By AUDREY FISCHER
“How did I get here?” That was the question veteran comedy writer Carl Reiner posed to a packed crowd in the Library’s Montpelier Room on Oct. 26. His answer provided that audience with a lively, often hilarious synopsis of his 70-year career.
A boost from some government-supported programs, good timing and “a bit of talent” were the ingredients Reiner cited as his personal recipe for success. “That’s my premise,” said Reiner, who still marvels at “the synchronicity of life.”
The journey, which began in an apartment on 174th Street in the Bronx, has taken Reiner to Broadway, Hollywood and the nation’s capital, where he spoke about his career and his latest publications as part of the Center for the Book’s Books & Beyond lecture series.
“In my whole life, I’ve never been introduced by a more distinguished fellow,” Reiner said, referring to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.
The comedian chided the fellow octogenarian for having more information in his brain—”because he’s smart and knows extra stuff”—than the average person, making it increasingly difficult to summon up a name or other fact.
“The brain is like a computer,” said Reiner. “It takes a few minutes for an answer to come up on the screen. So the answer takes awhile to bubble up from our brain.”
That said, Reiner recited Queen Gertrude’s speech from “Hamlet” that he learned seven decades ago in Mrs. Whitmore’s acting workshop. The class, which was suggested to him by his brother Charlie, was offered through the government-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA).
“I became an actor because of the government,” he said. “Never let anyone tell you that the government shouldn’t help you. The government should help you. That’s why they’re the government.”
Reiner also took advantage of the NYA (National Youth Administration) Radio workshop, another WPA program that trained young people for the broadcast industry.
Early in Reiner’s career, he appeared at the old Gilmore Theater in Manhattan, earning barely enough money to cover his transportation to work. So his boss gave him $1 more a week to keep him. Reiner claims that a visit to the restroom in that theater changed the course of his career.
There, he met a man who offered him a job at the Rochester Summer Theater, where he honed his craft for two summers, earning only room and board.
“Talent is one thing, but you have to be in the right place at the right time. Because I peed in the right place, I got that job,” Reiner deadpanned.
This opportunity was followed by a role in the Shakespeare Touring Company. While his talent for imitating a British accent helped his classical acting career, his failure to remember his lines one night began to reveal his comic genius.
“I recited Shakespearean double-talk and got applause,” he explained. “When I recited the correct lines the next night, no one clapped. So I guess my words were better than Shakespeare’s.”
It would be another decade before Reiner would discover he could write. After a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, serving as an entertainer in the Pacific, he joined the comedy team on “Your Show of Shows” starring Sid Caesar, another master of double-talk. The variety show, which ran from 1950-54, was his inspiration for another classic television show he created—”The Dick Van Dyke Show” (1961-1966). Much like Reiner’s own life, the show was about a comedy writer living in New Rochelle, N.Y., and working on a comedy show in Manhattan.
Reiner revealed that the original pilot, titled “Head of the Family,” featured him in the lead. The network did not like Reiner in the role and decided not to develop the pilot. He was devastated, having given it his best shot with a subject closest to his own heart. But he had a second chance when the pilot was reworked with Dick Van Dyke in the lead.
“It’s not going to fail,” said Reiner, imitating the pioneer television producer Sheldon Leonard. “We’ll just get a better actor to play you.”
Reiner was thrilled to read in Barack Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that first lady Michelle Obama was a big fan of the show and still enjoys watching old episodes.
Reiner held up his cell phone, revealing a photo of President Obama.
“I’ve had his photo on here since before the election,” he beamed.
Following the six-year run of the “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” Reiner wrote the screenplay for an adaptation of Joseph Stein’s play “Enter Laughing,” which was based on Reiner’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same title, written in 1958.
He wrote other successful screenplays for films like “The Thrill of It All,” starring Doris Day, and four films starring comedian Steve Martin (“The Jerk,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” “The Man with Two Brains” and “All of Me”). And he has continued to act, most recently playing con man Saul Bloom in “Ocean’s Eleven” and its two sequels.
His foray into the field of writing for children began several years ago with a title inspired by a plea from his grandson—”Tell Me a Scary Story (but Not Too Scary).” It was followed by a sequel (“Tell Me Another Scary Story”) and an upcoming title, “Tell Me a Silly Story.”
“It’s a giggly thing. That’s what kids really love.”
Reiner, who jokes that he’s written more books than he’s read, has a new title out this fall. In “Just Desserts: A Novellelah,” the main character, like Reiner, is a novelist and a “nonbeliever.” Nonetheless, he decides to email God with a list of suggestions, which include instant punishment for wrongdoers, rather than in the afterlife.
Reiner uses the book as an opportunity to discuss his own thoughts on the subject.
“Men needed God. We invented God to explain how the human brain could come up with great ideas like E=MC2 and vaccines,” said the co-creator (with Mel Brooks) of “The 2000-Year-Old Man” comedy routine.
“We each have God in us. That’s my premise.”
A webcast of this program may be viewed at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.