For my eleventh birthday, all I wanted was a Carl Reiner movie. A little more than a year after the release of The Jerk, Reiner’s sixth film as a director and his first of four straight starring Steve Martin, the comedy was making its debut on HBO and I was desperate to see it. It was rated R, so I needed to ask permission to watch it, but I got my longed-for gift. The main draw was Martin — my youthful fandom for him was fervent — but I also knew, improbably, about Reiner’s involvement, thanks to my weird devotion to watching daytime celebrity talk shows that regularly included Reiner as a member of the old guard comedy elite. And I spent almost every day watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, attuned to the fact that it sprung from Reiner’s mind, in part because he occasionally showed up in the program, pugnaciously playing Alan Brady, the television star who employed the character played by the comic actor who gave the show its title. As I was first formulating the idea that the best comedy came from consistent, distinctive voices, Reiner’s voice was one of the first I heard and recognized.
A writer on the classic Your Show of Shows, Reiner didn’t start his career by creating his sitcom avatar Rob Petrie, but that’s arguably where his skill as a deceptively elegant innovator was first and most potently on display. I think it’s fair to say Reiner invented the modern sitcom, moving it away from the farcical floundering of the nineteen-fifties iteration of the form that was still deeply beholden to vaudevillian antics. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a workplace comedy, a warm family comedy, and mildly self-effacing showbiz satire all in one, developing enough distinctive characters that the jokes flowed seemingly organically from simply introducing a mild dilemma into the environment on a weekly basis and letting the figures on screen react according to their solidly established predilections. This is the mouth of the river that still feeds the best television comedy today.
Looking back, it’s remarkable how generous Reiner was in his approach to comedy. He was the straight man to his lifelong friend Mel Brooks in their famed and everlasting 2000 Year Old Man routine (which even snagged the duo a place on their beloved Jeopardy!), he based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own life but clearly tailored it to the loose-limbed talents of his star, and made films that were dedicated showcases to the performers he cast. Among the films, none were more effective than the four outings with Martin, culminating in All of Me, released in 1984, which contains, in Martin’s partially possessed lawyer, one of the all-time great comedy performances projected onto the big screen. Reiner was even an early and persistent champion of Albert Brooks, telling anyone who’d listen, “The funniest person I know is my son’s friend,” back when Brooks was just another kid palling already with teenaged Rob Reiner. When Brooks made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, Carl Reiner was guest-hosting. Like all the most admirable funny people, Reiner was most committed to finding and celebrating others who made him laugh.
In his old age, Reiner remained fully engaged with the world around him, taking a knee or proudly donning a t-shirt to proclaim solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and generally pushing back with all his might against the corrosive liars wreaking havoc in leadership positions they gained through dubious means. He put the lie to the notion that people atrophy as they age, their ideas and outlooks turning to stone as if under Medusa’s gaze. He lived his principles to the very end, engaging his fellow global citizens with kindness, understanding, and heart.