ICONIC comedy writer, director and actor Carl Reiner keeps an ear out for certain catch phrases when he’s watching a movie with his close friend, Mel Brooks. If any of these lines pops up, he confides, you know you’re watching a good movie:
“Secure the perimeter!”
“Lock all doors!”
“Get some rest.”
Likely he jests. At 91 and 87, Reiner and Brooks are two of the last century’s comic giants, and their appreciation for both unintentional and intended hilarity is pure genius.
Both men have been major influences on comedy for decades. For some admirers, though, the details of their careers were hazy until comedian Marc Maron shone some light on the long, glorious lives behind the laughs in his superb podcast series WTF, which can be found for free online at http://www.wtfpod.com/.
That’s where Maron posts his in-depth interviews with the brightest stars in comedy, past and present -- most notably Reiner and Brooks, who each talked with him for well over an hour in separate sessions.
WTF stands for what you think it stands for. Maron, 49, began this podcast in 2009 as a complement to his stand-up act, talking to comedians in his garage and occasionally in their own environments, which was the case with Reiner and Brooks. And when he fires up his tape recorder to interview the likes of these guys, genuine magic happens.
Maron remarks tenderly upon the beautiful friendship these two widowers share. They seem to spend most evenings together, watching TV shows or movies while pulling chicken feathers out of Reiner’s cushions. Their mutual fondness and admiration is clear, and they obviously keep each other highly amused. Oh, to be a chicken feather on that couch.
The friends met in 1950 when they both wrote for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, one of television’s first comedies. They still idolize (and visit) Caesar, now 90. Writers always want an actor to meet their comic scripts head-on, says Brooks, but Caesar went one better -- he raised the level of the comedy, “by his emotions, by his acting, by a lot of physicality. There was nobody like him.”
Meanwhile, Reiner remembers the Mel Brooks of Your Show of Shows as a young, short, crazy guy, who, making his morning’s entrance, would slide on his belly into the office as if into home base, shouting “Safe!”
They quickly hit it off. One day, on a whim, they suddenly took on the personae of an interviewer (Reiner) quizzing an ancient character (Brooks) who’d seen it all. Brooks improvised irreverent remarks about the historic and religious figures his character had met. Their ever-changing sketches on this theme became known as “The 2000 Year Old Man,” with Brooks claiming that he “went with” Joan of Arc, and that Saran Wrap was the greatest invention of all time. They became the life of every party they attended.
At one A-list bash, Reiner recalls, the actor Edward G. Robinson came up to them and said, “You should make a play out of that 1000 Year Old Man. I want to play him on Broadway.”
Reiner corrected him. “It’s the 2000 Year Old Man.”
“I can play any age!” Robinson retorted.
Brooks and Reiner recorded several bestselling albums and an animated TV special featuring the 2000 Year Old Man.
Three of Brooks’ movies rank in the American Film Institute’s top 100 comedy films of all time, all in the top 20: Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Young Frankenstein. Reiner developed the pilot for The Dick Van Dyke Show based on his experience at Your Show of Shows, and has directed and co-written many films since, including four starring Steve Martin.
In addition, Reiner and Brooks not only wrote the first good skit and situation comedies, they set the stage for the best ones that followed, like Seinfeld. As Maron says to Brooks, “Jewish timing” now prevails in modern comedy.
What is its distinguishing feature?
“You know, it has to do with fear,” Brooks tells Maron, chuckling. “There’s a great energy that fear can create. ‘Is that guy coming for me? Is that a f----n’ swastika?!’ Fear is always lurking and it creates a pizzazz, an energy. Fight or flight – it’s right there, for every Jew.”
Reiner was a perennial straight man on-stage. He describes his gift as being the “master Master of Ceremonies,” somebody who likes nothing better than showing other people at their best. He says he’s never seen better emceeing than that of Jimmy Kimmel at the Emmys last September. Reiner rhapsodizes over the bit where Kimmel (who may have “Jewish timing” but is Roman Catholic) introduced his parents in the audience. Kimmel reminisced about his mother and father telling him as a child that he could achieve anything he wanted in life, then blamed them for his not winning an Emmy that night and ordered them escorted out of the auditorium.
There’d be no shtick like Kimmel’s if there hadn’t been Brooks and Reiner first. Thanks for the reminder, Marc Maron. I hope everybody tunes in to your fabulous show.