James Burrows Remembers Carl Reiner: "The Comedy World's Greatest Straight Man"

Gerald Smith/NBCU Photo Bank; Inset: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Reiner and Brooks performed '2000 Year Old Man' on 'The Andy Williams Show' in 1966 (Inset: James Burrows).

The legendary TV director and go-to guy for sitcom pilots like 'Taxi,' 'Cheers' (which he co-created), 'Frasier,' 'Friends' and 'Will & Grace' reflects on the late Reiner's outsized impact as creator of 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.'

James Burrows — the legendary TV director and go-to guy for sitcom pilots like Taxi, Cheers (which he co-created), Frasier, Friends and Will & Grace — on Reiner's outsized impact on comedy as creator of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

I didn't know Carl that well — I met him a few times with Rob — but everyone who has ever worked in the sitcom world was amazed by him. Desi Arnaz, with Lucy, created the sitcom with I Love Lucy — he was the one who said, "Let's have three cameras rolling and an audience!" And then Jackie Gleason did it. For me, growing up, the ultimate sitcom was The Phil Silvers Show — until The Dick Van Dyke Show came along. I loved the audience, the simplicity of it, the common problems, the innocence of the problems.

For Dick Van Dyke, Carl assembled a cast of four that was just extraordinary — and I know from that, from Will & Grace, Cheers and Friends, you know? When your entire cast can do a joke, it's magical. Something that always amazed me was that in the first year of The Dick Van Dyke Show, there were 30 episodes, and Carl wrote nearly every one of them — and the writing was always unbelievable. That's extraordinary. So in the pantheon of great sitcoms, The Dick Van Dyke show is absolutely in the top five, and I always sought to emulate the quality of his work in my own. Plus, by the way, let's not forget, even before that, Carl was also the comedy world's greatest straight man — especially on Your Show of Shows and 2,000 Year Old Man.

When I was in college, and I was 19 or 20, I became a hero for my section of the dorm because my dad sent me two records — The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart and 2,000 Year Old Man — and I could not keep people out of my room. Everybody from that class will tell you to this day [paraphrasing a joke from the latter record], "The greatest invention ever was Saran Wrap!" 

This story first appeared in the July 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.