Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': The Carl Reiner Interview

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on August 28, 2017 8:25 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're celebrating our 30th anniversary as a national daily show with interviews from our first two years on the air. In 1988, Terry spoke with Carl Reiner. Back in the '50s, he wrote for Sid Caesar's hit variety series "Your Show Of Shows." His experiences back stage inspired him to create the classic sitcom "The Dick Van Dyke Show." He also acted in movies, directed films, including "Oh, God!" "The Jerk" and "All Of Me," and wrote a bunch of books. At 95, his latest is "Too Busy To Die." When Terry spoke with Carl Reiner they began with a clip from "Your Show Of Shows" with Reiner and Caesar. Reiner speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS")

CARL REINER: Your roving reporter Carl Reiner here at LaGuardia Airport, awaiting the arrival of a plane load of eminent visitors. Among them, the distinguished marriage consultant and author of that famous best-seller "Happy, Though Married." And here he comes now, Dr. Heinrich von Harsick (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

REINER: (As character) Doctor, do you consider it necessary for a married couple to have like interests?

SID CAESAR: (As Dr. Heinrich von Harsick) You mean the same - the same interests?

REINER: (As character) Yes.

CAESAR: (As Dr. Heinrich von Harsick) Oh, of course. That's very important. Now, suppose you marry an intelligent woman, see? And she likes to go to the opera. You should go to the opera with her. Maybe she likes to go to the ballet. You should go to the ballet with her. Maybe she likes to go to a lecture. You should go to the lecture with her. Maybe she likes to read a book. You should read that book. In other words, if you want to be smart, marry a stupid woman and you don't have all these problems.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: (As character) Doctor, I understand that I great problem in marriage is...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: You did "Your Show Of Shows." You were one of the stars of it. You were one of the writers on it. And it really turned into one of the most important shows in the history of television. Did you have any sense...

REINER: Well, it was the first of its kind. And I think that makes it important. It was the first of its kind. And luckily, it was excellent. I mean, the first of its kind sometimes isn't revered. It's just that you break some ground. But this was the first of its kind. And it was peopled by extraordinary writing and performing talent. Max Liebman had a great eye for selecting people that might be stars someday. And he found Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Before that, he had worked with Danny Kaye. So he really had a good eye.

GROSS: How did he find you?

REINER: He found me in a Broadway show. I was performing in a Broadway show. And the first full year of "Your Show Of Shows" was about to go on the air, and he needed somebody to support Sid Caesar. And I had been a first banana up to that time. I had been a leading comedian. And he invited me to become the second banana, when I had seen Sid in "Tars And Spars" and another venture on Broadway, "Make Mine Manhattan." And I thought this guy was an extraordinary talent and being a second banana to such a massive first banana didn't - wasn't a come-down at all for me. I realized I was working with the best.

GROSS: So being second banana to Sid Caesar - did he want to get - was he the kind of performer who wanted all the good lines for himself? Was he a hog in any way?

REINER: No, no. As a matter of - no, as a matter of fact, he was very good about the piece being right. And if you got a laugh, and if you did something funny, he would never say, ooh, let me do that. He just lets you do it. As a matter of fact, Sid was the best double talker in the whole world. He double-talked French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, what have you. And I also was pretty good at double talk. And I knew I would never get to do my double talk impressions. And so I came up with the idea of doing foreign movies. In the third week of "Your Show Of Shows" that was on the air - the third week it was on the air. And it was such a success. As a matter of fact, that's the way I became a writer without a portfolio. Up to that time, I'd been just an actor. And now I was just an actor - but who had some ideas. So I was always in the writers' room from then on. I never - we never got credit in those days for writing. Actors were actors, and writers were writers. But I did learn my craft working with those brilliant writers.

GROSS: Several of the writers on the program were Jewish - you, Mel Brooks toward the end of...

REINER: Mel Brooks is Jewish?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, that's what I heard.

REINER: That's a shock.

GROSS: That's what I heard.

REINER: That's a shock.

GROSS: Woody Allen worked on the show towards its end. And who knows who else I'm not mentioning here? But I was wondering if you were allowed to do Jewish characterizations, to have Yiddish words or to use a Jewish accent in the show.

REINER: Oh, we - no, I don't think we ever used the Jewish accent. I don't know. After the war and during the war and before the war, it became - well, it was - people decided that making fun of any ethnic group was not good for people who were being slaughtered by somebody who thought they weren't worthy of living. So we - but we did use a lot of Yiddish words, especially in our Japanese movies we did. I remember some of the names. Shtarker Yamagura (ph) - Shtarker meaning strong. But it had a Japanese sound to it. Baron Kashamoto (ph). Kasha is a word - is food. But we always - anytime we used the Jewish word, we didn't allow that to lay out there alone. We always had another joke that everybody who didn't understand the word would be watching at the same time that joke was happening. We were very responsible to our audience - not to do inside jokes that only some people would get.

GROSS: I bet there were a lot of Yiddish-type sketch ideas that you came up with behind the scenes that you ended up tossing out since it wasn't appropriate for TV.

REINER: Well, as a matter of fact, the 2000-year-old man was in the office with us every day. And every time we got bored, I turned to Mel and I interviewed the 2,000-year-old man...

GROSS: Oh, really?

REINER: ...Who basically was of the Hebrew persuasion. (Laughter) So we had that.

GROSS: How did you come up with the idea of the 2000-year-old man? What was the story behind that?

REINER: Well, it was a very simple story. I came in one morning, having seen something irresponsible on television and somebody who actually claimed to have been someplace they couldn't have been. And I said, oh, that's a ridiculous thing. I don't know why they put that on the air. And in anger, I said to Mel, I understand you were actually at the scene of the crucifixion, sir.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REINER: He said, oh, boy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

REINER: And then started a 10-year interview that I did every time we got bored in the office. I'd turn to Mel and question about all the people he knew, having lived 2000 years from Jesus Christ on to the present day.

DAVIES: Carl Reiner speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1988. After a break, we'll hear Reiner talk about creating "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And we'll listen to Terry's interview with bossa nova composer Antonio Carlos Jobim. I'm Dave Davies, and we're celebrating 30 years as a national daily program. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN GETZ AND JOAO GILBERTO'S "O GRANDE AMOR")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're kicking off a weeklong celebration marking our 30th anniversary as a national program with interviews from the early days of our nationwide broadcasts. Let's get back to Terry's interview with writer, actor and director Carl Reiner. Terry spoke with Reiner in 1988. Here's a scene from "The Dick Van Dyke Show," which Reiner created. Reiner played Alan Brady, the self-centered star of the show Dick Van Dyke writes for. Dick's wife Laura, played by Mary Tyler Moore, is in Brady's office to apologize for publicly revealing that Brady is bald and wears a toupee. His toupees are on his desk. First, he talks to Laura, then talks to his toupees.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW")

REINER: (As Alan Brady) No, don't say anything. Let me look at you. Fellas...

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: (As Alan Brady) There she is. There's the little lady who put you out of business.

(LAUGHTER)

REINER: (As Alan Brady) Your husband's going to let you take the rap all by yourself, huh?

MARY TYLER MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) Oh, no. No, Alan, if Rob knew that I was here he'd kill me.

REINER: (As Alan Brady) Good, I'll call him.

MOORE: (As Laura Petrie) No, Alan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let me ask you a little bit about "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I've always assumed that the show was based on your experiences writing for and performing in "Your Show Of Shows."

REINER: Did you come that - did you come to that on your own or did you read it someplace?

GROSS: All right, all right (laughter).

REINER: Because...

GROSS: OK, so it's obvious (laughter).

REINER: No, no, but it - yeah, it was based on my life as a writer, actor on the "Show Of Shows." And it was my home life fantasized and satirized and lied about. No, but basically it was - the husband and wife on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was my wife and myself. I mean, that's all I knew. I knew - I don't know - I knew no other marriage intimately. And we've been married 45 years, and at that time it was about 20 or 30 years.

GROSS: Does that mean that when you came home every night you said, hi, honey, I'm home?

REINER: No, because usually the kids heard me first. And there's a car coming in the driveway, a dog barking, a big dog. She knew I was home when I came home. I never said hi - (laughter) as a matter of fact, hi, honey, I'm home was probably hardly ever said. I think maybe I used it once because that was a cliche of all situation comedies. And I rarely used that. I mean, he probably said it one or two times. But most of the time we started with the script. If he said, hi, honey, I'm home, it was for a reason, not just to start a script.

GROSS: Did you ever trip over the divan on your way into the living room?

REINER: I'm a klutz. My wife - I didn't do that, but I don't know how many thousands of times I stepped onto the back of her scuffs while she was walking and I was walking behind her and had her, you know, tripping forward. I think most men are klutzy in some areas. I mean - oh, except for maybe Baryshnikov. I think Baryshnikov and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire and Cary Grant never tripped.

Although I did see Cary Grant trip once. We shared offices near each other, and I saw him coming out of his car and tripping on the curb all by himself. But he did such a graceful trip. He turned around like Cary Grant does and he looked at what he tripped at and then sort of danced away from it. He was all by himself. But most people are klutzy. I think most men are klutzy. And I think it's an endearing quality we have that we are not totally graceful.

GROSS: "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is - has become one of the really classic sitcoms from television. Was it nevertheless a difficult show to sell to the network after you had created it?

REINER: No. As a matter of fact, the network bought it right away. They knew the quality of the show, and they knew the performances were very winning. Our ratings the first year weren't the best because we were on opposite - Perry Como, who was riding real high at the time, had a wonderful show, a variety show. And they were thinking of canceling us the second year because we were only half sponsored.

But Sheldon Leonard, our executive producer, got the other half sponsored. And I voted for a very sort of dramatic thing that was not being done at the time, to rerun it during the summer. I said, people who didn't see us can sample us now. People who watched Perry Como can sample us. And it happened. They sampled us and they stayed with us the following year and for the next five years.

GROSS: How did you cast yourself as Alan Brady, the star of the show?

REINER: How - why did I cast myself doing it originally?

GROSS: Yeah, how did you cast yourself doing it?

REINER: Oh, you mean the - well, I was looking for a major star. And I knew I couldn't get a major star to play a major star by - and giving him so many small scenes to do. So I said, I've got to find somebody who they would think was a star. And then I cast myself as - well, I was a second banana, but I was close to being a star.

And the first year I didn't turn around. I used the back of my head. I used myself on a phone or under a towel when I was being shaved or something. And I didn't show my face because I didn't want the audience to say, oh, is that the star? He's not big enough. But by the second and third year the scripts got so elaborate and they seemed to like Alan Brady that I turned him around and showed who he was. And it turned out to be me. And nobody was terribly disappointed, so we stayed with it.

GROSS: Let me ask you about your son, Rob Reiner. He first became an acting star on "All In The Family" as Meathead. And then he became a director, directing movies like "Princess Bride," "Spinal Tap," "Stand By Me." Did you ever expect him to go into show business?

REINER: Not when he was very young, although he had a tremendous ability to remember everything he'd ever seen. I mean, he's one of these kids who absorbs - he was one of those kids who absorbed everything he saw on television and movies. But he never stated it loudly that he was going to - but in his heart he wanted to be a director always. Isn't that amazing? And he only told us about it later. When he was about 19 years old, I saw him direct a - Ricky Dreyfuss and he were friends when they were in high school. And he directed a version of "No Exit" by Sartre, and it was brilliant. He was only about 18 or 19 at the time.

At that point, his road was starting to be paved. He wanted to be a director. And there was no question that he knew that. And he wasn't telling it to everybody because, you know, when you're young and say, I want to be a director, they say, get out of here. And he had it in his mind. I'm sure all the time he was on "All In The Family" he was planning it.

GROSS: Do you show each other your work?

REINER: Oh, yes. Last - you're asking something very, very current. You're the first one - FRESH AIR has got the first piece of information about this. Last night I saw a preview - not a preview, a rough cut of Rob's new movie, which he's not sure of the title yet. So far it's "Harry, This Is Sally" or "Sally, This Is Harry" - I'm not sure of the title - with Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby. Well, I'm going to go on record as saying it is the most beautiful, successful, glorious romantic comedy that I have ever seen. I called Rob today and I said, gee, whether I'm your father or not has nothing to do with this. I mean, that is a masterwork of movie making.

GROSS: One last thing, does writing comedy help make life any more enjoyable? Do things - can you put a comic spin on things in real life?

REINER: Oh, yes, because writing comedy and writing successfully, having your pictures made and people laugh at it - you know what happens? They give you money for that. And giving you - and you take that money. You buy a house. You buy a nice car. Get good clothes, good food. Of course, when you get older, you can't eat the really good food. You got to eat the simpler food. But it does make life very pleasant.

GROSS: Carl Reiner, I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Thank you.

REINER: Well, thank you for having - and FRESH AIR is such a wonderful title.

GROSS: Oh, I'm glad you like it.

REINER: I hope we kept the air fresh.

DAVIES: Carl Reiner speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Coming up, we'll hear Terry's interview with bossa nova composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEE TRIO'S "LOLA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.