If you want to know how good Carl Reiner was, just go to YouTube and find the old Sid Caesar Show from the 1950s and a skit they called “This Is Your Story,” which turned the sentimental “This Is Your Life” inside out.
If you don’t think it’s the funniest 11 minutes in the history of television, I’ll give you your money back.
Reiner, who left us last week at 98, was the best we ever had at making other people funny.
He was there for Sid Caesar when television was a baby, and when Mel Brooks pretended to be 2,000 years old, Reiner was still there. He created classic TV roles for Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, and he helped Steve Martin break into the movies.
He even convinced us that George Burns might be God Himself.
Always, the joke was on Reiner, serving it up for somebody else to get the laughs.
“This is Your Story” was a spoof in the same way the early Mad magazine satirized comic book characters. On the surface, TV’s original “This Is Your Life” was gentle nostalgia, carefully choreographed ahead of time to look spontaneous and then boxed in by commercial restraints.
“This Is Your Story” removed every restraint known to television.
There was Reiner, playing the host and marching himself down into the big studio audience. It’s all live. He tells the “unsuspecting” Sid Caesar, “This is your story. Come on up here, Al Dundee.”
But Al’s having none of it. And thus commences one of the greatest comic brawls ever. Overcoats are flying, clothing’s coming undone. The audience is plotzing. Squadrons of ushers are called in to carry the struggling Caesar up to the stage.
And through all the comic, volcanic madness erupting around him, Reiner’s smiling, he’s composed and he’s keeping a running commentary alive as though all’s well.
When they get on stage, it’s only marginally calmer. A succession of folks emerges from Al Dundee’s early life. Howie Morris, as Uncle Goopie, starts hugging and kissing and won’t let go. Aunt Marge arrives straight out of central casting’s image of an “Aunt Marge.” Louie Nye arrives as Mr. Torch, “the kind and gentle old fireman.” They’re all out of their minds with catching up. And then, to “calm” things a little, comes an entire marching band playing at full tilt.
Yet somehow, there’s Reiner, microphone in hand, big photo album tucked under one arm and the smile never leaving his face, even when he has to grab the scrawny Howie Morris under one arm and carry him away.
There’s an old line that fits Reiner like a glove: “Dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.”
I don’t know who first uttered the line, but it was brought back for Peter O’Toole to say it in “My Favorite Year,” the 1982 movie based on the time an erratic Errol Flynn guest-starred on the old Caesar show. Joseph Bologna played Caesar.
Like Neil Simon’s great 1993 Broadway comedy, “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the story revolves around the writers’ room on the old Caesar show. Imagine, a hit movie and a hit show, decades after the fact, based on a bunch of writers!
Among that illustrious group: Simon himself, Larry Gelbart, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin and several other immortal names in comedy writing.
Reiner was in there, too. He was a remarkable concoction of writer and performer, and he did both for an astonishing seven decades or so.
Sometimes, we almost didn’t even notice him, because always he was laying out the joke for somebody else to get the laughs.
Nobody did it better.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).