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“We’ll put the movie on, so I’ll remind myself,” Carl Reiner told me. “It’ll bring back thoughts.”
One afternoon last November, I found myself sitting in an armchair in Reiner’s den for a conversation about his 1979 film The Jerk. I had assumed I’d have about 20 minutes with the comedy legend, who was by then 97 and hard of hearing, and I was grateful to get it. But instead, when Reiner arrived and settled into his recliner beside me, he decided we would watch the movie together in its entirety with the sound off. I resolved to keep my mouth shut and my recorder running as the man who had essentially invented TV comedy gave me a personal director’s DVD commentary.
We were in the unpretentious Beverly Hills home Reiner has lived in for some 60 years, in a room with gently worn furniture, family photos and paintings by his late wife of 65 years, Estelle. Beside us were the TV trays Reiner and his friend Mel Brooks would be using later that day, when they convened for their nightly ritual of dinner together while watching Jeopardy and old movies.
There’s a generosity that characterized Reiner’s work — often the straight man, he enabled the other guy to get the biggest laugh through his deadpan composure. Reiner brought that same spirit of unselfishness and warmth to our afternoon together.
Over the next two hours, he covered topics from the upcoming election (“Biden’s a good man… He’s still young enough to be president”) to Estelle (“a criminally good jazz singer”), who is perhaps best known for delivering the line “I’ll have what she’s having” in their son Rob’s movie, When Harry Met Sally. Steve Martin had once told Reiner he learned how to be a husband from listening to how Reiner talked to Estelle. “He said, ‘You set a template for me,’” Reiner recalled.
There was some brief technological frustration over the DVD player, resolved by two women, Judy and Paula, who worked for and around Reiner with balletic grace. “He’s pushing buttons,” one said, eyeing the comic’s hand on the remote.
As scenes from The Jerk unspooled in front of us, and Reiner sucked on Wintergreen Lifesavers, he dropped fun asides, like that Steve Martin had broken the original ukulele that he was to have used to sing the ballad “Tonight You Belong to Me” with Bernadette Peters. Since they were shooting in Malibu at about 4 a.m., Reiner dispatched someone from the crew to retrieve Estelle’s ukulele, which Reiner still keeps upstairs. He reminisced about the dog in the movie — named Shithead — who “really took direction well,” and described how he and Martin commuted to set together most mornings, riffing on the script Martin had written with Carl Gottlieb and Michael Elias.
Some directors will remember their box office grosses before they remember the names of their children. With Reiner, the business of show business seemed mostly beside the point, the real point being to get a decent laugh. “What’d it make?” he asked me, in response to a question of mine about studio interference. “More than $100 million,” I said, “Off a production budget of $4 million.” “That’s pretty good,” he said. “Oh! Here, now this is funny. Pizza in a cup!”
At one point I steered Reiner toward the question of race in the film, which is based upon the premise that Martin believes he was born a “poor black child.” Asked if white and black audiences responded to the movie differently, Reiner said, “It got a terrific response from everybody.”
Reiner appears briefly in The Jerk as a cross-eyed version of himself, a victim of Martin’s character’s idiotic invention, the Opti-Grab, a handle to remove your eyeglasses. I asked why he had taken that thankless role, of all the parts in the movie. “Because we couldn’t find people who crossed their eyes good,” Reiner said. “I taught Anne Bancroft to cross her eyes. I can teach you to cross your eyes. Put your finger to your nose and look at your finger.”
The Jerk is a taut 95 minutes — much shorter than most modern comedies. “You don’t want any hanging threads,” Reiner said.
As I prepared to leave, Reiner stopped me. “I think I’ll give you a book that you might like,” he said. “There’s a couple of books.” He began pulling out giant, heavy coffee table books he had written on a range of subjects, from the history of radio to what he calls his “scrunch” books, which feature pictures of celebrities and works of art scrunched up so you have to guess what they are. We played the scrunch game for a while — he stumped me with a scrunched Brad Pitt. By the time I left, I had to take two trips to my car to carry all that Reiner had given me.
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