Carl Reiner, 1922-2020

Carl Reiner
Image via CTV.

Years ago, when I first started editing CNN’s Entertainment section, I was sent to Los Angeles to see how the local bureau handled things in the showbiz capital.

I couldn’t help but notice a kind and funny thank-you note from Larry Gelbart tacked above one staffer’s desk. I was in awe; Gelbart was one of Sid Caesar’s staff of writers (for “Caesar’s Hour,” which followed “Your Show of Shows”), an all-star lineup of comedy greats: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Mel Tolkin, Selma Diamond, Joe Stein, Lucille Kallen, and Carl Reiner among them. (Woody Allen, too, for some late-’50s specials.)

All of them went on to even greater things, including Broadway, movies, and television, creating classics such as “Fiddler on the Roof,” “M*A*S*H,” “The Odd Couple,” “Blazing Saddles,” ad infinitum. I don’t know if more talent has ever been concentrated together on a writing staff in such a short time, and I’m including “Saturday Night Live,” “The Simpsons” and the MTM shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Anyway, I was envious. Would I get a chance to interview Larry Gelbart? Mel Brooks? Carl Reiner? I could listen to them for hours.

I did talk with Brooks, who was (of course) hilarious.

But not Gelbart, or Stein, or Simon.

Or Carl Reiner. Dammit.

Reiner — the versatile, generous, amazing beating heart of so much comedy over the last 70 (!) years, died Monday night. He was 98.

I don’t have much to add to all the tributes that have appeared since his death was announced this morning. (I do like that NPR worked “mensch” into its headline.) He created one of the best TV sitcoms ever, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” He was an enviable straight man to Brooks’ 2000-Year-Old Man. He directed Steve Martin in four films, each one allowing Martin to show a wider range while Reiner, typically, provided low-key support. He was active right up until the end: Here he is as a guest on “Dispatches from Quarantine.” This was released eight days ago.

He was part of a generation of influential Jewish comedy writers and performers who are almost all gone now. Gelbart died a few years after I saw his note; Stein, Tolkin, Simon, Caesar himself — they passed after long, rich lives. Comedy was obviously good for their health.

There’s an old Jewish phrase: May his (or her) memory be as a blessing. Carl Reiner, mensch to the end, truly blessed us all.

Review: ‘Riding the Elephant’ by Craig Ferguson

Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations by Craig Ferguson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn’t expect much from “Riding the Elephant,” a collection of short essays by comedian/former talk show host/Secretariat pal Craig Ferguson. These books tend to be entertaining and jokey, but rather forgettable, a 250-page substitute for hanging around with your celebrity author.

Not so in Ferguson’s case. Entertaining and jokey, yes – but oftentimes thoughtful, and occasionally transcendent.

I should have known Ferguson was capable of so much more than I expected. After all, this is a guy who very publicly talked about his alcoholism on his show; whose monologues were genuine monologues – personal storytelling adventures – not a list of strung-together jokes; who called himself “TV’s Craig Ferguson,” sending himself up in a phrase; who confessed sympathy for various celebrities – seeing them as people – while they were usually the butt of dark jokes everywhere else.

He also created a manic character named Bing Hitler, a name that always makes me laugh with its absurdity. (If I believe Wiki, the name was suggested by actor and friend Peter Capaldi, then the lead singer of Ferguson’s band Dreamboys. Hats off to you, Peter Capaldi, and please don’t curse at me like my beloved Malcolm Tucker.)

“Riding the Elephant” roams widely through Ferguson’s life. He talks about his childhood in the planned city of Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, one that was full of fights, with Ferguson usually on the losing end. It skips through his punk-rock days and his boozing days and his marriage days. Every unknown woman is named Margaret; every bit of navel-gazing is couched in embarrassment. What sets the book apart are the nuggets of truth and empathy that make you stop and think (and, occasionally, laugh):

“When I hear people today saying the latest cat meme or Super Bowl commercial gives them ‘the feels,’ I want to vomit and then punch them.

“It was a tiny apartment, even by New York standards. It had a stove and a shower, no air conditioner, and a shockingly vulgar green shag carpet. There was enough room for two people if they liked each other and had only hand luggage.”

“Old age was a gift Alison never got. I never saw her again. She died almost a year later. Gillian and I were thinking about getting engaged, but we never did. We made the choice to move on in different directions, but Alison didn’t move on; she stopped right there in that shitty town.”

This isn’t celebrity essay writing. This is storytelling, with well-chosen words and shape and color. I could usually hear the essays in Ferguson’s voice, that wonderful Scottish burr that casually swooped around the curves in his monologues, but there’s a deliberateness, too, that shows he pays attention to language. I’m sure he always did; it’s just that you forget about it when you’re watching a TV talk show at 12:30 a.m. (or, more commonly, catching clips on YouTube).

Best of all is the penultimate essay, “Millport.” Millport is a resort town on a small Scottish coastal island that Ferguson visited as a child and where he got his first job, overseeing a swingboat ride (essentially an oblong swing with a person on either end). Ferguson was 14; he worked a 10-hour day for a pound sixty-five. He loved it unreservedly.

Years later, he’s fresh out of rehab and visiting Millport with a fellow comedian. He decides to go for a run. Headphones on, focused on the Brian Eno in his head, he nearly runs into a oystercatcher’s nest and is soon swatted – hard – by the mother bird. (“I don’t know if it was with her beak or the billy club she kept hidden under her feathers,” he writes.) His Discman (this is 1992) and Eno CD are damaged beyond repair, so after depositing them in the trash, he runs on, now very much in the world. And what he feels is: gratitude.

I won’t give away the last paragraph, but it makes a sudden swerve into the present day, and I was carried along with the same wonder and joy he was trying to convey.

What more can you ask of a storyteller than that?

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