Carl Reiner, 1922-2020

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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.

carl reiner

Laughing Matters — Meet The CONAN Staff: Conor Oberst – Production Assistant

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

The official announcement of the first new Bright Eyes album in nearly a decade seems as good of reason as any to share this recent favorite chunk of comedy. And the Phoebe Bridgers cameo also makes it timely.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

Golden Words — The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Support Your Local Mother”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

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When the first show to bear her name debuted on CBS, Mary Tyler Moore was only four years removed from her time playing Laura Petrie, the bright, stay-at-home wife of a comedy writer in The Dick Van Dyke Show. She won two Emmys for filling Laura’s capri pants and was so strongly associated with the role that it was considered risky for her to play a single woman wondering how she’ll make it on her own in a world that’s awfully big. The network even overruled original plans to make Moore’s character, Mary Richards, a divorcee, because of worries viewers would reject her for walking away from that nice Dick Van Dyke. She was instead a single woman, recently escaped from a bad relationship, making her way in the big city of Minneapolis with a new job a news producer at WJM-TV.

Watching early episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s remarkable how few growing pains there are. The pilot is rightly celebrated as one of the best of the era, locking in characters and the dynamics between them with an impressive economy. But it was the sixth episode that won The Mary Tyler Show the first of its five writing Emmys. First airing in October of 1976, “Support Your Local Mother” took its plot from Mary’s friend and neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern, played by the show’s early MVP, Valerie Harper. Really, though, Rhoda mostly stayed locked away in her upstairs apartment, hiding out from her visiting mother, Ida Morgenstern (Nancy Walker). Spurned by her daughter, Ida instead bonds with Mary, bestowing of her the same combination of smothering generosity and passive aggressive self-sacrifice usually reserved for her offspring.

Written by series co-creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, the episode is a classic sitcom humming motor, every pinion doing its work with efficiency. The episode exploits family comedy tropes — the overbearing Jewish mother might have been perfected by Walker, but it wasn’t invented by her — and demonstrates how to use them for maximum effect, getting laughs out of making the familiar unexpected and vice versa. By the sweet and sentimental ending, built around a physical gag callback, “Support Your Local Mother” makes it clear why The Mary Tyler Moore Show provided a template for so many television comedies to follow.  It’s a series that doesn’t everything right and makes the perfection seem effortless.

 

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

Laughing Matters — John Mulaney, “There’s a Horse Loose in the Hospital”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

As good and proper citizens with a couple streaming accounts and an appreciation for standup comedy, we watched Patton Oswalt’s I Love Everything shortly after its debut this week. Enjoyable enough, the show was invariably a significant step down from Oswalt’s previous special, the absolute knockout Annihilation, but the weakest spot was when he ventured into the no-win zone — admitting in the process that it’s a no-win zone — of trying to build a routine out of the colossal failure of a human being who was given the keys to the White House despite collecting nearly three million fewer votes than his main competitor. I understand why comics feel some level of obligation to offer commentary, but I think everyone can agree that the gold standard has already been set. If you can’t top John Mulaney’s bit drawing an extended analogy to a horse loose in the hospital, then maybe don’t bother with it. And nobody is likely to this.

That Championship Season — Freaks and Geeks, Season One

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For some, the following statement is sacrilege: I’m grateful Freaks and Geeks only lasted one season. The brainchild of Paul Feig and arguably the true starting point of Judd Apatow’s ascendency to brand dominance as a producer of comedies, Freaks and Geeks was the counterargument against all the nostalgic depictions of high school that preceded it. Rather than the wistful pining of The Wonder Years, for example, Feig wanted to explore the glum reality he and others he knew experienced suffering through grades nine to twelve, when a sense of adult identity is coming into play and yet the heavy indignities of being a kid still rain down.

Set in a Michigan high school during the 1980-1981 school year — approximately twenty years before the show’s original air dates — Freaks and Geeks gives it prime attention to siblings in the Weir family: Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a smart student who’s addressing her adolescent sadness by bonding with her burnout classmates, and Sam (John Francis Daley), her younger brother who’s flinching through his freshman year while bonding over comics and Steve Martin comedy with his best pals, Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine) and pining after the pretty cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick). In different ways, the two are navigating the treacherous bottled society that is a public high school, where dating rituals, lunchroom orienteering, and locker-side tête-à-têtes have ramifications that are gravely life-changing. There are bullies and suspect confidantes and exasperated authority figures at every turn. Every step feels like a misstep, and a sense of triumph can turn into soul-deflating mortification in the time it takes to cross a hallway in a sharp new Parisian night suit.

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In the writers’ room, Feig encouraged everyone to excavate their most embarrassing personal high school memories for storyline fodder, which is part of what gives the comedy a valuable smack of reality. It also keeps the stakes relatively low. There is is no heightened 90210-esque drama nor very-special-episode posturing. This is way young people are more commonly tested in the U.S. public school system. Both the setbacks and victories are small-scale. They just feel monumental, an inner truth that the show also honors. Being out of emotional-scale alignment with a high school boyfriend — especially in a relationship that’s already almost accidental — leaves the most minor of wounds on a spirit and a psyche. In the moment, though, the dilemma feels as inescapable as cartoon quicksand.

The believability is enhanced by the acting across the gifted young cast, most of them relative newcomers and even borderline amateurs. In part because of tireless post-cancellation advocacy on the part of Apatow, most have gone on to solid careers, especially the “freaks” contingent of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps. There’s a sweet earnestness to their collective acting in Freaks and Geeks that generally hasn’t been matched since, a kindness, empathy, and vulnerability that can’t easily be mustered in other settings.

These are all qualities that I would have rejoiced to see continue beyond the eighteen episodes afforded Freaks and Geeks in its single season, grudgingly funded by a broadcast network that never had the slightest inkling what to do with this wonderful show. And yet the truncated nature of Freaks and Geeks is a blessing, sparing the series from grinding on beyond its inspiration, rehashing conflicts past the point of believability. The creators could read a Nielsen ratings report as well as anyone, and they reacted accordingly. Ideas that they might have saved for a second or third season were instead used immediately, and storylines that might have spread for long arcs were instead condensed. Most notably, Sam’s opportunity to date his dream girl could have taken up half a season. Instead, it happens in a flash, progressing from the delight of wish fulfillment to the disillusionment of discovering base incompatibility to the unexpected turn of Sam instigating a breakup over the course of a couple episodes, a more realistic version of a ninth-grade love affair and, therefore, a more satisfying and effective way to shape the narrative.

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Confined to a smaller number of episodes, Freaks and Geeks deftly avoids the problems that bedevil all but the most inventive long-running shows. Characters aren’t stuck in place to be the axles of story cogs. By the exceptional finale, “Discos and Dragons” (which snagged a surprise Emmy nomination for Feig’s writing), change is upon the characters in a way that feels proper for teenagers, and that change doesn’t threaten to disrupt the dynamics of show, therefore mandating an end-of-episode reset button that might have otherwise been pressed. The characters are exploring who they are, as well as who they might be instead. The ambiguity is downright beautiful, and an ongoing series simply has less room for ambiguity.

I truly get why devoted fans ached for more than they were given, and it would have been interest to see what else would have happened in and around William McKinley High School had Feig, Apatow, and their collaborators being given a few more hours. But I’m more than satisfied with the way the show came to its close. To me, Freaks and Geeks is perfect just as it is.

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Previously…

An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire SlayerSeason Five
CheersSeason Five
The SopranosSeason One
St. ElsewhereSeason Four
Veronica MarsSeason One
The OfficeSeason Two
The Ben Stiller ShowSeason One
Gilmore GirlsSeason Three
SeinfeldSeason Four
JustifiedSeason Two
Parks and RecreationSeason Three
LouieSeason Two
TogethernessSeason One
BraindeadSeason One
CommunitySeason Two
Agent CarterSeason Two
The LeftoversSeason Three
TremeSeason One
How I Met Your MotherSeason Two
FireflySeason One
Raising HopeSeason Three
Jessica JonesSeason One
WKRP in CincinnatiSeason One
Veep, Season Five

Outside Reading — You’re Better Than All These Fuckers edition

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America Punished Elizabeth Warren for Her Competence by Megan Garber

Given the harsh realities of the political landscape, Elizabeth Warren’s withdrawal from the presidential race was the right choice and the right time. But it still stings, and Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, explains why in the best of the many pained postmortems I read. In my opinion, Warren was far and away the best person for the monumental tasks of cleaning up the wanton destruction of the four years of the current criminal enterprise masquerading as a presidential administration, and I desperately hope whoever has a D next to their name on the official November ballots will ask permission to use her “Restoring Integrity and Competence to Government After Trump” policy as the instruction manual for their first days in office. Although I’m not enthused about either of the septuagenarians still duking it out for the nomination, I am mindful that the gag political signs offering support to “Any Functioning Adult” in the 2020 election remain pertinent. I understand the righteous fury that comes from seeing your passionate political hopes dashed in the name of mealy compromise, but I also plan to keep the following Twitter thread handy for the next several months.

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I told my story about Chris Matthews. I’m celebrating that he no longer has a platform. by Laura Bassett

While we’re on the subject of casual chauvinism, Laura Bassett noted a different ending this week, reflecting on the “retirement” of longtime Hardball host Chris Matthews, a departure seemingly inspired in part by her recent GQ article addressing his yucky, lascivious behavior when she was a guest on his show. For The Washington Post, Bassett penned a new essay in which, among other things, she recounted the online vitriol she received in response to the assertion of the host’s transgressions, most of them presumably coming from people who don’t actually give a damn about Matthews (and likely complained about him on prior occasions when he wasn’t sufficiently slathering praise on their political figure of choice) but feel immediate fury against any women who dares to speak up and say she deserves to be treated with dignity. It’s a reminder of the enduring truth of Lewis’s Law, which states, “the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”

Golden Words — 30 Rock, “Cooter”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

30 rock cooter

Ahead of its debut season, 30 Rock was preemptively considered the less prestigious of two new series set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy program clearly modeled on Saturday Night Live. Co-created by and starring Tina Fey — before the Sarah Palin impression, before the Mark Twain Prize, before Mean Girls became a perpetual entertainment machine30 Rock was seen as the cute little cousin to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s television follow-up to Emmy vacuum The West Wing. Instead, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was widely derided as a creative disaster and canceled after its first season and 30 Rock raked into prizes like a gambler on a lucky streak.

30 Rock won Outstanding Comedy Series for its first season, but the only other trophy it claimed that year was in the guest acting category, for Elaine Stritch’s inaugural turn as Jack’s ferociously intimidating mother. The second season cracked open the dam. In addition to repeat in the top comedy category, Fey and Baldwin won in their respective gender-specific acting categories and comedy legend Tim Conway was awarded for his guest spot. The Emmys also provide the first of several writing wins, bestowing the statuette on series co-creator Tina Fey for the season finale, “Cooter.”

Unlike some other recipients of Emmy’s writing award, “Cooter” isn’t some crafty reinvention of the form or even a particularly notable episode of the series it represents. “Cooter” did close out the second season, but it didn’t subsume the personality of the series in order to set up some dazzling cliffhanger. It slips the characters onto story threads like beads, generating the comedy from well-established comedic traits: the frazzled weirdo loneliness of Liz Lemon (Fey), the impatient authority of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the friendly bawdiness of Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the showbiz neediness of Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), and the rube innocence of Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer). The particulars of the plot matter less than the slick firing of the comic machinery.

What’s maybe most impressive about “Cooter,” and this whole era of 30 Rock, is the sheer density of jokes. At least four separate stories, each told start to finish, coexist in the episode, and the punchlines come like a torrent from a toppled dam. 30 Rock is in a photo finish tie with Arrested Development as the live action series that comes closest to The Simpsons in terms of quantity of comedy packed into a single half hour. In that respect, “Cooter” is a perfect episode for the Television Academy to highlight. It doesn’t reinvent the form, but it does decisively show off why 30 Rock was special each and every week.

The Art of the Sell — Ethics Training with Kim Wexler

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Now that Better Call Saul has an officially announced endpoint, it’s the appropriate time to start campaigning for a new spinoff called The Kim Wexler Chronicles, right?

Given the thrust of this feature, I should tap out a few words enthusing over the cleverness of this promotional video, but I’ll instead use my digital bandwidth to note that it’s completely ludicrous that Rhea Seehorn has never earned an Emmy nomination for her performance on this series.

 

Outside Reading — My Empty Dish Mocks Me edition

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The Most Important Comedy Writer of the Last 50 Years Finally Gets Her Due by Elyssa Goodman

I am among the quickest to co-sign any declaration celebration the broad cultural impact of David Letterman. But I’m also keenly aware that his distinct comic sensibility — arguably the defining comic sensibility of an entirely generation — was significantly shaped by Merrill Markoe, the first head writer of Late Night with David Letterman. I assume that’s a well-known fact, at least in comedy nerd circles, but Elyssa Goodman makes a persuasive case that even those in the know undervalue Markoe’s contributions. Tonight, Markoe receives the Writers Guild of America West’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television Writing Achievement, and the immense honor is thoroughly deserved and indeed overdue.

 

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Pompeo Called Me a ‘Liar.’ That’s Not What Bothers Me. by Mary Louise Kelly

It’s an exhausting process, this constant cataloging of the current executive branch’s procession of grotesque, previously unthinkable attacks on basic national norms (abetted by the obsequious and cowardly legislators who long ago chose party over country). Is it even possible to identify a new low when these monsters dwell so deep in the chasm? Mike Pompeo’s ham-fisted attempt to bully NPR Mary Louise Kelly after she dared to ask him a question about a matter highly pertinent to his current role as a public servant would be a small embarrassment if it didn’t represent the toxic imperiousness that is endemic to the current leadership. And that quality is a major factor in the pure corruption that we now know for certain will go officially unchecked. In a response published by The New York Times, Kelly address the incident with class and clarity, characteristics that are entirely absent from the White House officials she’s charged with covering.

Outside Reading — America’s Press Conference of the Air edition

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The Christmas Eve Confessions of Chuck Todd by Jay Rosen

Earlier this week, Rolling Stone gave a platform to Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, interviewing him about an upcoming special edition of his venerable program. Todd and his producers have apparently come to an epiphany about the intellectual dishonesty employed by several of the politicians and political commentators booked as guests on his program. For those of us not drawing obscenely large paychecks as network news figures but actively paying attention to the right wing’s strategy of flooding the public  with easily debunked distortions (often propagated on Meet the Press, where the lies too often go unchallenged), Todd’s newfound astonishment is embarrassing. Luckily, NYU professor Jay Rosen writes a properly savage appraisal of Todd’s comments in the interview, detailing exactly how current stewards of journalism like Todd are entirely unprepared for the current era. More worrisomely, that lack of basic ability to meet the moment helps perpetuate the ruthless opportunists who are spreading their destructive toxins throughout society.

 

Little Women (1868, 1869) by Louisa May Alcott

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To the best of my recollection, I’d never previously read Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s book that’s one of the cornerstone works of U.S. literature. It’s possible that there was a school assignment at some point, and it’s equally possible I stupidly dismissed such an assignment because it was a “girl’s book.” Although clearly pitched at younger readers, the novel is rich with offhand insight about the ways in which people move around one another, striving to make and keep ahold of connections. It often reads more like a collection of connected short stories, reflecting the time when it was written and first published. Through it all, the measured mastery of Alcott is evident. There’s no confusion as to why it’s a classic.