterans of the Spanish civil war, an event that caught the attention of the FBI. At the height of McCarthyism the bureau sent two agents to Reiner’s house to ask if he might care to name the communists of his acquaintance in the television industry. In his memoirs, he recalls: “I’m afraid I can’t,” I answered, smiling sincerely. “And why can’t you?” “Because I don’t know who they are,” I explained. “Communist actors don’t go around telling you that they’re communists!” It was a bravura performance that sent the G-Men on their way.

After his wartime service, Reiner acted in Broadway musicals and got his big break acting in and writing for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950s. He became part of the great generation that included Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Lucille Kallen, Selma Diamond, Woody Allen and Mel Tonkin. After this, Reiner’s tall, handsome bearing and rich voice got him work as host of game shows and panel shows, and it also made him an excellent straight man to the comedian who was to be a longtime partner: Mel Brooks. With brilliant intuition, Reiner improvised feed lines to Brooks’s “2,000-year-old man”, the elderly sage who would pronounce wisely on all topics.

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But his great moment on television was as creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show, about the writer of a fictional TV programme, equably played by Van Dyke himself with Mary Tyler Moore as his wife – who was to graduate away from this demure stereotype with her own show, a feminist landmark in the way TDVDS obviously wasn’t. But Reiner almost singlehandedly created a comedy language which was to endure for decades, giving us later Jerry Seinfeld in Seinfeld, Tina Fey in 30 Rock and Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.

As a film-maker, Reiner worked from the late 60s to the late 90s, most memorably collaborating with Steve Martin as writer or director or both, particularly on the lovingly detailed 40s thriller pastiche Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), and on the comedies The Jerk (1979), The Man With Two Brains (1983) and All of Me (1984), starring Martin and Lily Tomlin. He also directed Oh, God! (1977) from a screenplay by Larry Gelbart, featuring George Burns as the benign God who appears to John Denver’s harassed supermarket manager. Reiner often professed a fondness for his early, cult black comedy Where’s Poppa? (1970) starring George Segal as a depressed man who tries to scare his elderly mother to death.

Reiner with Mel Brooks doing one of their 2,000-year-old Man skits in 1961. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Getty Images

And all this ran alongside a staggeringly productive line in acting work, which won Reiner a shelf-full of Emmys and also Grammys for the perennially popular recordings of The 2,000-year-old Man with Mel Brooks. And he created a kind of dynasty in that his son Rob was of course to be a great movie director on his own account, and it was Rob’s mother Estelle – that is, Carl’s wife – who delivered the legendary line “I’ll have what she’s having” in When Harry Met Sally.

Carl Reiner was a great master who had proved his worth and staying power over years. For me, one of the funniest and most fascinating parts of his autobiography, I Remember Me, is his recounting of an intense discussion he had as a young TV writer about which number was the funniest, as the punchline for a sketch about roulette. Just as “chicken” is funny because of the hard “ck” sound, so there must be a funny number — and Reiner incidentally discounted “69” because of the sexy connotation. He wanted something more purely funny. Finally, mysteriously, he and his colleagues settled on 32, and 32 duly got a massive laugh. Reiner was the Gandalf or the Merlin of the American comic tradition.