Carl Reiner Appreciation: A Comic Straight Man Who Knew When to Get Crooked

Reiner also had a very particular, very impressive skill he once showed off on stage at the Directors Guild Awards

Of all the accomplishments Carl Reiner had over his 70-year career in the entertainment industry, the most impressive thing I ever saw him do had nothing to do with writing “Your Show of Shows” or recording the “2000 Year Old Man” records with Mel Brooks or creating “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or directing “All of Me” or even acting in “Gidget Goes Hawaiian.”

All of those things were consequential, of course, and so was much, much more in Reiner’s titanic comedy career. But the one that got me came about a decade ago, when Reiner took the stage of a Century City hotel ballroom to host the Directors Guild Awards.

He did this for the DGA almost every year for three decades, controlling the show with offhand charm that made everything sound as if it were coming off the top of his head. Those shows were never short or succinct, but with Reiner in charge you didn’t really care. (When Kelsey Grammer took over in 2012 after a particularly long, tribute-studded show the previous year, his opening line was, “The only reason Carl Reiner isn’t hosting this year’s awards is that he’s still hosting last year’s awards.”)

And at the beginning of one of those DGA shows, Reiner ambled on stage in his tuxedo, a bow tie hanging untied around his neck. And then — on stage, in front of 1,000 or so people, without a mirror and as if it were the simplest thing in the world — he tied his bow tie. Just like that.

So when I think of Carl Reiner, I think of him tying that tie so effortlessly without a mirror. Hell, every time I pick up my own bow tie and struggle to get it right, with a mirror and without an audience, I think of Carl Reiner. I don’t know how he did it, but he made it look easy.

The last time I spoke to him, two years ago, when he briefly became the oldest Emmy nominee ever (a record broken by his friend Norman Lear a year later), I mentioned the tie stunt, and he laughed it off. But he also remembered that it was part of a joke about the difference between actors and directors — because to Carl Reiner, even an offhand bit of sartorial showing-off made sense if it was in the service of comedy.

And Reiner spent most of his 98 years in the service of comedy — even as a corporal in the U.S. Army during World War II, his job was to entertain the troops. After the war, he entertained far more than just the troops, including a stint with Sid Caesar where his fellow writers included the formidable likes of Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen and Larry Gelbart.

On screen, he was a straight man for Sid Caesar; on stage and on record, he did the same for Mel Brooks. But he was a straight man who knew just how to get crooked, a quiet comic so adept at what he did that you didn’t notice how much funnier the laughs were because he was there to set them up and get out of the way.

And he never stopped setting up the laughs. When TheWrap visited Reiner in the summer of 2018 in his house in the flats of Beverly Hills where he’d lived for so long, the living room was stacked with books he’d written and published and books he’d written but had yet to publish, and his head was full of ideas for what to do next. The goal, he said, was to wake up every day and have a project to be working on, and he never stopped finding projects — which had come to include his daily anti-Donald Trump tweets. (“I think I may be the oldest tweeter,” he told me, proudly.)

It’s easy to accumulate a list of favorite Carl Reiner moments over the course of his career — mine might include the twisted 1970 black comedy “Where’s Poppa?” and the sublime Steve Martin/Lily Tomlin film “All of Me” (1984), a hefty chunk of “Dick Van Dyke Show” episodes, his roles in “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” and Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” trilogy, and lots more.

Plus, of course, the way he tied that bow tie without looking. You can cherish your own memories of Carl Reiner, but that’s the one that’ll stick with me.

Steve Pond

Steve Pond

Awards Editor • [email protected] • Twitter: @stevepond


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