Comedy Legend Carl Reiner Answers 7 Questions
The comedy legend, Carl Reiner met in Beverly Hills with Film & TV professor Christophe Silber and sophomore Daniel Larios to answer questions submitted by La Sierra University students. What could the next generation of graduates possibly want to ask a comedy genius? That’s a good question.
1: The Dick Van Dyke Show is heavily inspired by your own life. Would you say this applies to most of your writing? How does your process work for creating characters? (Cesar Saldana, Sophomore)
CARL: Everything I write I know about it because I’ve lived it or because I’ve seen someone else live it. You can’t write about things you don’t know about. You can imagine things, but that’s you imagining. If you try to be something other than what you are, everyone’s going to see it. Tell the absolute truth and no one’s going to be caught in a lie.
2: I am a huge Ocean’s Eleven Fan. How did you prepare for the role of Saul Bloom? (Marcus Morris, Junior)
CARL: I prepared by living to be as old as Saul Bloom. I think I was 87 when I took the role. And know you’re craft. And by the way, those guys I was working with, not only were they the best looking people in the world but also they were some of the best people in the world. Clooney and Pitt and Cheadle and Damon, they have all done some incredible work in the world. They worry about the world. That was the best thing about being on those movies: getting to know those guys.
3: How do you know if your writing is funny enough? (Jared De Vries, Sophomore)
CARL: Two things in comedy writing. One: you have to tickle yourself; if you don’t find it funny yourself, forget it. The second is, people laugh. That’s the difference between comedy and drama. A comedy writer can always know if his work is successful. Just go to the theatre and see if they’re laughing. With drama, they’re being quiet either because they’re being attentive or because they’re not reacting to anything that’s happening. Unless they’re sobbing. If they’re sobbing then you know.
4: Has your humor changed or evolved over the years? If so, what do you think changes it? (Michelle Bonnin, Sophomore)
CARL: Your connection to society. As long as you stay connected you can comment on the mores of the day. There are some things I cannot comment on because I don’t know them, like the new music. Music stopped with me with the old songs, the Sinatras and the Bobby Darrens. Once in a while, a Taylor Swift will come along. I like her. She’s writing about love, I understand her. But for the most part I don’t dig what’s going on. So, since the mores have changed then you can’t really comment on those. You have to stick with what you know.
5: How has comedy television changed over the years? What shows on TV today do you like? (Daniel Larios, Sophomore)
CARL: Comedy has changed a lot, and I blame people like Ronald Reagan for cutting down the amount of air time. In 1937 Herbert Hoover said, “The airwaves belong to the people. You can only use a minute and a half for commercials and 15 seconds for public service. The rest of it is for entertainment”. So, when we did The Dick Van Dyke Show, I used to fight for 15 seconds to get a tag in. Then they deregulated the airways, which Reagan did to help his friends sell more product. So, the half-hour situation comedy went from 27-28 minutes to 22, even 20 minutes. So, how do you fill 20 minutes and get the laughs? You tell sex jokes. A Beginning, Middle and End is not told easily in 20 minutes.
As for shows that I like- Zooey Deschanel, the moment we saw her, I was sitting with Mel [Brooks] and he said, “Who is that girl?” She’s wonderful. We watch her show (New Girl). And Tina Fey, she can do no wrong. I used to watch 30 Rock all the time. Entourage was good. Arrested Development, too. Modern Family is really good sometimes. That girl [Sofia Vergara] is so beautiful and funny. These days though, most of the best comedy we get from shows like The Daily Show With John Stewart, The Colbert Report, or Real Time with Bill Maher.
6: How do you think the process of creating and selling TV shows has changed? (Michelle Bonnin, Sophomore)
CARL: I wouldn’t know how to sell a show today; who to talk to. What I do is I write something down, I give it to some good agents and managers, and they’ll do their job. Lately, I wrote a movie and all of a sudden it occurred to me when I saw Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs; I said, “My God, I wrote something in the same genre”. I was working on a voice-over for a major animated film and I saw the storyboards and thought, “I’ve got something they can illustrate”. So you never know what’s going to propel you into the next project.
7: What have been your best and worst industry experiences? (Adela Tobin, Freshman)
CARL: The best had to have been my 5 years with The Dick Van Dyke Show, no question about it. It was really a personal show because I wrote what I knew about myself. I actually made a pilot starring me, and then I found a better actor to play me, as Sheldon Leonard put it. Those first three years, the first forty or thirty I wrote myself. I see all the credits these days, the producer, the other producer, the producer who produces the producer… but it was just me then at that point. The best shows are done by people who have something to say and don’t have to go out and say, “Get me a job and tell me what to write about”.
Now the worst experience would be with this play called Something Different. It was a tremendous hit in Boston, but when it came to New York it didn’t work. Many things happened that were out of my control. This was one of the best things I had ever written. It was hilarious. An audience member once showed me a stitched-scar on his head and told me he got it when he hit the seat in front while laughing. It was both a good and bad experience. We were riding high, and the next thing we’re throwing it. The critics didn’t get it a first. One night, the crowd was applauding like crazy, and a guy goes up to the curtain and he’s shutting the audience up. Nobody recognized him without his mustache, but then we heard the voice. It was Groucho Marx. He was stopping the audience from applauding. He said, “You know what you people have seen here today? You have any idea? This may be the funniest show that has ever been on Broadway. Don’t applaud now; run out and tell everyone about it.” So that was both the happiest and the saddest moment.
Editor’s note: I am a fellow professor of Christoph Silber’s at La Sierra University. I am both very pleased that the students were given this wonderful opportunity, and extremely jealous that I was not able to be a part of it. I can only comfort myself with the knowledge that it was for the benefit of the students - it helps lessen the bitterness (a little bit any way).