Jewish American Heritage Guide Interview
When Carl Reiner tells his story—in his new memoir, I Remember Me, or in person in the modest-by-Beverly-Hills-standards house where he raised three children with his late wife Estelle—he does it with the timing of a comedic legend who barely misses a beat at 91. And he does it in a hodgepodge of perfect accents and pretty good Yiddish, which his mother spoke back in the Bronx. The man who created and wrote The Dick Van Dyke Show and calls Mel Brooks his best pal knows from funny. In celebration of Jewish American Heritage Month, Reiner opens up to Moment about going from serious actor to seriously entertaining, his favorite current comedians and television shows, and what he and Mel Brooks kibbitz about during their near-nightly dinners.—Lynda Gorov
LG: Let’s start in the beginning. Did you grow up surrounded by funny?
CR: No, but my parents liked funny. They always had the radio tuned to Amos and Andy, Jack Benny and Fred Allen, all the comedy shows. And they did take us to the movies. We went to see the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers. My father loved to laugh and my mother did too.
LG: So they were a good audience?
CR: Yes. I had an Uncle Harry, my mother’s brother, Harry Mathias, who was the first entertainer in our family. He used to come to our house and played the spoons and sang Heart of My Hearts. I love that melody. He went on the vaudeville circuit after the war, but my grandmother didn’t think it was right for a Jewish kid to go into the theater. So he changed his name to Harry Miller and played the Loew’s right around the corner from my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn, and she never knew he was there.
LG: When did you know you were funny?
CR: There was a guy [on the radio] named Lou Holtz who told jokes. I might have been 12, 13; I remember hearing him talk about the most stubborn man in the world. The routine was, “I go to the dentist and I say, ‘I have a tooth that hurts me.’ He says, ‘Which tooth?’ I tell him, ‘You’re the dentist, I’m paying you, you tell me which tooth.’ So I open up my mouth, he pulls out a tooth. ‘Is that the tooth?’ I said, ‘No!’ He pulls out another tooth. ‘Is that the tooth?’ He pulled out almost all the tooths but I wouldn’t tell him which one was the tooth.” The most stubborn man in the world. I heard these jokes; then I got the ability to be able to tell a joke, enhance it, build around it, put an opening to it. I was able to make my friends laugh.
LG: Did you plan on going into comedy?
CR: I was seriously thinking only of a career as an actor. Every week for a year, I did two shows at the Gilmore Theater. I was a very good, solid, serious actor. That’s what I wanted to do.
LG: When did you make the switch from acting to comedy?
CR: When the war happened. On my way overseas, I was in Hawaii as a teletype operator. My friend was putting together shows for the troops. I could do good Shakespearean double-talk as a comedy tool. That got me in. They traded me like a ball player. I got into Special Services and worked for the last year of my career in the Army as an entertainer.
LG: Has comedy changed since then?
CR: Comedy doesn’t work if it doesn’t reflect the times. We didn’t talk about Viagra 35 years ago or Depends or Cheez Whiz. Whatever’s current is what we talk about, the political arena and the social arena. Comics notice what’s a little askew and make it more askew. We have great ones commentating. No one is better than Jon Stewart. And Stephen Colbert found a character he plays of a right-wing guy who’s always so dumb he clarifies everything that the other guy doesn’t.
LG: Which shows and people are on your radar now?
CR: I’m going to watch Sarah Silverman when she’s on tonight, I know she’s going to tickle me. Is she Jewish? And Downton Abbey. I love Downton Abbey.
LG: Can you ever go too far in comedy?
CR: No. The only time you go too far is if you say something that’s so untoward that there’s silence. If there’s laughter you haven’t gone too far. And the more the laughter, the more you’re on the right track. There’s no subject that isn’t right for comedy. Death. Death, of course.
LG: I gather you fall to the left politically?
CR: To the left, of course. I don’t think there’s any real comedian on the right.
LG: Why do you think they’re not funny?
CR: Because they don’t hit the truth. You don’t laugh at something that is not true.
LG: What is it about being Jewish that
makes for funny?
CR: I think all people who are victims of prejudice, downtrodden people, have two things to do: They can moan or they can make fun, they can lift their spirits by finding the humor in the horror, and the Jews have been able to do it since Moses’ time. Some of the greatest comedians of all time were black: Burt Williams—he was a Broadway star in the Follies—Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby and, of course, Chris Rock.
LG: Have you always been an atheist?
CR: I became an atheist after Hitler came. I said, what is this? If there was a God, would he not be hearing 18 million people, 16 million Jews, or 20 million other people, saying, “Please God, don’t do this, make him stop?” God was so busy doing what? Striping zebras or fixing the long necks of giraffes?
LG: You and Mel Brooks have been friends since 1950. Did you know you would be friends the minute you met him?
CR: No, no, we worked in the office enough and our wives became friends. Estelle [Reiner, Carl’s late wife] sang. Twenty years, 30 years, they came to every performance Estelle ever did at the Gardenia. Same seat. They were big fans. So it was easy to be friends.
LG: So you and Mel Brooks have dinner every night?
CR: He sits right there. You’re sitting in his chair.
LG: What do you guys talk about?
CR: We talk about whatever is bothering us physically and what to watch on television. I have things that I like to watch that he doesn’t. I’ll watch situational kind of comedies that he’s not attuned to. We agree that we like Downton Abbey.
LG: Are you guys competitive?
CR: No, no, I’m not competitive.
LG: Really? He seems competitive.
CR: No, that’s why it works, because I’m so in awe of his brain that I flatter him within an inch of his life. And I mean it. There’s nobody like him.
LG: When you do the 2,000-Year-Old Man act, you’re forcing Mel into a corner.
CR: My premise is that you force a genius comedy brain into a corner and they’ll get out, but make it tighter and tougher to get out and they’re funnier and funnier. To save their life, they’ll come up with something funny.
LG: What would the 2,000-Year-Old Man have to say now?
CR: We say it. He says it. We look at all the idiots in Congress. They can’t get things done. And the Republicans are just dumber than ever. Or they’re not dumb, they’re smart for themselves.They’re rich people who want to get richer. That’s the thing that drives me absolutely crazy. The rich people think they need more money. They don’t.They won’t pay their proper share. There’s no arguing that. But that doesn’t even come up because they won’t discuss it. It’s maddening. The rich people are getting richer and richer. They don’t do anything with it and they keep saying if you tax this money, they’ll destroy jobs.They never made jobs; they kept their money. It’s just terrible.
LG: How does the 2,000-Year-Old Man make that funny?
RC: He doesn’t. The 2,000-Year-Old Man is on vacation. He’s made enough fun.
Photo: © Eric Grigorian