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In the fourth season of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope runs for city council. In our research we discovered that in towns like Pawnee, Indiana, senior citizens account for a huge percentage of local election vote totals. We designed an episode where Leslie had to win over a sort of “Godfather” figure – a man whose charisma and sway over the other retirees was so complete, the entire election might swing on his support. We wrote it for Carl Reiner.
Carl saying “yes” made us feel like we’d been knighted or something — like the emperor of comedy had decreed us worthy of his attention. I’m not sure if he understood that power he had — though we told him, certainly, when he showed up on the set. We bowed and scraped and genuflected, and in my memory he was lovely and self-effacing and thought we were being a bit silly. But we didn’t care. Adam Scott brought in a movie poster of The Jerk for him to sign. I asked him to tell me stories about The Dick Van Dyke Show, which when I was a kid taught me both what a writers room was and how to make one funny. It also introduced me to Mary Tyler Moore, a crush I never really got over. He told me she was one of the most talented people he’d ever known — I privately noted that he didn’t say “women,” but “people” — and told me I’d chosen wisely.
Carl was 90 years old, and we were a little unsure how the actual shooting would go. But he knew all his lines, of course, and did a million takes, funny in all of them. Always funny. We had a line where he told Leslie she reminded him of his brother, also named Leslie, which she took as a good sign … and then he said: “He lost a third of his body in a motorcycle accident.” The point was just that she’d be a little off-balance, not sure how to take it. Dan Goor, who was directing, asked him if he wanted to improvise a little. His eyes lit up. Dan pitched him the joke: “He lost a third of his body in a motorcycle accident — the middle third.” The absurdity of it made him laugh out loud. I’m endlessly jealous, eight years later, that Dan made him laugh and I didn’t.
He added the joke, and then just kept going: “He lost a third of his body in a motorcycle accident. The middle third. But they sutured the hell out of him. He’s — he’s fine now. Much shorter. But a good-looking, young, flat man.” Everything about it is wonderful. “They sutured the hell out of him.” What 90-year-old man pulls that sequence of words out of thin air? And the way he hits flat man at the end is like Simone Biles nailing a balance beam dismount. We used it all, naturally, though only after editing out both Adam and one of our camera operators giggling offscreen. It’s just one tiny moment in his oeuvre — a couple scenes in one episode of one show, 70 years deep in his career — but good gravy was he funny.
For 98 years, comedy flowed through Carl Reiner, and radiated off him, and trailed after him like an obedient hunting dog, ready to follow his commands. It fluttered around him, like the butterflies and bluebirds who dress Cinderella. And it never abandoned him, not ever. The Dick Van Dyke Show debuted 59 years ago and it’s still funny. Impossible — a magic trick. He was the original and best straight man ever born in The 2000 Year Old Man, and he somehow outshone George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Oceans 11. In the span of five years (1979-1984) he directed The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains and All of Me, and they’re all still funny. He just kept being funny, over and over again, for his entire, century-long life
You’re not supposed to be able to be funny for that long, in that many different ways. That’s the whole thing about comedy — it’s transient, and fleeting, and gossamer. Comedy from 10 years ago often seems horribly outdated, and comedy from 20 years ago is often flat-out embarrassing, and comedy from 30 years ago doesn’t even make sense. (All parents have suffered the miserable experience of showing our kids formative comedies from our youth, only to watch them stare blankly at the screen, bored to tears.) Comedians are doomed to watch their work curdle and fade as the culture lurches this way and that — they’re lucky if people just remember them fondly, or sentimentally, or nostalgically. No one gets to actually still be funny after 75 years in show business. Except, it turns out, Carl Reiner.
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