He claims that most young people recognize him from Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), but even if you don’t know him on sight, you owe Carl Reiner for pretty much everything good about American comedy. Like SNL? Reiner perfected the sketch comedy format as a writer/performer on Your Show of Shows in the ’50s. Fan of 30 Rock? Reiner created The Dick Van Dyke Show in 1961, which pioneered the behind-the-scenes-of-a-show sitcom. Into Judd Apatow? His intellectual wackiness was heavily influenced by the Reiner-directed 1979 film The Jerk. Not to mention his novels, memoirs, Broadway plays, and notable offspring (like director Rob Reiner). For his latest trick, Carl Reiner has written a children’s book, Tell Me Another Scary Story . . . But Not Too Scary! It’s a Halloween-y sequel to a book he published two years ago, inspired by one of his five grandchildren. He also narrates the accompanying CD, which warns children to stop reading if things are getting too scary. Babble spoke to Reiner about the book and other parent-related highlights of his long, funny career. – Gwynne Watkins
Your “scary laugh” on the Tell Me Another Scary Story CD is really scary!
I’m so happy we’re talking about it! I love that little book. Are you looking at the new one or the first one?
I’m looking at the new one. It’s really creepy. I was sort of flipping ahead to make sure everyone was okay by the end.
I think that’s the trick that I found. I wrote the first book because somebody asked me if I had a children’s book in me, and I didn’t know that I did until I remembered my grandchild, Nikki, one of Rob‘s kids. I used to tell him stories, and one day he asked me, ‘Tell me a scary story, Grandpa, but not too scary.’ And I think that little key made the first book a real winner, because teachers would tell me they’d read it in their Kindergarten and all the [kids would] say ‘No, no turn, turn!’ and I loved that little interplay. I think for me the most fun of the book is the interplay with the children as you read it.
How old are your grandchildren now?
The oldest one is grown up. He’s eighteen. Rob also has a sixteen-year-old, and an eleven-year-old. Lukas has a ten-year-old and a six-year-old.
How do you find being a grandparent compared to being a parent?
Oh much, much easier. It’s a snap. They bring them over to play and say hello and get around a little and then they take them home. Responsibility is much less daunting.
You’re actually the same age as my grandparents, who used to play me The 2000-Year-Old Man when I was a kid. Do you play your comedy for your grandkids?
No, I don’t, but I’m sure my children have played it for them. I’m very gratified to hear that people come up to me – young people – and I say, where did you hear it? And they all say, my mother played it, my father played it. I’m amazed by it. We’re very pleased, Mel [Brooks] and I, that they put together all five albums into a box set for Christmas and they’re going to be re-released, and we’re going to Washington and the Library of Congress is going to install it into the Library of Congress.
Back to the book: you haven’t done much in terms of scary stuff in your career.
No, that’s not my genre. My genre is to make people giggle. As a matter of fact, the two new children’s books I have in the hopper right now, which are ready for next year, I really think are the best of the bunch. One is called Tell Me A Silly Story, and the other is Tell Me a Sillier Story. The two of them, I just love them.
Have you tested those out with kids yet?
Oh yes, I read them to my family members and they giggled. Kids love the words “silly.” As soon as I start it, they start to giggle.
Do you find it easier to be silly now that you’re older?
I’ve always been silly! But it doesn’t sit as well on older people. They think you’re becoming senile rather than silly.
So when you were raising your kids and doing all the million amazing things you’ve done in your career, how aware were your kids of what you did for a living?
When I first started, Robby was very small, and when he saw me on television – we didn’t know what television was in those days. It was 1950. He was born in 1947, so he was three when I was on shows. It was just an image. It could’ve been a picture, a photograph. But he looked, he pointed. Kids still do that when they see their parents on television. He grew up with a fairly normal life, mainly they had two parents who had good work ethics and I think that’s what they got from us. They always saw us doing something. My wife was a painter and a singer, and every one of my children is very adept at dealing with the world, they’re really very comfortable people and very non-toxic people. I have great kids.
The Dick Van Dyke Show was based on your family, and it’s still funny and true all these years later.
One of the biggest thrills I got was when Barack Obama was running for President and he published his autobiography. I was just enjoying the thrill of where he came from and who he became, but at one point he wrote, ‘I got a kick out of watching my wife enjoying the reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ I said, ‘Wow!’ And later on, I heard her say in person that he invited her to go some place, and she said, ‘I’d rather stay in Chicago and watch re-runs.’ The re-runs were running in Chicago during the election because the Midwest had bought up all the rights. And I got such a kick out of it, and I said, of course he’s going to be a good President. He’s got good taste!
Well, it’s still one of the smartest sitcoms ever created! Were there any moments when you were working on the show, and you thought hmm, I don’t think this story has ever been told before on TV?
A few times I felt that. As a matter of fact, one of them almost made me quit the show. In the first year, I came up with a show – not very original – but the little boy asked his mother, ‘Where do I come from?‘ and she actually said, ‘Well, you came from my belly.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I know that. But do I come from New York or New Jersey?’ That’s what he wants to know.
Well, they made me take that line out. And I said, ‘Why don’t you want me to say that?’ And [the network censor] said, well a lot of people tell their kids that a stork brought them or they’re found in a cabbage patch. I said, ‘Well that’s not true, is it? Isn’t that lying?’ And I said if parents want to tell their kids that and they see this on the air, they can tell their kids, no, that’s not true, you came from a cabbage patch, if they wanna lie. But I said, ‘Telling the truth should be a priority on television!’ And I said it certainly brings up the subject if people want to discuss it, and it will help people say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s right.’ You only tell a kid as much as he needs to know at a certain age. You don’t go into the graphics. I mean, I researched it before I did it.
And I was so angry I almost left the show, but I didn’t have enough screw-you money at the time. A year later, I might have said, I’m out of here. Now instead of saying ‘from your belly,’ he reaches for Dr. Spock to see how to tell him scientifically since the kid wants to know. So I never got to say that line. That line was cut.
You only tell a kid as much as he needs to know at a certain age. You don’t go into the graphics. So you did The Dick Van Dyke Show, you’ve got all these movies under your belt that people still watch and love – of all the things you’ve created, what’s the thing that people are talking to you most about now on a day-to-day basis?
Well, mostly, if we’re going to reminisce, I think The Dick van Dyke Show, and The 2000-Year-Old Man, which we talked about. Of course, now that I did all those Oceans, they know me from that. If I hadn’t done that, people wouldn’t know who I was.
Just to end this on a Halloweenie note, what’s the scariest thing that’s happened to you on a TV or film set?
It’s not scary, but there was a show called Your Show of Shows years ago. It was unheard of for good comedians to break each other up and laugh. There were fake break-ups. Some comedians used to fake breaking up and laughing at their own joke and the audience feeling like they were in on something, that you couldn’t control yourself. But we always felt like that was out-of-bounds. We tried very hard to never break each other up. But sometimes: things would happen.
I remember we did Two English Barristers, myself and Sid Caesar, and we were discussing a case while we’re playing pool. The joke was that we had the table scored, little pieces of felt were cut so that when he took a shot, the pool cue went under the felt rather than hitting the ball. So when he picked the pool cue up, it would rip the felt on the table. And that was funny. People were roaring with laughter.
Well there’s a warp and a woof to cloth, and when he went under the cloth and pulled the pool cue up, it broke in half. And he’s left with a club in his hand. And he’s walking around with a billy club, looking for the next shot. And my line after that is [upper-class British accent] ‘Good shot!’ and I’m almost biting my lip because, ‘good shot?’ He just broke his pool cue in half! And he’s walking around looking for the next shot and I know he’s going to do something crazy. I’m just trying to hold myself together, and he swings it like a polo mallet, and knocks the ball off the table and off the wall. And my next line is ‘Good shot!’ and I cue it up. And I actually bit my lip and blood was coming in my mouth, I could feel it. But I didn’t laugh. And that was scariest thing to me: to hold laughter back from the audience.