Carl Reiner: “He was masterful at following comic logic to its most ridiculous conclusion.”

From a Washington Post obit by Adam Bernstein headlined “Carl Reiner, TV comedy pioneer and probing straight man to Mel Brooks, dies at 98”:

Carl Reiner, a gifted comic improviser who created the enduring 1960s sitcom “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and Mel Brooks’s 2,000-Year-Old Man character — a cranky Jewish rascal who claimed to have dated Joan of Arc (“what a cutie”) and have 42,000 children (“and not one comes to visit me”) — died June 29 at his home in Beverly Hills. . . .

Mr. Reiner gained a national following in the 1950s as a brilliant straight man opposite Sid Caesar on influential TV comedy programs, directed movies that launched Steve Martin’s film career in the 1970s and 1980s, and played an aging con man in the popular “Oceans 11” movie franchise of the 2000s starring George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Mr. Reiner was masterful at following comic logic to its most ridiculous conclusion — especially when he collaborated with Brooks on ad-libbed comedy routines about the 2,000-Year-Old Man. The first of their five albums, released in 1960, influenced a generation of comedians, including Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Albert Brooks and Paul Reiser. . . .

Mr. Reiner played the eager, probing questioner who tried to elicit pearls of wisdom any average listener would want to know from a man who was 2,000 years old, played by Brooks.

Reiner: Sir, what do you consider the greatest medical discovery in the 2,000 years that you’ve lived, to be? Would it be the advent of transplants of organs, the use of antibiotics, the heart-lung machine?

None of the above, Brooks replied. It was liquid Prell shampoo, whose bottle was unbreakable. “A heart-lung machine is in your medicine cabinet and falls out — it’s gonna break!”

Mr. Reiner pushed for information about historical figures with whom the 2,000-Year-Old Man crossed paths. Brooks revealed that Helen of Troy had a less-attractive sister named Janice who had a body that could “launch a few canoes.”. . .

During the 1950s, Mr. Reiner and Brooks would only perform the 2,000-Year-Old Man interviews for friends at dinner parties. They were reluctant to record the routine.

In a 1999 New York Times interview, he recalled telling Brooks, “We can’t do it for anybody but Jews and non-anti-Semitic friends. The Eastern-European Jewish accent Mel did was persona non grata in 1950. The war had been over for five years, the Jews had been maligned enough.”

Mr. Reiner and Brooks slowly built a following among the show-business elite — comedian George Burns threatened to steal the idea if they did not record it first. . . .

The Caesar shows featured some of the most inventive comedy writers ever assembled, including Brooks (who went on to direct “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein”), Mel Tolkin (later a writer for “All in the Family”), Larry Gelbart (a creator of the TV series “M.A.S.H.”) and Neil Simon (who immortalized the writers’ room in his play “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” and also wrote, among many other plays and movies, “The Odd Couple.”)

Along with Imogene Coca and Howard Morris, Mr. Reiner was a critical supporting player in Caesar’s parodies of foreign films (“U-bet-u,” a sendup of samurai movies), contemporary game shows (“Break Your Brains”) and tragic opera (“Gallipacci,” whose score opens with rousing aria set to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”)

Creatively speaking, the 2,000-Year-Old Man was born in 1950, after Mr. Reiner came to work one day after seeing a program called “We the People Speak,” in which actors impersonate newsmakers.

“They were interviewing this guy on TV, who was saying, ‘I was in Stalin’s toilet and I overheard their plans — they’re gonna blow up the world next Tuesday.’ I couldn’t believe I had heard something on TV so stupid,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “So I went into the writers’ room and said to Mel [Brooks], ‘Isn’t it true you were there when Christ was crucified?’ I didn’t even expect an answer, but Mel just took off.”

Mr. Reiner: You knew Jesus?

Brooks: Yes, yes. Thin lad, wore sandals. . . . Always walked around with 12 other guys. . . . They used to come into the store a lot. Never bought anything.

After “Caesar’s Hour” ended its run, Mr. Reiner was dissatisfied with the TV offers that came his way. So he created a sitcom, called “Head of the Family,” based on his life as a variety-show writer who lives in the New York suburbs.

The pilot, starring Mr. Reiner and Barbara Britton as his wife, flopped. But actor and veteran TV producer Sheldon Leonard rescued the concept from the trash bin.

“I knew he was talented,” Leonard once said of Mr. Reiner, “so I wondered why it hadn’t sold. He had been miscast. He didn’t look or sound like a Scarsdale [commuter]. . . . His willingness to step aside and let someone else carry the ball was the reason for the existence of ‘The Dick Van Dyke’ show.”

Van Dyke, a rising Broadway actor, was his replacement, and the little-known actress Mary Tyler Moore played his wife. Mr. Reiner cast himself as the megalomaniacal TV host, Alan Brady, whose toupee became a running gag. . . .

Mr. Reiner went on to focus on a movie career. He had a leading role in the Cold War film comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966) with Jonathan Winters. He later became a commercially successful director with “Oh, God!” (1977), starring George Burns, and early Steve Martin comedies, including “The Jerk” (1979) and the film-noir sendup “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” (1982).

In 1967, Mr. Reiner directed “Enter Laughing,” based on his earlier, semi-autobiographical novel. His other directing credits included “Where’s Poppa?” (1970), based on Robert Klane’s darkly comic novel, and the tepid comedies “Summer Rental” (1985) starring John Candy and the Armand Assante vehicle “Fatal Instinct” (1993), a parody of sexy thrillers. . .  .

Mr. Reiner appeared in the HBO documentary “If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast” (2017), about very senior citizens who remain active. He embraced Twitter in recent years and focused on using the medium to share political and cultural commentary; in the days before his death, he appeared in a Black Lives Matter shirt.

Crystal wrote in the foreword to Mr. Reiner’s 2013 memoir, “I Remember Me,” “I’ve always looked at his career as one of the best ever and one of the most important. . . . He didn’t have to be a star. Always willing to be second if it helped the team finish first, Carl has never had an air about him. He is what he is: a nice genius.”
Also see the New York Times obit, by Robert Berkvist and .

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