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.