Carl Reiner - esteemed actor, writer, director, producer, and all-around funnyman - was on hand at the Aero Theater Saturday night to sign copies of his new book I Just Remembered and reminisce about his legendary career, including the two movies screening that evening, The Comic and Enter Laughing.
Reiner, dubbed a "jack of all trades," said that his talents as a writer, director, and performer are connected, though he admitted, "I'm an actor, and I act like all of those things!" In addition to this declaration, it was also noted that he focuses his gifts on the same subject: show business. When asked why that is, Reiner's answer was simple: it's something Reiner knows a lot about, and it doesn't require any research for him. For instance, he once considered making a character a doctor, but then he thought about everything he would have to learn about medicine to make the character realistic and instead turned the character into a producer. In fact, Reiner admitted that he writes mostly about himself and simply changes the names and the women!
Reiner shared with the audience that Enter Laughing is basically his story. As a young actor, he appeared in an off-off-off-Broadway play at the Gilmore Theater called The Bishop Misbehaves, earning what he referred to as “no dollars a week.” (At the end of a year, Mr. Gilmore promised Reiner he would give him a dollar a week but warned “don’t tell anyone or I’ll take it back!”). One evening after a performance, while using a bathroom near the front of the theater (actors weren’t supposed to mingle with patrons but the other restroom was out of order), the man next to him complimented him on his performance. The man then asked if Reiner would like to do summer theater, and two days later, Reiner was on his way to the Rochester Summer Theater, which was the real beginning of his career. Enter Laughing was about that same boy who boarded the bus for summer theater.
Enter Laughing was actually originally written as a novel. Reiner started off penning short stories, which he showed to his well-read friend Julian Rochelle, and Rochelle in turn passed the stories on to a friend of his at a party. The friend wanted to have lunch with Reiner to discuss (Reiner complained: “Do I have to go out with this guy?”), and Rochelle informed Reiner that his friend had pocketbooks (Reiner at first though he made them). Well, the pocketbooks turned out to belong to Simon and Schuster! Though the man enjoyed Reiner’s stories, he informed Reiner that a novel was more "sellable.” Upon returning home, Reiner commiserated that he didn’t have enough words to write a novel, and to this his wife replied: “Darling, you may not have the words, but you have the feeling.”
Years later, Reiner passed the novel on to Joseph Stein, who wrote Fiddler on the Roof. Stein called it a “dandy little book," but despite the tepid-sounding praise, he wanted to adapt the story into a play, which he did the same year he wrote Fiddler. Since then, Enter Laughing has been adapted into the movie and two musicals. Reiner bestowed heavy praise on songwriter Stan Daniels, who wrote "the most brilliant lyrics," and he went on to say that he had never seen a musical where every song – all 17 of them in this case – had the audience laughing. "Not even Mel Brooks’ The Producers could boast that much laughter, and Brooks knows it!" declared Reiner.
Enter Laughing marks the first film Reiner directed, though it is not the first film he wrote. In fact, he penned two films prior, The Thrill of It All and The Art of Love, though Reiner was underwhelmed by the finished products. In particular, Reiner noticed how the directors worked differently with the material than a comic mind would have. For instance, as a comedian, Reiner knows never to cut to a joke when filming, which is something these directors didn’t know. After observing this, Reiner wanted to protect Enter Laughing and his work in general; thus, he became a director himself and then actually realized he knew how to direct: just hire the best actors and say “Go to it!”
When asked about the origin of The Comic, which stars Dick Van Dyke, Reiner explained that he had just finished work on Your Show of Shows and found himself with a multitude of offers for situation comedies, but wasn't interested in any of them. His wife once again stepped in with advice: "Why don't you write one?" And so he did.
On the way home from work one day, Reiner began talking to himself ("I recommend this...if you're smart, you'll get smart answers!") and asked: "What piece of ground do you stand on that no one else stands on?" Well, he reviewed his daily routine and life. At the time, he lived in New Rochelle with his wife and kids and worked in New York on a variety show. When he went to work he would talk about his wife and children, and at home he discussed work. From there, he penned a pilot called Head of the Family.
The pilot was good, and Reiner's agent sent it to Peter Lawford, who wanted to finance it. If that was going to happen, Reiner needed a series bible, so within a short period of time, he wrote 13 episodes. Eventually, Reiner filmed the pilot starring him in the leading role and Barbara Britton as Laura, which he described as "just okay." It didn't sell, but that didn't bother Reiner much; he went on to other things, while the 13 scripts sat on his agent's table.
One day his agent called him to say he had given the scripts to Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas, and they both loved them. Reiner confided to Leonard that he didn't want to fail twice with the same material, to which Leonard replied, "You won't fail cause we'll get a better actor to play you!" Dick Van Dyke was mentioned and hired, and he turned out to be the greatest comic to work on TV, according to Reiner.
Reiner said he's fully aware of the impact the show has had on subsequent generations; younger people (including Conan O'Brien, he noted) come up to him regularly to share their stories, usually telling Reiner that they were funny when they were young but they "didn't know there was a thing called a writer" because they thought comedians made it all up! Even though it's now been almost 50 years since the show's been off the air, it's still a relevant cultural presence and holds up well. Reiner partly attributes this to the fact that they didn't use slang on the show but rather spoke in plain English.
Reiner didn't go into much detail regarding The Comic, especially since many audience members hadn't seen it, only warning those in attendance that he wasn't going for big laughs with the movie and they should actually look out for a bit of sadness instead.
As Reiner's resume has shown and as he himself admitted, everything is rife for story, especially things that he’s forgotten and are brought up to him again, as the name of his next book, What I Forgot to Remember, highlights (the truth of that title is debatable). Even today, Reiner says he keeps collecting stories; in fact, he recalled a recent signing at Book Soup where someone asked him a question that triggered a memory from long ago. That memory went straight into his new memoir, and by the reaction of the audience at Reiner's Q&A, he'll probably have a bestseller on his hands.