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Carl Reiner -- The Art Of Being Funny

02/01/2013 06:52 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013
  • Pat Gallagher Celebrity/Entertainment Journalist, www.twitter.com/@pat_gallagher

If Carl Reiner were a painting, he would be a Picasso. Reiner will leave "permanent marks on every discipline he entered" -- television and film producer, writer, director and comedian. At 90, this eclectic showman is a true role model for every person who has ever attempted to entertain the masses. His credits include writer/producer of "The Dick Van Dyke Show;" director of "The Jerk;" comedian on "Your Show of Shows" and "The Steve Allen Show." (It's a long list.)

It is no accident that the best friend of The 2000 Year Old Man is talking to The Huffington Post. I've waited my whole life to speak with this genius so when the little voice inside my head said, 'Ask Carl Reiner's people if he'll talk to you for THP,' I had to pinch myself when he said yes. I (@pat_gallagher) tweeted. He (@carlreiner) responded: "Do not pinch yourself for I have been looking forward to pinching you forever." (Let the pinching begin.) Reiner's self-published memoir "I Remember Me" is waiting for its audience. Until his fans can get to the bookstore (or download the eBook), we thought we would pick his brain to find out what makes him tick. You want funny? Begin reading. (Yes, he talks orgasms.)

Thanks for talking with me for The Huffington Post. I couldn't wait to talk to you!

Yes, we've been tweeting each other. I just learned about tweeting, and I think it's addictive.

I'm addicted to Twitter also. I don't know if there's a pill we can take for that.

(Laughs) I wouldn't want to.

I've liked you so much for so many years, and I had about a thousand questions for you but I tried to narrow them down to under 30.

OK, I will answer or lie about any of them.

That's fine with me. When you're lying, I don't need to know that.

(Laughs) No, no, I won't lie. That's the nice thing about my age. You can tell the truth finally -- about everything.

How does it feel to be 90?

You know, the alternative is terrible ... I check the obits every day. I really look to see, hoping that most of the people in the obits are older than me. I like to see 107-year-old people in the obits. But when they're 70 and 80, it hurts me. (Laughs)

You said recently, "I've lived a long time, and the only thing that works well is my head." What's going on from the neck down?

I still walk around the block every day, but the other day, I picked up a piece of mail in my living room and I turned around and tripped on my own foot (laughs) and went flying in the air. I had a bone density test a few months ago and they told me I have the bones of a 25-year-old. Thank goodness because I hit every bone in my body as I fell but nothing broke. As I was going down, the whole theory of how people go... you get of a certain age... you trip, you fall, you break a hip, you go to the hospital and you're gone. And in the two seconds I was flailing about, I was thinking, 'Here I go.' (Laughs)

I'm so happy you survived. I guess you are too.

Yes. I'm happier than you are.

You've won 12 Emmys. That's amazing. Which one is your favorite?

I think the first one is always the favorite because you never expect it. I had some very good competition. Two years running Art Carney got it. We were both in the same category. The third year I expected he would win it again. I loved him! I was good, but he was much funnier.

When did you first discover that you had a talent for comedy?

I think I discovered that when I was very young. My first performance was when I was about six years old in grade school at Christmas time and the teacher asked if anybody could do any entertaining. A couple kids got up and sang and danced. She said, 'Can anybody do anything else?' I said, 'I can put my foot behind my head.' I put both feet behind my neck and walked around on my hands. The teacher thought it was so charming that she took me in the other classrooms. That was my first performance, and they laughed so I knew I was funny.

Comedy is so subjective. When Carl Reiner collaborates with Mel Brooks or Dick Van Dyke or Steve Martin, what makes that work?

Being on the same page with the person. Understanding what they do; them appreciating what you do.

When you were working with Steve, I bet you were a good teacher.

I wasn't teaching him, I was being myself. Nobody will listen to you if you teach, but if you behave like a person -- like a human being -- people learn.

I did a picture with Steve, and he really put it very well. He wrote me a wonderful letter. He was a loner. He was the guy who would get up in front of 46,000 people and perform but he had never performed as an actor with other actors. On his first picture, I was called in to do "The Jerk." Then after that we did three other pictures together. He wrote me one of the nicest letters I've ever gotten. [He told me] he learned how to be a person. I think Steve Martin is one of the most elegant writers. He's got a command of language that few people have. His book, "Born Standing Up," is one of the best written biographies and one of the saddest but it's so insightful.

You and Mel Brooks are still best friends. Does he come to your house a lot?

He comes at least five or six nights a week. It's over 60 years now, we've been friends. We watch television looking for good movies or television shows that we like. Mel doesn't like to watch comedy shows. He likes to watch shows that say, "Secure the perimeter. Lock all doors."

Your wife, Estelle, had one of the most famous movie lines of all time when she said, "I'll have what she's having," in that great orgasm scene with Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in "When Harry Met Sally." How did she feel about doing that scene with your son Rob Reiner directing that movie?

(Laughs) She had a lot of fun with that. First of all, that line came from Billy Crystal. Rob talks about this. When Meg was doing it, she wasn't doing it right. And Rob says, 'You have to do a little more,' and Meg said, 'Well, show me.' And Rob actually did it, just what she did. Meg impersonated what he did. And while he's showing her, he's screaming, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' and he's banging the table, and then he looks up and says, 'Oh, my God. My mother's watching me have an orgasm.' Estelle got hysterical. One of the things that Estelle had was the ability to say one-liners and make people crack up. She had a wonderful sense of humor.

When my daughter Annie (Rob's sister) was 16-years-old, we were talking about what kind of party we would give her, and Rob said why don't you get her a nose job for her birthday... all her friends have gotten nose jobs. I said,' Annie's mother, my wife, has a bigger nose than Annie and look at the handsome guy she got.' And Estelle said, 'Yes, it's not the size of the nose that counts, it's what's in it."

Did Estelle ever talk about the size of anything else or did she leave it at the nose?

(Big laugh) She left it at the nose.

You and your wife were married for 65 years until her death in 2008. What kept your marriage alive for 65 years?

My wife, again, came up with the absolute best answer. We were asked this a number of times and Estelle answered it, and I think this is perfect. She said, "Marry someone who can stand you." And that's absolutely true! There are many, many reasons to break up but if you can stand the worst of what they do, why break up? (Laughs) You're only going to get someone who will annoy you in another way so whatever little annoyances there are, you can stand that. We were able to stand each other very, very well.

Rob got one of the best roles in the classic TV show "All In the Family." Did you guys ever slip up and call him Meathead at home?

Never. He always says he's going to be defined by the word Meathead. He said, 'My obituary is going to say: Meathead passes away.'

"The Dick Van Dyke Show" was one of the best sitcoms of all time. I understand they cast you as Rob Petrie, and then decided to use Dick instead.

You want to hear the genesis of that? When I finished with "The Show of Shows," I was being offered a lot of situation comedies that weren't very good. So my wife said why don't you write one. So I wrote one called "Head of the Family," and I said if I'm going to be in it, I better write more than one. So I wrote about 13 episodes in about six weeks. I did the pilot [which was OK]. It didn't sell. My agent was upset that there were 13 scripts that were lying shallow. He knew they were good. I knew they were good. I said it's the best thing I'll ever write for television. Then they wanted me to meet Sheldon Leonard because he and Danny Thomas had a production organization. I went up to see him. I told Sheldon, 'I'm seeing you because I really admire you as an actor and a producer but I have no interest in failing twice with the same material.' And Sheldon said (he does an impression of Sheldon Leonard's voice): "You won't fail Carl because we'll get a better actor to play you." He suggested Dick Van Dyke. And it became "The Dick Van Dyke Show."

What do you think of the network sitcoms today?

A few things happened... especially on the network shows. We used to fight for 27 ½ minutes. We needed 27 ½ minutes to do a show. Then when Ronald Reagan deregulated the airwaves, he said let them use whatever time they want to make commercials. So it went from 27 minutes to 25 to 22. They're down to 20 minutes now. You can't tell a story in 20 minutes, beginning, middle and end. What you can do is tell jokes. You can tell one joke after another and the easiest jokes you can make are sex jokes. Luckily we have cable. They have some good shows worth watching.

I love your George Burns story! You were talking about making "Oh, God!" with George Burns who was 81 at the time. You were 55 and asked him what it would be like to have sex later on in life.

(Big Laugh) Oh, yes! First of all, I was going to say goodbye at the end of the shoot. I said to him, 'You never talk about your kids.' I never could get him into a conversation about anything but old show business. I saw him out with a lot of women. He always had three or four women on his arm. I said, "What do I have to look forward to sexually when I get to be your age?" And he puffed his cigar and he says (Reiner goes into a spot-on George Burns voice): "Carl, did you ever try to put an oyster in a slot machine?"

If you were to teach a comedy course at the college level, what would your message be to those who want to write comedy?

Don't write comedy unless you have talent.

In your book "I Remember Me," what is the one story that you really want people to read about?

Everything that I said about my wife is what I'd love everybody to read. The last chapter is called "The End." It's about my wife's passing.

Has it been hard for you since your wife passed away?

Of course. But, you know, it's funny. I came to something the other day that made me understand it. I was walking around the block, and I realized that I'm 90 and I'm going to go someday. But while I'm alive, Estelle is alive because I keep her memory alive. She's with me all the time.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Carl Reiner

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