Hi, this is Andrew Buss with The Laugh Button. How are you doing today?
“Okay, hold on just a second,” he says, as he moves into the other room.
Carl Reiner’s 96 is everyone else’s 52. He operates at an alarmingly fast rate. He stops for nothing and nobody. Except when you call him to do an interview, that is. For the average man, 15 minutes of their time is nothing. But when you’ve done as much as Carl Reiner has, and you still have so much left to do, 15 minutes is potential to do so much more. So one must remain grateful for any and all time you do get with the show business legend.
And just how much of a legend is Carl Reiner? Surely I don’t have to list all of his credits, as that would just be insulting. However, he was a writer and cast member for Sid Cesar’s Your Show of Shows, he created The Dick Van Dyke Show, he directed countless films such as The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains, Summer Rental, and an obscure personal favorite The Comic, and along with Mel Brooks makes up half of The 2000 Year Old Man. And as icing on the very large cake, Carl Reiner is now the oldest person to ever be nominated for an Emmy Award for If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast, an HBO documentary that came out last year all about staying vital in your 90’s and beyond. I am tired just listing all of this. Imagine living it!
Hi, how’re you doing today, sir?
“I think I’m alright.”
Got to enjoy your breakfast this morning I hope?
“(Laughs) As much as I can. Anyway how are you?”
I am doing very well. Thank you for doing this. I really appreciate it.
“Now, tell me what we have to do now.”
Time is of the essence. This is Carl’s time. So eager I am not to waste it, I explained to him what the plan was and we go with it. But first, I wanted to share a connection that I have with Carl, if only in interest of my conscious attempt to justify why he should even bother talking to me in the first place.
I actually have a connection to you because I had been working on a project about Andy Kaufman and through that project, I got to know your nephew George [Shapiro, who managed both Andy and Carl] and the family. And I know you had a hand in kind of discovering him.
“Well, the funny thing is, I went to Dangerfield’s and I saw this guy, and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. I went backstage after and I said ‘Where have you been? What have you done?’ He says ‘This is it. This is my first gig.’ And he was getting like $15 or $50, I don’t know. And I said ‘When you come to the coast, call me because I think we can…’ And I told George about it and he was coming to the coast. And George said ‘I don’t know if I want to take on anybody.’ And the thing is I was telling the act… Dick Van Dyke was going to do a special [Van Dyke and Company in 1976, which Andy later appeared on multiple times] and I was telling the act, I knew the whole act, it was so silly. And I described it and Dick said ‘Let’s use it on the show.’ And I called him and we put him on the show. He got $1,500, the most he had ever gotten in his life and started his whole career just by accident. We happened to be talking about it at lunch when we were doing the show.”
What this demonstrates is nothing short of remarkable. I mention the name of someone from something that happened 42 years ago, and at the drop of a hat, he can recall it. And this isn’t a story that he really goes around talking about much these days. This is further proof that he is bound to outlive us all.
There’s so much to talk about obviously, but let’s start with this. You have been so busy, doing so much writing, so much stuff lately. You’ve just been so prolific. You’ve written books in the past more sporadically, but now it seems like you’ve got a new one coming out every month.
“As a matter of fact, I was working on one right now. And it’s precious time because when you’re 96, you know you have to finish things.”
This is the point in the call when I begin to feel like the interviewer equivalent of Yoko Ono, having interfered with the creative process he was in the midst of. Nevertheless, I put those damning thoughts to the side as we proceed…
In fact, the book that just came out… The ones that we did that I’m very proud of, which you’ll be seeing very soon… I mean I did biographies that came out in the last few years. I Remember Me, I Just Remembered, and What I Forgot to Remember. And then I did a thing Why and When the Dick Van Dyke Show was Born. I did a graphic diary about every day, everything I did all day long from the moment I woke up until I went to bed. And I remember telling Mel [Brooks, his lifelong friend and someone I sincerely hope we don’t need to explain who he is any further] about it ‘Has anyone ever done that?’ ‘Yeah, Samuel Pepys in 1776.’ I said ‘Well, mine has pictures. Photos.”
That was the book that had you doing the stretches, right?
“Yeah, that’s right. But that was a couple of years ago. But then I did one, and when I finished that, I said to Mel ‘What do I do now?’ And he gave me a title. Too Busy To Die. And that just came out last year and that’s a good one. That’s another memoir. Then I did one that I give out free whenever anybody buys any of the other books. It’s called How to Live Forever. And I co-wrote it with a Pakistani man, whose name is S-U-M-W-O-N H-O-O-H-A-Z. Sumwon Hoohaz. Did you hear that?”
At this point, Carl Reiner has reverted to youthful dinner table mentality. He is 5 years old, sitting around the dinner table with an audience. He says something that makes everyone at the table laugh, and it’s an immediate high. Saying something funny and getting that laugh is good for the soul. You are so proud, and Carl was so proud of this gag co-author that he wanted to make sure that I caught it.
Yeah, I love that name.
“Yeah, he obviously lived forever. And there’s 171 pages, and it contains only one sentence that is repeated. And the sentence is ‘Start a new project. Work on it. Improve it. When you approve of your improvements and accept them, start a new project. Improve them.’ And that’s all I say and it goes for 171 pages. And the last line is ‘Start a new project.’ And actually it’s silly but it’s true. Because that’s what kept me going. I wake up and I have something to do.”
The beautiful part about being 96, I imagine, would be being able to talk about watching the medium change right before your eyes. You are able to talk about the constant evolution of both the industry and life in general. And it also helps when you’ve got a mind as sharp as Carl Reiner’s is.
“But one that I’m very proud of, and one that is going to come out I think in late July is called I Remember Radio. And it’s about my father building a crystal set when I was 4 years old and listening to static and music. That’s all you could hear then. And then the first radio that he built and we heard the orchestras. And then the funny thing is we couldn’t power it in the house because we had gas light. So my father had to go into the garage and get a storage battery and power it up. So I go from every 10 years and I show pictures of the radios that existed during that year. And during that 10 year period, [I talk about] all the radio shows that I remember hearing. And it turned out to be a 300 page book, or maybe a little longer. Although, excuse me I did 2 other books called… Jeez I’m forgetting about them because I’ve done…”
You’ve done so much you can’t remember what you’ve done.
“(Laughs). Yeah, as a matter of fact I wrote it down. Oh, here it is. Alive At 95: Recalling Movies that I Loved. And it’s recalling every movie that I saw from the time that I was 4 years old and my parents took me to see Emil Jannings in Faust. And it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. And Emil Jannings was Hitler’s favorite actor we found out. But after that every movie that I recalled I loved, I took it until the war. And then later I wrote the second book Approaching 96: The Films I Loved Viewing and Loved Doing. I talk about all of my favorite movies. And among them, of course, are a couple of my son’s movies. Anytime you’re depressed and you want to feel good, watch The Princess Bride. That’s one of them. And then the movies that I either appeared in or directed and wrote. So those books are really beautiful because on one side of the two page spread, we have a poster of the original movie going way back, as I said 1926. And then on the other side it’s 4 or 5 clips or photos of the show itself. Those two books they’re really… They’re out now and they’re getting wonderful acclaim.
But the ones I’m working on now is I Remember Radio, and that’s going to be published this month. And the one which you took me away from (laughs) which I was in the other room doing is called, I love the title of this, it’s called I Remember Television, Which When I’m Awake, I Never Don’t Watch. That’s the title of the book, which is true because you know most of the day when I’m not writing, I’m sitting at the television watching the ball game or any of the good shows that intrigue me. I never miss Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune.”
At this point, 11 minutes and 30 seconds in, I’m beginning to get self conscious about the fact that I haven’t really asked him an actual question at this point. The man has done so many interviews, that when I started to ask the first question, he knew right where I was going and took it from there. As an interviewer, that is the greatest sort of accompaniment you can ask for. Plus, I’m not about to interrupt Carl Reiner. Don’t be silly.
Do you ever feel that at 96 that television will distract you from writing, or do you always feel the impulse to write?
“Oh no. I write during the day when I’m alert and awake. And I’m working… I’m doing an awful lot of research finding the clips and the photos (for I Remember Television). Right now I’m in the middle of the television book and I’m doing The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the new one. And finding the clips and photos of the memorable scenes, it’s fun and it’s energizing.”
How do you balance living in the past by talking about the past while also wanting to live in the present, as well as keep moving forward? Is that something you’re conscious of?
“Well, talking about the past is moving forward because you’re talking about it, and commentating on it at the same time.”
This may be a man who reminisces, but goddammit if he is not living in the present. Via his Twitter, Carl has become one of the most outspoken opponents of Donald Trump. He talks about him enough that it made way for a book.
“As a matter of fact, another book which I’m very proud of is out now and is selling pretty well. It’s called ‘The Downing of Trump’. I tweet about him every night, what a horror he is. By the way, last night I tweeted one and I got 5500 responses and that’s about the fact that this monster took parents kids away from them and they haven’t seen them since. That’s the most heinous thing that’s ever been done since Hitler. And I tweet about that. So what I did was find all the people who feel the same way about Trump, they send me the tweets… And by the way, the stuff they sent me, some of them are wonderful artists, graphic artists… And I put the notations on them. So that book ‘The Downing of Trump’ is one of my favorite things. It is really a punch in the eye to a guy who deserves it.”
Yes he definitely deserves it. Do you get a lot of backlash when you tweet about him?
“I’ve gotten mainly 99% people with me. And the other 1 percenter, I don’t bother listening to it. I’ve sponged them. Anyway, you know, I haven’t really got time to talk to you. I love talking about this stuff. I don’t know how much more time I can give you. What do you need to know? What is one question you want me to answer, then I’ll answer that now then we’ll say goodbye? Give me a big question.”
The man is done. He just spent all morning hard at work with the creative juices flowing steadily. Time is not limitless. He knows that. Fully conscious he is of that. And yet, at the same time, when he knows he has to go, he doesn’t just go. That could be considered rude. And Carl Reiner isn’t one to be rude. He lets me ask one final question.
You come from an age of 3 channels on television. Now you’re in a place of there being so much content. How do you manage to keep up with it all? Do you feel as if there’s too much?
“Of course. There is so much to work on and comment on, you feel like you’re never going to get to all of it. Thank goodness we have wonderful news people from the Rachel Maddows to the Joy Reids to Colbert. Everybody who is taking on this monster we have in the White House. I’m so thankful that we have press and television anchors who know what’s up. And only Sean Hannity and Fox News are the only ones who try to defend Trump. Of course there are still a lot of people who follow Trump, and that’s how he got elected. And that was one of the saddest things ever. They stole the election and there’s nothing we can do about it. That drove me crazy because she was wayyy ahead. She was 300,000 votes… Boy he claims he had those votes, but he didn’t. They were her votes. Anyway I gotta go.”
Oh absolutely. You’re a busy guy. Well, thank you so much for talking with me today.
“You’re welcome! And God be with you.”
The man is gone. So quickly he came, so quickly he went. But what he has left us with is this: No matter who you are, no matter what your age or circumstance is, there is still more to be had. So much more. You must embrace it. And also start a new project…