A King of Comedy: An Interview with Carl Reiner

By Michael KurcfeldOctober 25, 2020

A King of Comedy: An Interview with Carl Reiner
In the history of the American sitcom, Carl Reiner is a celebrated master from a golden age of comedy. He was a protean hyphenate of the medium — writer, director, second banana, actor, mentor, memoirist, as well as producer, most notably for the iconic The Dick Van Dyke Show, which was based more closely on his own workaday life than any series that came before it, later spawning The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, and many others.

Getting his chops on Your Show of Shows — a boldly irreverent 1950s sketch factory that was a TV ratings giant Reiner worked alongside greats like Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. He went on to conquer the pre-revolution ‘60s, first with a series of hit albums with Brooks, like The 2000-Year-Old Man, and later with a pilot for a show called Head of the Family, in which Reiner was cast as the lead. Initially, Head of the Family flopped, but it was soon recast, and saved by the on-screen chemistry of Van Dyke and Tyler Moore. The re-tooled show, now called The Dick Van Dyke Show, was propelled by zesty scripts that were clever enough to explore marriage and white-collar office life with precision-timed levity and unfailing wholesomeness. Rob and Laura Petrie became the unapologetic template of white suburbia, Camelot without the dark climax. Reiner, apparently not busy enough writing most of the early years’ shows, relished playing Van Dyke’s vain and cantankerous boss, Alan Brady. The show lasted five years, until 1966, and remains a perpetually aired classic.

In 2000, the Kennedy Center awarded Reiner the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; he was only the third recipient, after Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters. This past June, Reiner passed away at 98 — leaving us to mourn and to contemplate the notion, as old as the Bible, that laughter may well be an elixir of longevity (consider Mel Brooks, Betty White, Bob Newhart, George Burns, Bob Hope, Milton Berle…). 

In the video featured here, Reiner unpacks the making and magic of The Dick Van Dyke Show and muses on what he’s learned from a very long life in comedy.

LARB Contributor

Michael Kurcfeld is a journalist, originally from the print world, but since 1990 working in electronic media. Since founding Stonehenge Media, he has produced film and arts coverage for NYTimes.com, WSJ.com, Huffington Post, PBS, Bravo, Yahoo Movies, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, and Film.com. He produces the Photographer Spotlight series for the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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