Comedy Icon and Television Pioneer, 1922-2020.
No one’s career spans the history of television like Carl Reiner’s. He broke out as a featured performer on Your Show of Shows, a comedy revue starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.
Reiner was still working nearly 70 years later, voice acting as Carl Reineroceros in the series Forky Asks a Question last year (and in the Toy Story 4, which spun off the Forky series). In between, he was everywhere, guest starring on dozens of shows across the decade and having regular roles on series in every decade but the 80s. From 2000 on he even experienced a kind of renaissance – a Reinerssance? – when he along with his other credits he began piling up credits for voice acting.
And that’s just Reiner the actor. He was also a writer, producer, and director – working with early television greats like Caesar and Dinah Shore, creating television movies, documentaries, and sitcoms. And that’s just television. He was also a significant presence on Broadway, where his career as an actor began and where he saw two of his books turned into stage productions. Oh, and that reminds me: he wrote books! Fiction, memoirs, short stories – even a children’s book.
And yes, Carl Reiner left his imprint on film, too. He showed up on screen from time to time, notably in the Oceans series. He also established a working relationship with Steve Martin that every 80s teen will remember fondly, giving us The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and The Man with Two Brains.
But it was for one show, and one character that Carl Reiner is best remembered. He created The Dick Van Dyke Show, the story of a family man working as a writer on a comedy revue, based on his own experiences writing for Sid Caesar. Reiner even initially cast himself in the lead role. Stories that the network required someone wasp-ier as the lead are unsettling, but what came to be was exactly right. Dick Van Dyke was perfect in the lead, and Reiner, as it turned out, was perfect as his bullying, egomaniacal, acerbic boss, Alan Brady.
Brady was not seen for the first few seasons of the show. He was a disembodied but demanding voice, or a figure with his back turned. And yet, when he began to (fully) appear, Reiner demonstrated that he could steal a scene as well as anyone in the show’s supernaturally talented ensemble cast. The episode in which Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) unwittingly tells the whole world that Alan wears a toupee ranks as one of the funniest episodes of a brilliantly funny series.
In recent years, Reiner the actor, writer, director, and producer came to mean something else to us. He was Reiner the survivor. He was part of a small circle of Hollywood nonagenarians – including Van Dyke, Betty White, and Reiner’s best friend Mel Brooks, who seemed to be not just surviving, but thriving. As the world seemed to grow more unstable, our political and literal survival less certain, this group of comedians continuing to laugh in the face of it all seemed its own form of resistance.
It was on Your Show of Shows that Reiner first met Mel Brooks, and the two of them formed a comedy duo for the ages. But beyond that, they became friends for the ages. In recent years, both of them widowed, they spent every evening together eating dinner and watching Jeopardy and movies. The friendship had become such a powerful symbol that upon hearing Reiner was gone, many of the comments on Twitter expressed immediate concern for Mel Brooks.
Of course, Carl Reiner also had children feeling the loss. One of his last tweets, a few days before he died, expressed gratitude for his wife and three children: Annie, Lucas, and the director, Rob Reiner. His last photo on social media showed him, smiling, with Mel Brooks and Annie, all three of them wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. By all accounts he was a devoted and doting parent. In announcing his father’s death Rob Reiner called him his “guiding light”.
I took the news of Carl Reiner’s passing harder than I should, rationally. He was 98 years old. He had a good, long, happy life. I loved The Dick Van Dyke show as a child, and thanks to streaming platforms I can still watch it, and I still love it. I can enjoy seeing Laura Petrie crack under the weight of Alan Brady’s ruthless sarcasm.
So why did I weep? Why did I go through the day with such deep sadness? I think it’s because of what Reiner and the rest of those Golden Era survivors represent to me: resilience. Hope that this mad world is not going to defeat us, that we can defy the chaos and keep going. Of course, it was never a fair burden to lay on Reiner or his friends that they live forever just to inspire the rest of us. And when the ache in my chest subsides, I’ll remember that Reiner still taught us powerful lessons about living well in perilous times: keep working, love your family well, hold your friends close. And don’t curse the darkness; laugh at it.