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The actor: Writer-director-actor Rob Reiner has comedy in his blood. He’s the son of legendary writer-director-actor Carl Reiner, who created The Dick Van Dyke Show after working with a galaxy of future comic icons like Neil Simon and Mel Brooks on Your Show Of Shows. In 1971, Rob Reiner’s acting career took off when he was cast as the resident hippie on All In The Family, a breakthrough working-class sitcom that pitted Reiner’s do-gooder peacenik against Carroll O’Connor’s big-talking, reactionary blowhard. Reiner has continued to act throughout the decades, but he’s devoted most of his energy to directing hit comedies like This Is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally, The American President, and The Bucket List. Reiner also has a curious side gig playing himself, or at least a caricature of himself, on shows ranging from Hannah Montana to 30 Rock. He can currently be seen again playing himself in Certifiably Jonathan, an improv-heavy mockumentary vehicle for Jonathan Winters.
Certifiably Jonathan (2011)—Himself
Rob Reiner: Well, you know, I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Winters. He’s influenced everyone who’s ever done improvisational comedy. You look to Jonathan Winters for inspiration. He paved the way. If you’ve ever made up something on the spot and made somebody laugh, you can credit Jonathan Winters with inspiration.
AVC: What do you remember about the first time you met him?
RR: I think the first time I met him, he was doing a movie with my dad called The Russians Are Coming, and this was back in the ’60s, I believe. I think I was 17 years old, so what was that? 1964.
AVC: What got you into comedy?
RR: What got me into it? I think I was forced into it. I don’t have a sense of humor, so I think I had to do it because my dad was doing it, and I saw all of these funny people around, so I was forced into it.
AVC: What do you mean, you don’t have a sense of humor?
RR: Well, I mean obviously I have a sense of humor; I was just making a joke there. And you’re someone who works for The Onion. I’m surprised you didn’t catch it.
AVC: I thought maybe you felt like you didn’t have a specific sense of humor.
RR: I think I have a finely tuned sense of humor. I think just being around it and growing up in it… my dad and Mel Brooks and Norman Lear. These are the people I grew up around. Larry Gelbart. Some of the funniest people. When you think about the people who worked on Your Show Of Shows, they’re basically responsible for anything you laughed at in the second half of the 20th century. It’s all of Neil Simon’s stuff, all of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, my dad, Larry Gelbart, Aaron Ruben, Joe Stein, who wrote Fiddler On The Roof. Pretty much anything you laughed at in the second half of the 20th century can be traced back to Your Show Of Shows.
AVC: Was it intimidating being around so many great comic minds as a kid?
RR: As a young person, I wasn’t intimidated, because I was just taking it in. It was all around me. It was like the proverbial kid with the head through the slats in the staircase, listening in on people when they had parties at the house. But as I got older and got into my teenage years and realized this is what I wanted to do, I think it was kind of intimidating. And I do remember the first time I ever wrote a joke for Mel and my father, for the 2000 Year Old Man. That was a big deal for me, to be able to write something that they used in their act.
AVC: Those were all completely improvised, were they not?
RR: Yes. They improvised everything. All the records, they improvised. When they went on television, they were only consigned six minutes, so they had to kind of craft it. But when they did the records, the records were completely improvised.
AVC: You were good friends with Albert Brooks when growing up.
RR: Yeah, Albert and I went to high school together.
AVC: Did you ever write together?
RR: We wrote together when we were like, 16. We certainly acted together. We were in summer theater together when we were 18, at the Priscilla Beach Theater in Plymouth, Massachusetts. So we did that. And we shared a house together in our early 20s.
AVC: He also has a very distinct comic sensibility.
RR: Well, he’s a genius. Albert is a genius.
AVC: Was it apparent to you early on that he doesn’t think the way other people do?
RR: Albert was rare in that he could make adults laugh. He was a prodigy. At age 15 and 16, he could make my dad laugh uncontrollably. And whenever we had parties, some of the funniest people of my generation—whether it was Billy Crystal or Robin Williams or John Belushi—would be doing shtick. And then once Albert started in, everybody kind of cleared out and let him go. It was kind of known that he was the genius. And nobody could compete with Albert when he started.
AVC: So they deferred to him?
RR: It was like “What?” and then suddenly there’s someone in the middle by themselves, and it’s Albert.
AVC: What was it like getting into improvisation as a group?
RR: When I was 19, I was at UCLA, and I decided with a couple of other guys to start an improvisation group. At the time, The Committee was performing in San Francisco, and I used to go up there all the time and watch them, and then realized there was no improv for us; Chicago had Second City, San Francisco had The Committee, and New York had The Premise. L.A. didn’t really have an improv group. This was before The Groundlings, way before The Groundlings. So we decided to start one in L.A. So me and Richard Dreyfuss and Larry Bishop, who was Joey Bishop’s son, and some others who were good friends and funny people—Bobby Shaw and David Arkin—we all formed this group called The Session. We rehearsed at UCLA in the basement of Royce Hall for like, six months until we got a show together. Actually, the cops found us—the campus police—they found us and threw us out of there. So we started our own group and had our own theater on Sunset Boulevard. We were together for about a year, and then Larry and I did a double act. We did a lot of the scenes in the show in clubs and on television. And then when I was 21 or so, I joined The Committee in San Francisco. They had come to L.A. and did a show. So I joined them, and from there, I got the Smothers Brothers show.
AVC: Was it hard, switching teams like that?
RR: Nah, it was pretty much the same. The Committee did more political satire while The Session did more social satire. More people scenes. They did political, but basically it was the same kind of stuff.
AVC: Was there pressure to be a little more political or socially conscious because of the times?
RR: With The Committee, yes, for sure. They were very much a political satire group. But we did social satire as well. Of course, with The Smothers Brothers, it was a lot of political stuff that we wrote. We were doing stuff on the Vietnam War, on race relations, all kinds of stuff.
AVC: So much of American comedy can be traced back to The Smothers Brothers.
RR: Sure. The first time there was any kind of satire on television, it was Your Show Of Shows. That was late ’40s, early ’50s. It was the first thing, way before Saturday Night Live, which didn’t come on until 1975. Your Show Of Shows started in 1949, and they were the first show to do really sophisticated satire. They’d do takes on movies and operas and all kinds of things.
AVC: And with The Smothers Brothers, they were a well-established, extremely successful double act, but a little buttoned-up. When you got the job as a writer, was the idea to shake things up a bit?
RR: Oh, Tommy was already doing that. He was tired, actually. In the summer of ’68, Glen Campbell had a show that replaced The Smothers Brothers that he hosted, and me and Carl Gottlieb were hired as writers out of The Committee. So Tommy produced that show, and he was always wanting to shake stuff up. We were just following his lead. We would try to push him beyond it, but he had enough trouble with the censors as it was, just trying to get things on. It was a difficult time, because we were trying to be socially relevant; the Vietnam War was going on, and a lot of race riots, things like that. So we tried to do things that reflected the times, and Tommy got a lot of heat for that. But he was the leader. Tommy was the leader.
AVC: What would be an example of something you tried to get on the show that was pushing too hard?
RR: The comedian David Steinberg wrote a routine on religion. They weren’t going to have that at all. Then we did a thing with Pete Seeger, which was called “The Big Muddy,” and eventually it did air. But they had to fight like crazy. It was a whole anti-war song. But it was hard. We’d get sketches thrown out the day before a taping. That would happen a lot.
AVC: At the time, did you see yourself more as a performer or a writer?
RR: When you do improv, you’re everything. You’re a performer, writer, and director, because you’re moving the scene in the direction you want it to go, you’re making it up as you go, and you’re acting it. You’re all of those things, so I always viewed myself that way. And with the films I’ve done, I’ve written on them, I’ve acted in some of them. And even ones I haven’t acted in, I’ve acted them out just to be sure another actor can do them.
Halls Of Anger (1970)—“Leaky Couloris”
RR: Oh, I did that with Jeff Bridges. It was all about these five white kids who are bussed to an all-black school. So that was the idea during the bussing. It was all about race relations and difficulties of mixing whites and blacks.
AVC: Who was your character?
RR: I was a kid who was really unhappy with being bussed. I was one of the angry people in the halls. It was the Halls Of Anger, so I was angry.
AVC: It seems like at that time, the kind of roles you’d be offered would be angry, counterculture—
RR: Oh, I was a resident hippie. With Gomer Pyle, I remember singing “Blowin’ In The Wind” with Gomer around a campfire. In The Beverly Hillbillies, I was a hippie. I was a resident Hollywood hippie. I actually wrote for Otto Preminger on a movie called Skidoo. It’s one of the most awful movies ever made.
AVC: How did you get in touch with Otto Preminger?
RR: [Laughs.] Oh, I didn’t get in touch with Otto Preminger. He got in touch with me. He basically had seen me in The Committee. I think we were performing at the Troubadour. He came in there one day, it was a really hot day, and he was really pissed off that he was sitting there in this hot place and sweating. But he liked us. And so he was doing this movie called Skidoo with Jackie Gleason and—
RR: Yeah, Groucho Marx I think was in it. Everybody was in it. And because he liked me, he had the scenes with hippies—Alexandra Hay was one, I think—so he needed someone to write scenes for hippies. So I went in and turned out some pages for hippies so that they would sound right and say “groovy” in the right place. They said, “Can you dig it?” or “What’s happening?” And he would fire me every day. I worked there for a few weeks. So he fired me every day and rehired me at the end of the day. He got pissed off at me and then he asked me back all the time. He was in a rage and screaming all the time. And one time, when I thought I couldn’t do this anymore and maybe he just didn’t like what I was doing, he said to me [Hungarian accent.], “No, no, no, you are not without talent.” So I was on there for a little while.
AVC: When we interviewed Austin Pendleton—
RR: Yeah, he was in that too!
AVC: —he said he was worried Preminger would make a film that was too conventional and stuffy.
RR: Yeah, I think Otto Preminger was trying to be hip. He was trying to be hip because people were making movies like Stanley Sweetheart and Strawberry Statement and RPM. And Jack Nicholson did—not Head, but before he did Head…
AVC: The Trip?
RR: Yeah, The Trip. Those kind of movies were being made. So I think Otto wanted into that world. It was a big mistake; he should have stayed with Stalag 17.
AVC: Did you do any other kind of script-doctoring at that point?
RR: I didn’t do other ones. I did mostly television scripts.
AVC: As the voice of the hippie generation?
RR: Well, there’s one I wrote on called There’s A Girl In My Soup. That was Peter Sellers and Goldie Hawn. I wrote on another, but I can’t remember the name. I did a few, but mostly television.
The Partridge Family (1971)—“Snake”
AVC: Did you do any singing in that?
RR: No, but I did do singing in something called The Bobby Sherman Show. He had his own show, he was on Shindig, and then he had his own show. But I did some singing in that, and it was Mona And The Moonbeams. It was me, Carl Gottlieb, and Penny Marshall. God, I can’t believe I remember all these things. You’re making me remember this stuff.
AVC: That is very impressive. So, let’s see here… I had a point…
RR: I’m not sure there’s really a point to any of this.
Hannah Montana (2009)—Himself
RR: I played myself. And it’s interesting, because I’ve been around a long time and done a lot of shows—kids only know me for Hannah Montana. And I did a thing with Selena Gomez on Wizards Of Waverly Place. Those are the things that kids come to me and say, “You’re the Hannah Montana guy.” I played Rob Reiner in that and I played Rob Reiner in a David Spade picture—what the hell was that one?
AVC: Dickie Roberts. So what is the context of you being in the universe of Hannah Montana or Wizards Of Waverly Place?
RR: The story there is Hannah was up for a part in a female Indiana Jones that I was making, so she tries to lose the part because her friend is always upset that she wins everything, so she acted like a horrible diva. But I give her the part, because that’s what I was looking for. You know, it’s Shaw, Shakespeare, that’s what you think of when you think of these.
The TV Show (1979)—various characters
RR: Yeah, that was actually a pretty cool show. If you get hold of it and take a look, it’s actually pretty cool. It was on a little bit before SCTV, and basically we did very similar things to what SCTV did. It was a satire of what was on television. It was a guy flipping through channels going from one thing to another. You’d have a telethon. And I played Georgie Jessel, and we’d try to stop death, the ultimate disease. We had a take-off of Midnight Special where I played Wolfman Jack, and that was the first time Spinal Tap was ever shown. That gave birth to Spinal Tap. It was a pretty cool show.
AVC: When and for how long was it on?
RR: It was a one-time special. An hourlong special.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)—“Marty DiBergi”
RR: It was because of that show. When we were doing that section of the show, Chris [Guest] and Harry [Shearer] and Michael [McKean] would start improvising in these characters when we had some downtime. So we thought, “Geez, we could do something with these characters, beyond this little bit in the show.” And we had all worked together one time or another. Then Harry and I had an idea to do a movie about rock ’n’ roll from the roadies’ perspective, from backstage. Then Meat Loaf came out with a movie called Roadie and we thought, “Oh, we can’t do that now.” So we kind of discarded the idea. But then Chris and Michael did a little video thing, which these days would be on YouTube. But then there was no YouTube. It was kind of two guys who ran into each other after several years and in a drug-filled haze remembered they had worked together once in a rock ’n’ roll band. So that was the birth of Nigel and David. So we got back together again and said, “Wait a minute, maybe we can do something with these characters and make a feature out of it.”
AVC: How much structure was there?
RR: The only thing we had is, we knew the tour, and we mapped out the order that we had. Then when we put the film together, we did a completely different order. The only thing we really knew is that it would be about two guys who started this band when they were kids, and the woman who comes between them is like a Yoko Ono kind of thing, and the band breaks up, but then they get back together. But other than that, we basically said, “In this scene, this will happen”; then we’d shoot. We basically wrote the film in the cutting room with the pieces of film. It was like, a nine-month editing process trying to get these pieces together to make a story out of it. But yeah, it was completely improvised.
AVC: At that point, did you realize “I’m a director now. This is what my career will be from now on”?
RR: No, I knew that from early on because, like I said, when I was 19 I was already directing my own improvisational group, and I directed theater in L.A. I directed a production of No Exit with Richard Dreyfuss when I was 19. So I was already interested in directing when I was very young. I knew that was something I was going to be doing.
AVC: Was acting still fun for you at that point?
RR: It’s fun. I like doing it. It’s fun whenever I get a chance. When somebody asks me to do it, I’ll do it. God, what was the last thing I did? Years ago, Ronnie Howard called me up and asked me if I wanted a part. He was doing a movie called EdTV, which, like, now it’s very prescient. EdTV is like a reality now. He did a whole movie before any of this reality television happened. He called me up and said, “Do you want to be in a movie?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” He said, “Well, I’ll send you the script.” I told him I didn’t need to read the script. Oh wait, I think the last thing I did was 30 Rock. That was the last. I did an episode of 30 Rock this year, or last year.
AVC: You played yourself again.
RR: Yes, but I was also a congressman. I had decided to run for office and had become a congressman with Queen Latifah.
AVC: Have you thought about running for political office?
RR: I have thought about it. The problem was, I was seriously thinking about it a while ago, and then the family sat down and we all talked about it, and then I polled about 40 percent in my own family. I figured if I can’t carry my own family, then I’m not going to run.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)—“Sheldon Flender”
RR: Oh yeah, I had fun doing that with Woody Allen. I guess I was with Mary-Louise Parker, and John Cusack was in that, and Dianne Wiest. It’s fun, because he’ll basically let you do whatever you want. There’s a script there, but then he says that if you want to say these things, you can. And if you want to say something else, you say something else. He’s pretty open and loose about all that stuff.
All In The Family (1971-78)—“Michael ‘Meathead’ Stivic”
RR: Oh, that show? I auditioned for it, actually, and I didn’t get the part. They did two pilots with ABC before it went to CBS, and I auditioned for one of the times it was at ABC, and I didn’t get the part. Then I got more mature, and as it got to CBS, a couple of years had gone by, and I had a little bit more experience under my belt. I was actually writing for Andy Griffith at the time. It was a show called Headmaster, and one of the episodes I wrote I actually starred in, so Norman [Lear] saw me in that and said, “Okay, let’s have him back in.” So I came back, read again, and this time I got it.
AVC: At what point did you realize that this was a show that was defining a generation and becoming this huge pop-culture landmark?
RR: Well, we knew when we started it that it was different than anything that had ever been on television. It was way beyond anything that television had ever presented. But it wasn’t until they reran. The first 13, nobody saw, but then they reran those 13 during the summer. We were on 26 weeks in a row, and by the end of that, people were going crazy over it. But what it was going to be ultimately, I don’t think anybody realized that.
AVC: You didn’t think Archie Bunker’s recliner would be in the Smithsonian some day?
RR: No, we didn’t think that was going to happen. But it was definitely a landmark show that took its place in pop culture, and it also spurred a lot of discussion. I’m really proud to be part of it, and it was a great experience. There’s not likely to be another show like that. There hasn’t been.