At 94, Carl Reiner Reflects on Decades of Making People (and Himself) Laugh
"If I go tomorrow, I’ve had nothing but fun in life," notes the Emmy and Grammy winner, who is being honored at the TCM Classic Film Festival.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Winner of nine Emmys and a Grammy, Carl Reiner — the Dick Van Dyke Show creator, Mel Brooks collaborator and director of hits including Oh, God! and The Jerk — remains active as an actor and memoirist when he isn't receiving honors at such events as the TCM Classic Film Festival. "I've said a number of times, 'If I go tomorrow, I've had nothing but fun in life,' " notes Reiner, who celebrated his 94th birthday in March. An extended conversation with the prolific funnyman will follow an April 30 screening of his innovative comedy Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, one of four collaborations with Steve Martin. Reiner had a shorter chat with The Hollywood Reporter.
For memoirs or tributes like this, how do you get yourself in the mood to look back?
Well, I cannot stop looking back. I wake up from a sleep and I have two things in my head that I'm like, "Oh, I've got to put that down," and I'll write it down to remember it — or I'll walk around the block and something pops into my head — and they've got a bit of humor to them, I know I'm going to use it someplace.
Is Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid a movie you have a particular fondness for?
It was like a labor of love. First of all, it wasn't work because for six months before I started the film, I watched every film noir that existed from the '30s, '40s and '50s. It was like making the crossword puzzle. I'd have a line from an actor and I'd think, "How do I use that?" And I put them on a wall. We had a wall full of single lines. I remember we didn't have a name for our major actor who was going to play against all dead actors, and at one point somebody called him "Rigby" and we said, "Oh, one of his names is Rigby." And then we had a line from Charles Laughton that said, "Mr. Reardon, he calls himself a character." I said, "That's his name! Rigby Reardon." That's how it evolved.
In this age of computer editing and digital footage, have you ever thought how much easier it would have been to make Plaid today?
I'm doing that now by Photoshopping on this new book I'm doing. In the old days of editing, we actually used slicing and pasting. It's a whole new world.
Martin (left) and Reiner in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Steve Martin was a stand-up star, but what did you have to do to translate that into movie stardom?
He was like a rock star in comedy. He performed in front of 46,000 people in a venue and he said, "Oh, I got tired of doing that." He wanted to be an actor, but he had never acted before. So when I was called in to do The Jerk, he had never acted with another actor. It was sort of a revelation to him, that you can actually talk to somebody else, but he was the quickest learner I have ever seen.
From Martin to Sid Caesar to Brooks, you've had such success with collaborations. Are there common threads that characterize a good working relationship?
I'm a funny guy, I have a funny bone, but it's not as funny as theirs, so when I see somebody do things that I can't do, I appreciate it. With The 2000 Year Old Man, I never knew the questions that I was going to ask Mel, but I was laughing as much as any member of the audience. He's the funniest human being on earth. To be able to ask him questions about how the world is going is one of the greatest pleasures I've ever had.
When you look at the world around us right now, when you look at current events, when you look at this election cycle, does it seem that reality has become such a circus that maybe it isn't even possible to make fun of what's happening out there?
You know what I said to Mel the other day? I said, "You know, after all these years, how could we have so many people electing stupid people?" The fact that crowds of people come to see a man who makes no sense at all? Trump is a f—ing idiot. In my new book I have a picture of Trump. I said, "After hearing him speak, I got a new slogan. 'Let's put the Trumpster in the Dumpster.'" And it has a picture of him in a dumpster with bags of garbage around him, and it's a very cool page in my new book. I'm amazed people are still considering him. He's got more people going to vote for him. I'm hoping he does get nominated, because either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton is gonna beat him.
Then you think it is still possible at least to make fun of things even when the real things are as absurd as they are?
You have to make fun to keep yourself sane. If you can't make fun of them, you'll take them seriously and you'll be depressed for your whole life.
Do you ever marvel at how much less restricted television standards seem than when you first started?
Oh my God, aren't they? I did a thing for Joan Rivers once, a roast, they invited me to come. When I first was on television on Your Show of Shows, I remember Sid Caesar and I doing a sketch about the the First World War and the Luftwaffe were dropping bombs on us and Sid had a line where he's shaking his fist in the air and he says, "Damn you! Damn you!" And the censors said, "You can't say 'damn' on the air." Well, "So what did you want him to say?" And there it was, he was looking up at the sky and saying, "Darn you! Darn you!" So years later I told that story when I was roasting Joan Rivers, and I said, "We weren't able to say anything," and I said, "Now I'm going to say every word that is in me that I've never been allowed to say." And then I went with every expletive, the worst and most disgusting words and private parts, I spewed them for about three minutes and then I screamed at the heavens with my hands held heavenward and said, "Free! Free at last!" On television now, Bill Maher never bothers to do a show without saying "f—" at least 30 times.
How often did having to work around those limitations make you funnier, do you think? How often did you have to be more clever?
It's true. Curse words don't get the laughs they used to. Having parameters makes it sometimes easier for you. You said, "Well, they're here. I can work with them." You give a farmer a place to hoe his plants and he does the best he can with what he's got and he's happy to have it.
You've been looking back at Dick Van Dyke for a book. When you think about that, are there particular fights you remember having with the network?
Very little. One show the little boy asks where babies come from, and we said "They come from their mothers" — and that was it. They wouldn't let us say that! And I said, "We'd be doing a service for people who don't know how to tell their children; they'll say 'There it is!'" You know, tell your child only that much, which he can understand. I made a big point to them, and they said, "You can't say it." I was very upset with them, and if I'd had the money at the time — it was at the very beginning of the show — I would have quit. But instead I made a joke of it. [The boy asked], "Where do I come from?" And I said, "New York or New Jersey." And that was the joke. I was glad I found a replacement for it. But after that, I held my ground on anything we had to do that was a little touchy. But we censored ourselves before we got to [the censors]. We had a show where [Dick Van Dyke's character thinks] they switched babies at the hospital, and [he thinks] they have the wrong baby. [So he invites the other couple over,] and it's a black family who comes to look at their baby, and it's flowers that they exchange instead of babies. And when they came in the censors asked us, "Hey, do you think this will be an affront to the African- American community?" And I said, "Come to the theater and listen to what the audience says. It's a good natured laughter." And of course they accepted that. And that was the last time I ever bothered.
Before Dick Van Dyke, you came up in the world of sketch and variety shows, and those don't really seem to exist anymore. Do you see anything that is comparable today to the system you came up through?
Well Saturday Night Live still has the satire. I think it is still a viable show. Once in a while they get somebody on the show, like Kate McKinnon, there are people on that show that tickle me to no end. There are comedy shows and then there are some new guys coming up, the Trevor Noahs, there are new guys coming up who I've just seen for the first time lately. Where there's a crazy world, there will be funny or good comedians. The world is still pretty crazy. I was watching a real master, Samantha Bee. She is sensational. And also John Oliver. Of course every night time talk show host is the best of the genre, from Fallon to Kimmel to Corden to Seth Meyers. They are really good people and they deliver. They deliver a good monologue and they deliver great interviews.
The TCM festival is showing The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, in which you only acted. Are you a harsher critic of your acting work or writing/directing?
I'm not a harsh critic. I love what I do because I don't let it get out there unless I'm proud of it. So everything that people comment and say they like, I agree with them. And the things that I did that sucked, I agree with them, too. But I didn't do so many things that I'm not proud of.
With best pal Brooks (left) in 2013
TCM Fest Highlights and Hot Tickets
All the President's Men
6:30 p.m., April 28
TCL Chinese Theatre
Carl Bernstein, who is portrayed in the film by Dustin Hoffman, will be joined by Oscarwinning Spotlight writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for a conversation following the 40th anniversary screening of the film.
2:15 p.m., April 29
TCL Chinese Theatre
Francis Ford Coppola will discuss his Palme d'Or-winning 1974 thriller about a surveillance expert (played by Gene Hackman). The director will mark his hand- and footprints outside the theater that morning.
Band of Outsiders
9:15 p.m., April 30
Chinese Multiplex House 1
Anna Karina will present the Jean-Luc Godard film, featuring one of cinema's most charming dance sequences.
The Longest Yard
12:45 p.m., May 1
TCL Chinese Theatre
Burt Reynolds will be joined in conversation by producer Al Ruddy after a screening of the football-centric film.