This post was originally published at smerconish.com
Like almost every comedy writer, I personally owe so much of who I am and what I’ve done, to Carl. I’m not old enough to have watched “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour “when they first aired in the 1950s, but I’ve seen much of them over the years, and the brilliance of what he brought to the shows, both as a writer and perform are still master classes today.
I first became aware of him through “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, the show he created and wrote in the early 1960s, featuring Dick as Rob Petrie, the head writer for the fictious “The Alan Brady Show,” a sketch comedy show hosted by Alan Brady, who was played magnificently by Carl.
While it was based on Carl’s life, the idea of a writers’ room on a sketch comedy show, struck me even then, as the perfect life, though it would be years before I realize just how much it influenced me. I had friends who would try to assert the supremacy of slapstick and physical comedy, but even at that young age, I somehow knew the value of words and how using them in just the right way, could evoke so much more humor than any pratfall ever could. Carl was a wordsmith, and while I didn’t know it, the countless hours I spent watching his shows and his films, over and over again, weren’t just entertaining, they were teaching me the fundamental skills that would eventually allow me earn a living.
While I continued to appreciate and learn from his work, it wasn’t until much later in life that Carl gave me a second gift. HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News”, my first professional writing job, had just been cancelled, when I received a call wondering if I was interested in a possible staff position on “The New Mickey Mouse Club.” In the entertainment industry, one of the first things you learn, is to say yes to any work and worry later if you can actually do it. So I said yes, and was told to send over my credits.
Euphoria of a possible second job quickly dissipated when I realized that my credits began and ended with “Not Necessarily the News.” A great credit, but not enough to fill up an entire page. So I did what any good writer would do, I became creative. There was the Penn State student newspaper, which I hadn’t actually written for, but had friends who did, and I would occasionally suggest an idea or a joke, which is close enough, so I said I was a weekly columnist.
I was friends with Marvin Kitman, the TV critic for Long Island Newsday, and he would often quote me, so I figured that made me a writer for him and the paper. I had done stand up and written jokes for friends so that made the list, and slowly over the course of the afternoon, my “credits” grew to the point that even I was impressed. It’s said that truth is in the eye of the beholder, or at least someone should have said that, and I figured as long as I didn’t run for political office, who would ever know about my self-aggrandizement.
Looking over my new credit sheet, I realized that there was still something missing. Not a specific credit mind you, just one last small space at the bottom, that needed to be filled. I ponder the situation for a moment and then, throwing caution to the wind, I wrote in “The Alan Brady Show – Staff Writer”. Sure, a little audacious, but I figured there were three outcomes. Whoever read it wouldn’t know what the “The Alan Brady Show” was, so it would be just another credit. Or perhaps they were fans of the show and I’d get a chuckle. The worst would be they knew I was lying and dismiss me out of hand, which in mind meant they had no sense of humor and I would better off not working for them.
With that, I sent the credits off and a few days later I received a call that the head writer of “The New Mickey Mouse Club”, Alan Silberberg, wanted to meet me. Upon arriving at his office, Alan started off by informing me that as long as I didn’t screw up the meeting, I had the job based on my credits. Taken aback, I cautiously asked what particular credit so impressed him, at which point he took out a photograph of the show’s writing staff from the previous season. I carefully took the photo, and upon looking at it, I broke out into laughter. The entire staff was wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the words “The Alan Brady Show” across the front. Unknowingly, Carl Reiner had gotten me my second writing job.
As fate would have it, after the season was over, I was notified that the last episode of “Not Necessarily the News” had been nominated for a Writers’ Guild of America Award, and I was invited to a cocktail party with all my fellow nominees. Also attending the party was going to be that year’s special honoree, one Mr. Carl Reiner.
When the night of the party arrived, the room was filled with some of the top television and feature film writers in the business, and I nervously hoped that no one would realize that I had no business being in that room. I continued to scout the room, when suddenly, I saw Carl with many of his peers, but definitely not mine, surrounding him, as he held court. Warily, I approached, and when I had the opportunity, I did what every comedy writer is obligated to do, I told him that I was a comedy writer because of him. He smiled and said something self-depreciating about his actual impact on my life, which due to my being in a dither by merely being in his presence, I have no recollection of what was exactly said, but it caused me to correct his impression, informing him that he had actually gotten me a job.
Baffled and probably a little dubious, he inquired, having just met me, as to what job he could have possible helped me obtain. I proceeded to regale him with the story of my credits and how “The Alan Brady Show” landed me a job. As I finished my story, his face went wide with one of those great Carl Reiner smiles, he let out a laugh, and said, “At least someone from that show is still working.” And if that wasn’t enough, a smile and laugh from Carl himself, he then presented with the one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. He put his hand on my shoulder, told me to keep that on my credits, and if anyone ever asked, he would confirm that I was a staff writer for The Alan Brady Show.
A career, a job and an incredibly special gift which is still prominently displayed on my credit sheet. And he didn’t even know me. That’s Carl Reiner, and I know I speak for everyone who’s ever written comedy or even tried, we thank you more than you could ever know and we’ll miss you.