Carl Reiner was there at the beginning, when television was young and its comedy experimental. With the 1950 variety series Your Show of Shows, creator Sid Caesar and his troupe brought the legacy of the Catskills to viewers nationwide; then-young Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Selma Diamond fueled the series as writers, and cast member Reiner enjoyed the spotlight alongside Sid, Imogene Coca, and Howard Morris.
Even among this lot, Reiner distinguished as a comic colossus. Stardom accrued from Your Show of Shows earned him a starring role in a television pilot of his creation… one that’d quickly yield a makeover with him repositioned behind the camera. The result of this experimentation was The Dick Van Dyke Show, a harmonization of slice-of-family-life comedy and a tribute to Reiner’s experiences in a variety series writer’s room.
To look at its cast alone is to recognize the series’ lasting contributions: it gave us Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, and, of course, Dick Van Dyke (not to mention writers like Garry Marshall and John Whedon), while Reiner himself appeared occasionally as Van Dyke’s tyrannical boss Alan Brady. Beyond this, The Dick Van Dyke Show could be said to have set the template for sitcoms forthcoming. Though debuting in the wake of powerhouses like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show brought television something uniquely kind, witty, and—despite the Connecticut goysichness of its central pair Rob and Laura Petrie—formidably Jewish.
This medley would prove inexorable in Reiner’s work on the whole. Contemporaneous with The Dick Van Dyke Show, Reiner and his Your Show of Shows colleague Mel Brooks couriered their united sense of humor across media, rendering now-classic routines like “The 2000 Year Old Man.” In the sketch, which aired on The Steve Allen Show and found form as a Grammy-winning album, straight man Reiner would interview (more accurately, wrangle) Brooks as the eponymous elder, armed with Ashkenazi affection and mad with the powers of improv.
In 1943, Reiner married fellow Bronx native and rising performer Estelle Lebost, perhaps best remembered for her single, scene-stealing line in When Harry Met Sally…: “I’ll have what she’s having.”
Said film was of course directed by Rob Reiner, son of Estelle and Carl, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a television actor (breaking out as Mike Stivic on All in the Family) and filmmaker; he has directed not only the aforementioned romantic comedy, but also This Is Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride, likewise dramatic pictures like A Few Good Men and Misery.
The other Reiner children, Annie and Lucas, also veered artistic; the former has written a series of plays and poems, and the latter finding success as a painter and photographer.
As a screenwriter and director, Reiner would find partnership with some of the greats of 20th century comedy, namely Steve Martin (The Jerk and All of Me) and George Burns (Oh God!); as an actor, he shared the screen with countless stars by way of ensemble pictures including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Steven Soderbergh’s Oceans movies, in which he livened every scene as the cantankerous “character man” Saul Bloom.
But no partnership was more integral to Reiner’s career and life than that with Brooks, with whom he maintained a friendship up until his very final days of life, which—like almost day of Reiner’s latter chapter—were spent in each other’s company.
Those who followed Reiner on Twitter, on which he was a prolific poster up until the day before his passing, were treated consistently to his sense of humor, his love for film and television old and new, his outrage with the Trump presidency. Reiner died on June 29 at age 98, having spent his life giving the world decades of comedy, wit, and humanity.
Featured Image: The Official MEL BROOKS Channel