As It Happens

Carl Reiner was 'born with a sense of humour,' says The Jerk co-writer

Carl Reiner didn't have "a mean-spirited bone in his body" — which is no easy feat in show business, says a colleague and family friend.

Reiner — the writer, actor and director who created The Dick Van Dyke show — has died at the age of 98

Carl Reiner, pictured here at the 2010 Annual Directors Guild of America Awards in Los Angeles, has died at the age of 98. (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
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Carl Reiner didn't have "a mean-spirited bone in his body" — which is no easy feat in show business, says colleague and family friend Carl Gottlieb.

Reiner — the writer, actor and director who created the The Dick Van Dyke Show and starred alongside Mel Brooks in 2000 Year Old Man  has died. He was 98. 

Gottlieb is an old friend of Reiner's son, comedian and filmmaker Rob Reiner. He also co-wrote the 1979 hit comedy film The Jerk, which Carl Reiner directed. 

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue. 

Can you tell me how you first met Carl Reiner?

Rob and I became good friends and eventually shared an apartment. We had the same girlfriends [chuckles]. So, you know, Rob is a real close friend.

When you were living with Rob, did Carl ever come and visit?

Oh yeah. We were about four actors — Rob, myself and two other guys. We were performing in a theatre on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, and we roomed together to save money.

Carl and [his wife] Estelle [an actress and singer] came over to see the house. And at that time, Rob's going through a romantic breakup and was kind of shuffling around the house in a bathrobe in a depressive state. And Carl came bounding into the house and running up and down the stairs two at a time saying, "This is a great place! Look at the views! Which room is yours, Robbie?"

And for a moment there, the generations were reversed. Rob was the old guy shuffling around in the bathrobe, and Carl was the 20-year-old running up and down the stairs. It was a great memory.

Reiner, left, and his son Rob Reiner, right, attend the Carl and Rob Reiner Hand and Footprint Ceremony during the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival in 2017 in L.A. (Charley Gallay/TCM/Getty Images )

You had a chance to work with Carl Reiner on The Jerk and other projects. And as I look back, Dick Van Dyke at one point said that Carl Reiner was the best writer in the world. What was he like to work with?

Skilled, funny, sympathetic. Not a mean-spirited bone in his body, unlike a lot of people in our business who are kind of insecure or ego-driven or concerned with petty events. Carl was always jovial. He kept the job in mind. He was a pro. And, you know, if he complained, there was good reason, but he didn't complain as a rule. And I never saw him be mean or dismissive to anybody.

Everybody who auditioned for us, Carl would personally thank them when we concluded the audition. Even if we in the room knew that this actor was wrong for the part and was never going to get it and it was a waste of everybody's time, Carl would graciously get up and say, "Thanks for coming in." And as the actor was on his way out. Carl would say, "Thank you. You know, you're a very good actor."

And the actor left with a positive feeling rather than the rejection that all actors feel at auditions when they're dismissed. You know, "Thank you, next!" I never heard Carl do, "Thank you, next." He always said, "Thank you, you're a good actor." And the actor left with some dignity.

Writer Carl Gottlieb, pictured here during the 2016 Writers Guild Awards, says Reiner didn't have the 'mean gene' and was 'essentially good.' (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Writers Guild of America/Getty Images)

He had his hands in some of the most funny projects in all of comedy. [The] Dick Van Dyke Show, The Jerk, or some of his more recent appearances in, say, Ocean's Eleven. What was it that made him such a giant of comedy?

He knew comedy as well as anybody. He had an instinctive feel for it. I don't know where it came from, but I guess my own observation is that by the time you know what a sense of humour is, it's too late to acquire one. And he was, I guess, born with a sense of humour. He was always funny.

He believed in humanity. He had a great, enormous amount of humanity. That's what made him such a great straight man.- Carl Gottlieb, The Jerk co-writer 

He was responsible for an entire half-century's worth of comedic development. I mean, Your Show of Shows was the show, along with Milton Berle, that made television what it is. In the 1950s, you had to have a TV so you could watch Your Show of Shows. And Carl is a part of that. He was a writer on the show. He was a performer. He was a collaborator in the writers' room.

And that was the experience that led to The [Dick] Van Dyke Show, which was a kind of idealized replay of a variety show writers' room, which Carl knew really well.

That's when he bonded with Mel Brooks, who I'm sure is devastated by the news. They spent two to three nights a week together to this day. I mean, they'd watch old movies on television together, Carl and Mel.

Host Sid Caesar stands still as Reiner, left, and Howard Morris, right, pull opposite ends of his necktie in a promotional still for the 1950s TV comedy series Your Show of Shows. (Gary Wagner/Getty Images)

His career was always just slightly out of the spotlight. What was it about him that you think liked to be in the background rather than in the centre of attention?

His ego did not demand the foreground. He knew he was pivotal. He knew he was important. He knew his creative role. You know, in cases like the Van Dyke Show, he wrote hundreds of episodes by himself — no collaborators, no writers' room, just, you know, Carl Reiner's comedy, sensibility, writing.

So he knew how to do the work. And he knew that everybody who was important to him — his family, co-workers, network — they knew how good he was. He was well compensated. He didn't need to prove anything.

Anytime you say, "You know, what makes you so funny?" you could just say, "Look at his work. Look at anything he's done for the last 75 years, and you won't be disappointed. It was always funny."

Reiner, right, dances with Dick Van Dyke, left, and Mary Tyler Moore, centre, at the Kennedy Center Annual Celebration of American Humor Mark Twain Prize ceremony in 2000. (Reuters)

And what a record. There are so many people remembering him today, so many comics remembering him. Is there a memory that's going to stick out for you of Carl Reiner?

No, just the fact that he was essentially good, and he didn't have the mean gene. I never saw him be rude or dismissive to anybody. And in show business, it's easy to do. I mean, there's a lot of people whose behaviour invites rudeness and dismissiveness. But even if somebody was a jerk — lowercase J — Carl would treat them with respect or with dignity.

He believed in humanity. He had a great, enormous amount of humanity. That's what made him such a great straight man.

He was all of us. And that was enough for him. It's a burden, you know, to be [an] everyman. And he bore it well.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

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