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Conducted ~10/2004

reinerBe it his work with Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, the creation of The Dick Van Dyke Show, numerous “2,000 Year Old Man” pairings with Mel Brooks, Steve Martin’s classic comedies, or any number of accomplishments too long to list, Carl Reiner is a true comedy legend.

He’s penned quite a few books (his Enter Laughing is a must-read), plays, and films. He’s like a Renaissance man sans the puffy shirt. He even made a return to films as a key member of the gang in the Ocean’s 11 franchise.

I leapt at the chance to chat with Carl, even if it was originally intended to be a fluff piece on the short-lived Dreamworks CG show Father Of The Pride. Would you pass up an opportunity like that just because the show it was attached to was an unwatchable mess (through no fault of Carl’s, it must be said, as he just provided a voice).

It was a truly memorable experience talking to Carl - particularly memorable was the technical gaffe that erased the last 10 minutes of our conversation. I would have been disappointed if I had walked away from it without at least one embarrassing anecdote.

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KEN PLUME: It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you…

CARL REINER: Yes, how are you!

PLUME: I’m doing well - hope you’re doing well…

REINER: Yes, but just give me your name again…

PLUME: Ken Plume…

REINER: Ken! That’s all I need… I’m not gonna call you Mister….

PLUME: Should I call you “sir” ?

REINER: Yes, please… Absolutely…

PLUME: Well, it’s a pleasure to be speaking with you, sir…

REINER: Thank you… You’ll have to amend that after we finish - you’ll say, “I was mistaken at the beginning,” or “It’s just what I figured.”

PLUME: Even if I was mistaken, I would never admit it…

REINER: Never! You’re an honest man… An honest man! A man who wants to be honest, anyway…

PLUME: I try… I often fail, but I try… You’re one of two people that I’ve wanted to interview for years…

REINER: That’s what you say every time you open a conversation…

PLUME: No, honestly! I’m being truthful now…

REINER: Oh, okay…

PLUME: You and Mel Brooks…

REINER: Oh, well, I agree with that. I would rather speak to Mel Brooks than anybody I know. I’m not kidding! I mean, we speak on the phone once in awhile… A couple of days ago, he was going to London… and I never come away from the phone after speaking with him that I’m not laughing.

PLUME: I’ve tried for years to get interviews with both of you, to little success…

REINER: Well, you’ve got the second level…

PLUME: Right now, you’re tops…

REINER: The best you can do right now!

PLUME: Touché! So I have to ask - is there anything left that you haven’t done, that you’d still like to do?

REINER: Yes… It’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever do now. When I was very young, and I heard Enrico Caruso sing “Pagliacci,” I said, “That’s what I want to do with my life! I want to be an opera singer!” I was 7 or 8 years old, and I had a wonderful voice. As a matter of fact, I sang in Broadway musicals. The only thing I’m missing is I have no rhythm and I sing off-key often, if there’s no music helping me. So if I had different genes or if someone could infuse a gene - or maybe the stem cell thing will find a gene for me - to make me so that I could sing. I would probably have a different career than I think I would want, and if I did have it, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as good as the one I have!

PLUME: Maybe you should just get a small electrical device implanted to shock you into tempo…

REINER: (laughing) Yes! As a matter of fact, in my first Broadway musical - Call Me Mister - the show opens on a bunch of guys, G.I.s, onstage in a military formation, and offstage you hear, “Sound off!” and they have to go, “One, two!” But I have to hit the right now, because they’re going to sing in the key I give them. I said, “Jesus Christ, I’m gonna goof it!” So they arranged for a trumpet to hit that note right before - “BAAA-RUUMPH” - so I never missed it. But if that trumpet weren’t there, I don’t know what would have happened…

PLUME: It would have been a whole set of keys…

REINER: Yeah!

PLUME: In listening to the opera music, was it the performance that drew you in, or just the music in general?

REINER: You grow up with what’s in the house, and you tastes are honed by that, and my father liked classical music. He listened to the Saturday afternoon operas from the Met, and he had these red seal records - one-sided records - and Caruso was one of the ones he had. And this was a soaring song - if you know “Pagliacci,” it soars. It makes your hair stand up! And I was thrilled by it, and I never lost the interest in hearing a good tenor belt opera.

PLUME: Do you in any way regret not being able to pursue that?

REINER: No, I don’t regret it. As a matter of fact, I had the best of two possible worlds - comedy and opera - when I did Your Show of Shows. I could always sing opera recitative, fake recitative, and when we got Earl Wild as the pianist, and he found a way that we could do operas - because you can’t follow recitative. I mean, how are you going to get an orchestra to play in the key you’re singing? But he did a brilliant thing… He said, “We’ll do the operas in the style of…” In other words, say if we did a Verdi opera, he d said, “We’ll take a song…” I remember the first one he suggested, which was “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” done in the style of either Verdi or Mozart. (Click here to hear the clip) The orchestra could be playing the key and we’d be singing gibberish, but “in the style of….” So I got to sing opera on Your Show of Shows, and it was very satisfying for me and, I think, for the audience! Did you notice I was singing fairly on key?

PLUME: (laughing) I did notice that…

REINER: (laughing) Yeah, okay… Just checking…

Continued below…

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