It’s not everyone who gets to say “I spoke with Carl Reiner this morning” – and even fewer who would be able to add “and he was still in bed at the time.” I should hasten to add that it was a phone interview. (Had I actually showed up at his bedside to do the interview, I would have probably ended up with a quart of mace in my face.) But still. . . to talk with such a legend in the entertainment business is a priceless privilege which I do not take for granted for one second.
The reason I got to speak to him is that Mr. Reiner has written two new books and is doing radio interviews to help promote them. However, he lives out on the west coast – and he’s a late riser – so his hours of availability were only in the afternoon, when I am busy teaching at Carthage- and as tempting as it would be to cancel lessons for the chance to talk to Carl Reiner, I couldn’t bring myself to do that. (For Joan Sutherland or Leontyne Price, maybe.) So I told the publicist that the very latest I could possibly do an interview would be 11:00 my time (9:00 in Los Angeles) and if that wouldn’t work for Mr. Reiner, I wasn’t sure I could swing this. Well, the publicist said he would punch in the request and see if it got spit back or not. . . and lo and behold, wonder of wonders, Mr. Reiner agreed to speak to me at the ungodly hour of 9 in the morning.
And because he was agreeing to something that I’m sure he was not excited about, I was bound and determined to be as prepared as possible. . . which became all but impossible when I couldn’t find one of the two Reiner books I had been sent- a short novel titled “Just Desserts,” which is about a comedy writer who emails a list of tongue-in-cheek suggestions to God . . . utilizing a completely fake address . . . except that he receives a reply that seems to be from God Himself – and more communiques follow which lead him to all kinds of misadventures. I turned both my studios upside down – as well as my car (maybe I should have done so literally rather than just figuratively) but the little 103-page book had somehow vanished. . . and our local Barnes and Noble did not have it in stock. So all I could do was scrape up every review I could lay my hands on and pray that I would get a fairly vivid idea of what the book was all about.
The other book, fortunately, I had managed to hang on to – a children’s book titled “Tell me another scary story. . . but not too scary.” (The concept of this book and its similarly titled predecessor sprang from a real life request made by Mr. Reiner’s grandson Nick – one of Rob’s sons. He asked his grandpa once to tell him a scary story – but not too scary – and Mr. Reiner realized that this might be the starting point of a very clever children’s book. And he was right!)
So I read the children’s book – and read about the other book – and then did some quick internet research on Mr. Reiner’s amazing career – and even formulated a handful of questions ahead of time. (That is exceedingly rare for me. I don’t like to cramp my style with a strict script – but on the other hand, I wanted this particular conversation to go as seamlessly as possible.) I also made sure that I had gone to the bathroom and even cleaned my glasses- anxious that nothing be an undue distraction.
And then at 11:00 I dialed the number I was given, fully expecting a maid or secretary or personal assistant to answer. But no, after two and a half rings, the unmistakable voice of Carl Reiner said “Hello.” And a few moments later, he announced that he was still in bed but nonetheless looking forward to our conversation. And when I asked if I needed to be done with him at the bottom of the hour, he replied that it was entirely up to me when we finished. So we began what turned out to be a 42-minute conversation- and it might have gone still longer except that during the interview Mr. Reiner mentioned at one point that Steve Martin was coming over in about an hour – and I didn’t want to be the cause of Mr. Reiner still being in a bathrobe brushing his teeth when his illustrious guest came a-calling. So I let him go after 42 minutes of delightful conversation in which he was warm, witty, and sharp as a tack. In fact, the only moment when he seemed the least bit foggy was when he couldn’t come up with the name of the daughter of Tony Curtis. “Come on, you know who I mean! Help me! Help me!” If he had asked me to name the last five operas of Verdi in the order they were premiered, I could have done that. But not this. He thrashed around for a few more moments but then finally came up with it all on his own – Jamie Lee Curtis. (I always think it’s a definite mark of mental acuity when you can retrieve some bit of information that isn’t right there at first. That’s actually not something I’m good at. If I can’t think of it immediately, typically I can’t think of it at all.) Otherwise, names and dates and titles came effortlessly to him, and his wit was fully intact.
I think two postponements from former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (I’m fearing that this one is not going to happen after all) made me even more thrilled and appreciative that this interview actually happened – and that he was such an easy, delightful guest. And it took us a little while to get to the books he was hawking, but he didn’t seem to mind a bit. I think he actually appreciated the fact that we started by giving him a chance to reminisce about one of his best friends and most frequent collaborators, Larry Gelbart, who recently passed away. . . and talking about him proved to be a natural segue into a more extensive conversation about the Golden Age of Television. We talked among other things about the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950‘s and what it was like to be doing comedy during those years of the Red Scare – and he got to draw some parallels between Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows and Saturday Night Live. We even got to talk about Steve Martin (Reiner directed him in his first several films) and the Oceans films. The only topics that escaped us – there just wasn’t time – was Reiner’s 64-year-marriage and his most famous offspring, Rob Reiner. But we ran out of time.
The passage of time – so much more swift than we might want – is also what makes conversations like this so especially precious. With the unexpected death of Larry Gelbart, we’ve lost yet another distinctive voice from television’s Golden Age, and now Carl Reiner is one of the last. So in some ways it felt like I was talking to Moses, which was a rather scary prospect. But fortunately for me, Moses proved to be a really nice, fun guy – so talking with him was scary, but not too scary at all.
You can hear for yourself on Monday, October 5th when the interview airs on WGTD 91.1 at 8:11 a.m. – and available thereafter on our website, wgtd.org.
pictured above: Carl Reiner’s newest children’s book. It includes a CD of Reiner himself reading it. Very Cool!