Carl Reiner packed a lot of lives into 98 years.
He was the perfect straight man for Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, the ideal mentor for Steve Martin. He wrote seven movies, directed 15 of them (including “Oh, God” and four of Martin’s films), acted in tons more. He wrote a novel and memoirs.
But TV viewers will mainly remember Reiner, who died Monday, for one thing: He created the predecessor for sharp situation comedies rooted in real life.
That was “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (shown here in a colorized episode). It “was one of the few smart sitcoms of the 1960s,” David Bianculli wrote in “The Platinum Age of Television” (Doubleday, 2016), “a decade in which the genre was awash with flying nuns, talking cars and subservient witches and genies.”
Into this time of gimmick-choked comedy, Reiner dared to write about ordinary life. As he told the Television Critics Association in 2003: “I said, ‘What piece of ground, Reiner, do you stand on that nobody else stands on?’ …. I said: ‘That’s it – the home life and the working life of a writer.’”
He had spent seven years writing for Sid Caesar’s variety shows, in a packed writing room that included Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. He was also straight man to Caesar and (in the “2000-Year-Old Man” sketches) to Brooks.
Now people were sending him sitcom scripts to act in. As he told the TCA:
“My wife said, ‘These are terrible …. Why don’t you write one?’” He wrote more than that. In a “six-week period, I wrote 13 episodes of a thing called ‘Head of the Family.’”
They were clever scripts, everyone seems to agree, but the pilot was rejected. Nudged by his agent, Reiner reluctantly agreed to meet Sheldon Leonard, the producer of the Andy Griffith and Danny Thomas shows (and, of course, the namesake of the “Big Bang Theory” characters). Leonard’s solution, Reiner said, was simple: “We’ll get somebody better to play you.”
Still, Leonard didn’t have a substitute. As Grant Tinker (then working for an advertising agency) recalled in “Tinker in Television” (Simon & Schuster, 1994), Leonard was dispirited when he left one night. “He called the next morning, in a much-improved mood. ‘I’ve found our guy,’ he announced.”
Leonard had just been to Broadway’s “Bye Bye Birdie” and seen Van Dyke. To play the wife, Danny Thomas suggested Mary Tyler Moore, who had auditioned for his show.
The result – with Reiner as Van Dyke’s boss – worked … eventually. Ratings the first season were so-so, Tinker wrote. “Instead of basing their decision on their creative judgment of the show itself, as network executives are paid to do, CBS had opted to read the Nielsen numbers and then just give up.”
Leonard wasn’t the give-up type. He already had half the show sponsored by Procter & Gamble and needed someone else. Reiner said he “pounded on the table of Kent Cigarettes and said, ‘You gotta pick up the other half of this show.’ …. We were just about to go into the dumpster.”
The cigarette people picked it up and CBS relented. Tucked neatly behind TV’s most-watched show (“The Beverly Hillbillies”), Reiner’s show finished No. 9 in the Nielsen ratings that year. In the years that followed, it was No. 3, No. 7 and No. 16 … then quit after just five seasons.
The show had won 15 Emmys, including three for best comedy and three more for Reiner scripts. It was an exception to “the usual run of pap” in that era, Robert Metz wrote in “CBS: Reflections In a Bloodshot Eye” (Playboy Press,1975). It is “regarded as a landmark comedy effort.”
Reiner never returned to full-time TV, but kept busy as a director, writer, dad (including movie director-producer Rob Reiner) and all-around personality. At 95, he was the central figure in a documentary, chatting with other people who were thriving in their 90s, including Brooks, Tony Bennett, Kirk Douglas, Norman Lear and Betty White.
That film is entitled, “If You’re Not in the Obits, Eat Breakfast.” Now, deservedly, he tops the obits.