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December 5, 2002

Up Close and Comical

Carl Reiner comes to OCPAC to discuss the only topic he's an expert in -- himself.

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/up_close_and_comical_20021206

''I'm a ham," said legendary actor-writer-director Carl Reiner.

"When you're a showoff, you've gotta get on that platform."

Which is why 80-year-old Reiner is eager to regale the audience with tales of his life in a speaking engagement at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Dec. 9. He'll cover everything from working on Sid Caesar's TV shows to playing straight man to Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man to writing semi-autobiographical novels such as "Enter Laughing."

"The only thing I'm an expert on is me," he said of his choice of a lecture topic. "And I'm a fairly good interviewer from my experience with the 2,000-Year-Old Man. I know what I'm curious about, so I'll ask questions of myself and give all the answers."

Expect to enter -- and exit -- laughing.

Bronx-bred Reiner, whom Brooks calls the "tall, bald Jew," has been funny practically since birth. "As a kid, I could always make people laugh, and I could perfectly tell and retell jokes I heard at the movies," Reiner said.

His first performance occurred when he put one leg behind his head and hopped on the other in front of his rapt kindergarten teachers and classmates. A smaller crowd watched his Orthodox bar mitzvah, which he says took place "on a Thursday morning before mincha, with just a minyan of old Jews."

By 1950, Reiner was writing and performing on Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," where he met a short, outrageous fellow writer named Mel Brooks. "Mel Yiddishized everything," Reiner says. "I'll never forget he used to do this character called The Jewish Pirate. Instead of a Jolly Roger, he had a Jolly Magen David."

While hanging out in the writers' room one day, Reiner made history when he turned to Brooks and ad-libbed, "Here is a man who was at the scene of the crucifixion 2,000 years ago. Did you know Jesus?" Brooks instantly lapsed into a thick, Yiddish accent and replied, "Thin lad, wore sandals, came into my store, but he never bought a thing."

Over the next 10 years, Reiner shlepped a tape recorder to parties to capture their 2,000-Year-Old Man shtick, although he says he and Brooks refused to cut a record because "we were afraid the accent would play into anti-Semitic stereotypes." It wasn't until after they had recorded the album in 1961 that Reiner received the penultimate confirmation that the 2,000-Year-Old Man was universal.

His notoriously cheap neighbor, Cary Grant, had shnorred a dozen copies of the album to take along on a trip to England; when he returned, he knocked on Reiner's door. "She loved it," Grant gushed. "Who?" Reiner asked. "The Queen Mother," Grant replied.

"The biggest gentile in the world," marveled Reiner, who became a founding father of the TV sitcom when he created "The Dick Van Dyke Show," based on his home life during "Your Show of Shows."

In 1979, Reiner again made history by directing "The Jerk," the movie that catapulted Steve Martin to superstardom. He went on to direct three more films with the Texas-born comic ("Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains" and "All of Me"), who proved to be a very different kind of collaborator than Brooks. "Mel is loud, abrasive and hilarious, while Steve is quiet and hilarious," Reiner said. "But funny is funny."

The octogenarian could say the same of himself. Last year, he elicited yuks with his hilarious turn as a grumpy, Rolaids-popping, has-been crook in Steven Soderberg's heist flick "Ocean's 11." Recently, he signed with Little, Brown and Company to write a children's book, "Tell Me a Scary Story, But Not Too Scary!" prompted by a request from his grandson, Nicky (the middle child of Reiner's director son, Rob Reiner). Now he's finishing an autobiography, "My Anecdotal Life," spurred by fellow comedy writers at The Friars Club.

"We have this alter-kacker lunch -- we calls ourselves ROMEOS, Retired Old Men Eating Out -- where everyone kept telling me to write down my stories," Reiner said. "I started and pretty soon I was adding and adding to the list."

He'll tell a number of those stories in Orange County, where he hopes to elicit more yuks. "Although I'm older now, I still have the need to get up in front of people and make them laugh," he said. "That's what I like to hear."  

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